The bills that didn’t make the headlines

Supporting veterans, affirming Native American heritage, and protecting tenants’ rights for victims of domestic violence

NEWFANE — The end of each legislative session is the appropriate time for increased scrutiny on what the Legislature has and has not accomplished. Given that the focus is predictably on major priority bills, I see the end of session as a time to talk about other successes that deserve attention but are often overlooked.

I serve on the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs, where we worked on the paid family and medical leave legislation, as well as the minimum wage legislation that came over from the Senate.

While both bills successfully passed out of our committee, it was a disappointment that neither of those bills made it to the governor. We plan to take up that legislation again in January and complete the work we started to support hard-working Vermonters.

Those two major bills absorbed a great deal of our committee time, but they were by no means the only legislation we worked on.

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I am particularly proud of the passage of a bill that encourages the 10,000 veterans deployed since 1990 to sign up for the Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry created by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The testimony taken on this legislation was some of the most heart-wrenching I have ever heard. The stories shared by sick veterans, the physicians who treat them, and the family members of veterans who lost their lives were truly disturbing.

Exposure to toxic chemicals from these open burn pits is the suspected cause of multiple illnesses, yet little data conclusively link the two. This registry will gather the data necessary to make that link and allow veterans access to the care they need. It will also heighten awareness of the potential illnesses caused by this exposure and encourage screening for early detection of diseases.

It was a surprise to us how many soldiers are unaware of the potential risks of open burn pit exposure. The testimony was also a reminder of how many soldiers were sickened by exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, yet it was not until 1991 that the Agent Orange Act was passed, finally allowing veterans to get services and treatment for diseases related to Agent Orange exposure.

We must recognize the risks of exposure to open burn pits so we can care for our veterans who have dedicated their lives to serving our country in the Middle East and other regions. This legislation is the first step toward veterans getting screened early and being treated immediately.

In short, it will save lives. It is our hope, too, that this will put a spotlight on the dangers of open-burn-pit exposure and finally put an end to this hazardous practice.

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The governor has already signed legislation to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples' Day. This law does not erase Columbus from our history, but it will allow a more-complete historical narrative for both indigenous and non-native Vermonters.

The law recognizes and values the cultures of the original inhabitants of the Americas, including Vermont. We have a new, permanent exhibition of native Abenaki culture, “The Road to Recognition: The Abenakis and the State of Vermont,” on display in the main lobby of the State House. This exhibit provides an accurate representation of the history of our state for those who visit.

Another bill will protect victims of domestic and sexual violence against housing discrimination by making them protected tenants under the provisions of the Vermont housing discrimination statutes. When this bill is enacted, it will allow survivors of domestic and sexual violence and stalking the same rights and access to housing that other Vermonters have.

During testimony, we heard that victims, typically women, encounter many barriers when trying to protect themselves from abuse. They face the inability to change the locks on their rental housing units, as well as facing eviction due to multiple calls to law enforcement. They also encounter difficulty acquiring housing when prospective landlords learn their background.

This legislation will clarify the law for both landlords and tenants and will help end housing discrimination for some of our most vulnerable Vermonters.

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