BRATTLEBORO—The Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce held its annual spring Legislative Breakfast on March 15 — but minus the bacon and eggs, as COVID-19 turned the ritual update on happenings in Montpelier into a virtual affair.
The morning started with some light trash talking between Rep. Mike Mrowicki and Sen. Jeanette White as the two Putney Democrats traded barbs on whose chamber worked harder.
Ten Windham County lawmakers outlined bills they’re working on that might interest local businesses, on such items as broadband, redistricting, and COVID-19.
Last week marked “crossover,” the legislative milestone when both chamber’s respective bills hop the hallway between the Senate and House.
Both chambers have until March 19 to hand over their money bills — for example, the fiscal year 2022 state budget bill, or the “fast-track” COVID-19 relief funding bill.
The Legislature is also working on determining the best use of Vermont’s share of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act that was signed into law by President Joe Biden last week.
According to a press release from U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont’s congressional delegation secured about $2.7 billion in federal aid in the COVID-19 relief package.
Comments from the Senate
• Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, who also serves on the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs and the Senate Committee on Appropriations, said that her chamber is focusing on three topics: supporting children, assisting workers and families, and keeping businesses and downtowns viable.
When it comes to helping kids, Balint said that the Senate has focused on items such as food, housing, indoor air quality of schools, and moving forward on recommendations to implement how the state calculates — or weights — students’ needs when deciding how to apportion state education aid to the state’s student population.
The Legislature has also funneled federal COVID-19 relief monies towards rent relief, helping the Vermont State Colleges System, weatherization, broadband, and more pandemic emergency unemployment compensation.
“Our challenge will be to figure out what money we can swap out from our General Fund budget and swap in federal dollars,” she said. “Some is a one-to-one correlation that we do have the freedom to do that. Other things, we aren’t able to.”
Federal stimulus money will not be shoring up the state’s public pension funds, Balint said, explaining that a provision in the federal rules prohibits the state from doing that.
• White, who chairs the Senate Government Operations and Judiciary committees, said she has been busy working on criminal justice issues.
Judiciary Committee members have worked on clarifying the process that determines someone’s competency to stand trial, she said, and the committee is also looking to allow people to apply for parole earlier and transition out of probation sooner.
The committee has also passed a bill that would prohibit automated phone solicitations, known as robocalls.
The Government Operations Committee is working on changing state cannabis statutes and taking the arrest records of juveniles out of the public records category.
White is also overseeing a large elections bill, which, if passed, will automatically mail ballots to all of Vermont’s active voters for the November general election.
“This is not a partisan issue,” White said. “This is an issue of the foundation of our democracy. And we need to get more people involved.”
She pointed out that getting ballots into voters’ hands doesn’t close off any venues for voting.
“All the options [will be] available to [cast] your ballot, and you can actually go to the polls and turn it in if you want,” she said.
What the House is up to
• Majority Leader Emily Long, D-Newfane, is serving on the House Committee on Health Care this biennium after years of service on the Committee on Education.
She praised the Windham County delegation, noting that its members held multiple leadership positions — a boost for the area of the state that some of its residents have referred to as “the Forgotten Kingdom.”
“Budget work, as you know, begins in House and we’ve been really focused on working families — and, frankly, COVID relief,” Long said. “That’s been our focus all along, and we’re going to continue to focus on that new stimulus package that’s coming out of the federal government.”
• First-year lawmaker Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, is on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. She said most of what’s been worked on in her committee is the Capital Bill, which, if passed, will fund larger state projects. The bill could potentially fund community art centers and historic preservation grants.
The committee is considering replacing the roof on the Windham County Superior Courthouse in Brattleboro, she said, adding that the committee will vote on the bill later this week.
• Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, continues her service in the House Committee on Transportation. She outlined some of the funding and support that the Brattleboro area could receive from the latest transportation bill, which passed out of her committee last week.
Brattleboro will receive approximately $22,000 in additional highway funds, Burke said. The bill also increases some of the grant funding available to towns. The Agency of Transportation has also agreed to provide approximately $70,000 in interim funding for Western Avenue to make some repairs until the road can be rebuilt.
According to Brattleboro Director of Public Works Steve Barrett, Western Avenue’s foundation, or bottom layer, was constructed in the 1940s and has outlived its useful life. For well over 10 years, drivers on the road have dodged multiple potholes every February and March.
The state is also putting $3.5 million into its Downtown Transportation Fund, she said. Towns had paid half the cost of downtown-improvement projects — adding amenities that encourage people to walk and bike, for example — but now they will find that cost reduced to 20 percent as the state picks up the bulk of the cost.
Burke said additional funding will also support some grant initiatives, bicycle incentives, and the purchase of electric vehicles.
• John Gannon, D-Wilmington, vice-chair of the House Committee on Government Operations, said that he will be involved in the once-every-decade process of setting House and Senate districts based upon population data from the 2020 Census.
According to Gannon, preliminary numbers show that Windham County has lost population. The census results will affect almost all the current House districts.
“That’s something that, you know, should be a concern for everybody in Windham County,” he said.
A bill focusing on professional regulation will affect the regulations for pharmacies — specifically, those owned by chains.
If a violation of the professional conduct standards stemmed from the business practices of the parent corporation, “all the pharmacies in that chain could be held responsible to face penalties,” Gannon said.
“Many of the chain pharmacies in the Deerfield Valley and in Bennington — and I’m not sure about the Brattleboro area — were not serving their customers very well,” he said. “Regular prescriptions were getting delayed, people were being called back and forth, so we dramatically changed the professional conduct regulations for pharmacies.”
The state continues to work on fulfilling its pension obligations, he said, noting that legislators for years have seen a looming projected shortfall in the state’s pension funds for teachers and state employees.
According to multiple news reports, the state’s troubles with the funds began in the 1990s. A new analysis estimates another $600 million gap on top of what was already projected.
“It’s important that our state employees and our teachers have a secure retirement,” Gannon said. “But it’s also important to the credit rating of the state and to our ability to access the securities markets.”
• First-year lawmaker Leslie Goldman, D-Rockingham, serves on the House Committee on Health Care. She touched on four bills her committee is working on, starting with H.210, the Health Equity Act.
“COVID has broken open the cracks in our health care disparities for people of color and LGBTQ+ people, and we want to be able to take action in the health-care system to recognize these disparities and improve outcomes for those populations,” she said.
The bill includes creating an Office of Health Equity within the Office of Racial Equity.
A second bill recently passed out of committee extends benefits to undocumented pregnant women and children. “The testimony we received from this population was so moving that to be able to take action — even in this small slice — had a lot of meaning for us,” she said.
Another bill would allow mental health practitioners from outside the state to provide services to Vermont residents. Goldman said the bill reflects how the world is changing, especially with more online platforms that support telemedicine.
Finally, a conversation is happening around the Department of Mental Health and its proposal for the Middlesex Secure Residential Facility. The Department of Mental Health has proposed an $11.6 million plan for a 16-bed secure facility to replace what was built as a temporary facility in 2013.
Opponents of the plan have describe it as being too institutional to properly support clients.
In a recent op-ed, Dummerston resident Malaika Puffer wrote, “Vermont’s mental health system is poised to move millions of dollars toward the wrong side of history by prioritizing control and psychiatric incarceration over community care and voluntary support.” [“Proposed hospital is a false solution to a real problem,” Voices, March 3.]
On Monday, Goldman said, “That is a very complex issue really crossing all levels of our mental health system, which has led to testimony from all levels of our mental health system and a very important conversation. We will be needing to come to some closure on that this week.”
• Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, is vice-chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means and serves on the Joint Fiscal Committee. She said that it appears that the yield rates that the state uses to factor education funding will remain similar to last year’s numbers.
The committee is also investigating a few exemptions to the sales tax for manufacturing businesses.
“To really look at not just the individual objects that are involved in manufacturing, but how all of those pieces fit together,” she said. “If an individual piece of manufacturing equipment is part of the entire manufacturing process, that would also be exempt from taxation.”
For what is perhaps the third biennium in a row, the committee is tackling changing the sales factor on how the state calculates corporate taxation.
Kornheiser said she is excited about the child care bill which passed out of the Human Services Committee last week. Kornheiser was one of the lead sponsors.
If passed by the Legislature, the bill would reduce the cost of childcare and increase the number of families eligible for state support. The bill will also make it easier for potential childcare professionals to enter the field and earn higher wages.
• Mrowicki, who serves on the House Committee on Government Operations, said the state “is dealing with three pandemics.”
COVID-19 is the first and biggest, Mrowicki said, with climate change and dealing with systemic racism looming equally large.
The Legislature is moving forward with its climate change work, he said. Last year it created the Global Solutions Council with will set emissions and other standards for the state to meet. The state is also expanding programs such as weatherization.
Not addressing systemic racism will hurt businesses in the long term, Mrowicki said. “The nation is changing. Vermont is changing.”
He said that 16 percent of the students at Brattleboro Union High School are persons of color, “a huge change from years ago.”
Mrowicki said he and fellow representative, Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, are working with Curtiss Reed Jr., Executive Director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, to “make business easier and better for people of color in Vermont.”
“Curtiss Reed has been saying for years that if we did better outreach to people of color in urban areas so they see that Vermont can be a welcoming place, we would be able to bring a lot of qualified people to Vermont,” he said.
• Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, is vice-chair of the House Committee on Energy and Technology, and said she continues to be focused on expanding broadband internet to underserved areas of Windham County.
This year, her excitement goes to H.360, which builds on the Legislature’s previous broadband work.
“In 2019, I like to say, we essentially said to Vermonters: ‘No one is coming to save you; we do not have the funds to do this,’” she said. Out of that realization grew legislation to support Communications Union Districts (CUDs) to provide a model of community broadband.
In 2021, Sibilia said H.360 adds more tools to the community toolbox to expand and accelerate the CUD model. For example, the legislation adds personnel to the Department of Public Service to help new CUDs.
The estimated 300 volunteers working on these models statewide have told the Legislature that they need help with funding and implementing their CUD plans, she said.