Lawmakers from county offer progress report

Lawmakers from county offer progress report

At Chamber breakfast, state senators, representatives outline activity under the golden dome at the halfway point of the legislative session

BRATTLEBORO — Following the Legislature's annual hiatus for Town Meeting Day, local lawmakers are back on the job trying to keep a very full agenda on track.

Lawmakers in Montpelier last week were trying to tie up loose ends on budget bills in time for crossover day March 22, when the legislation in process would go from House to Senate or vice versa. The crossover deadline for policy bills had come on March 15.

In the midst of this shuffle, most of the Windham County legislative delegation appeared at the Brattleboro Retreat on March 18 for the annual Legislative Breakfast sponsored by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

There, elected officials provided a progress report on various pieces of legislation they have been working on.

Transportation and infrastructure

Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said the tentative transportation budget for FY 2020 of $617 million is slightly higher than the budget for the current state financial year, and as it stands now it will include more money for local roads.

“We were able to push back against the [Gov. Phil Scott] administration and the Agency of Transportation and get an extra $1.1 million into the town Highway Aid Program,” she said, adding that language was included for fixing sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements.

The budget as passed by the House would also be available for a study of rural public transit options, including incentives for buying electric vehicles.

Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, said her House committee, Corrections and Institutions, deals mostly with infrastructure, but much of her time has been spent dealing with the Capital Bill, which she described as “the state's credit card.” She said the state anticipates borrowing $123 million over two years.

“We have a lot of aging buildings to take care of,” she said.

Workforce issues

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser serves on the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development with Rep. Tristan Toleno. Both Democrats represent districts in Brattleboro.

The committee passed the Omnibus Workforce Bill, which Kornheiser said is designed to provide more funds for small businesses for training workers. Another bill sets up a study committee to see how the state's career centers and other technical training programs can better provide workers to fill current job vacancies around Vermont.

The goal, she said, is building better partnerships between the Department of Labor, regional development credit corporations, and other agencies and organizations “to bring everyone to the same table and say, 'What will it take for someone to come here, to stay here, to live here, and strongly participate in the workforce?'”

The committee's Unemployment Bill makes “a few tweaks” to the program, she said, to lessen the impact for smaller businesses when they lay off just one or two workers.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, hopes people will understand that legislators “kept things stable in Vermont” and that lawmakers worked to provide a level of certainty, particularly for small businesses.

“We're trying to keep the chaos in Washington from dripping into Vermont, and I think we're doing a good job,” said Mrowicki. “Whether it's women's reproductive health or the tax structure for working- and middle-class Americans, we're not getting any help from Washington, so we have to stand and be resolute.”


Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, serves on that body's Economic Development & Housing Committee, as well as the Finance Committee.

Balint said that housing “is at the nexus of so many of our problems and so many of our solutions.”

She said one of the joys of the last session was working with the Scott administration to get a tripartisan agreement on bonding for building new housing, resulting in 750 new units statewide. Several new projects in Windham County got funded, such as the Snow Block in Brattleboro.

Balint said she'd like to see a similar bond issue for this year to maintain momentum on efforts to build more housing for working Vermonters.

The Senate Economic Development & Housing Committee is also working to ensure that housing around the state is safe and up to code.

“We haven't had any place in state government that manages issues of housing safety,” Balint said. As a result, she said “we have people paying rent living in substandard conditions, and nobody is watching out for them.”

Balint said there is a big push to get a comprehensive statewide registry of rental properties to track inventory units, their condition, and their state of compliance.

“It's taken many years to get to this point, but I feel we finally have critical mass and will be moving forward on that,” she said.

Cannabis and broadband

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, is once again chair of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and also serves on the Government Operations Committee.

Once again, White said, the Judiciary Committee has passed a bill to tax and regulate cannabis sales in Vermont, and she said she's hopeful that the legislation will clear the House this time around.

She is also pleased the Judiciary Committee approved a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases.

White's other committee is taking up Brattleboro's request to participate in a pilot program to allow the town to have limited self-governance.

Rep. Laura Silbilia, I-Dover, is serving on the House Energy & Technology Committee for a second biennium.

Improved internet service is one of her issues, and she said her committee passed legislation to offer small grants to communities to study how to provide high-speed fiber-optic internet to the “last mile” households.

New faces, new places

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, is part of the House leadership team along with Rep. Emily Long (D-Newfane). He described his job as being “a process specialist and a policy generalist. We have an idea of all things that are happening in the House.”

The two Windham County representatives serve respectively as House assistant majority leader (whip) and deputy assistant majority leader.

Toleno said that 70 members of the House are either in their first or second term. That includes Coffey and Kornheiser, as well as two representatives unable to attend the breakfast: Reps. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, and Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston.

Long no longer sits on the House Education Committee, opting instead to serve on the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

“It has been an interesting change for me, but it also means that we have no one from Windham County on the Education Committee,” she said.

With several Windham County towns involved in a lawsuit challenging the forced merger provisions of Act 46, lawmakers are getting a lot of pressure from their constituents to rewrite or repeal the state's education law.

Even with no one from the Windham County delegation on either chamber's education committee, Long said that lawmakers are closely following what is happening with the implementation of the law.

Coffey said “there was little appetite for repeal” of Act 46, but “we have to figure out a way to work through it together.”

Meanwhile, Long's new committee passed to the House Ways & Means Committee some legislation calling for paid family leave for workers.

“To us, it is a very important piece of legislation,” she said. “It is about how we can attract families to Vermont and have a stronger workforce.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates