Mid-session update: justice, education, and more

‘Serving in Montpelier has been an incredibly rewarding experience (aside from getting Covid), and I am enjoying each opportunity I get to support local communities’

DUMMERSTON — Although I had prepared speeches and paper handouts for folks around our county on Town Meeting Day, I unfortunately tested positive for Covid the day before and had to cancel my plans to visit different towns.

It is especially disappointing because I was excited about the prospect of revisiting our old Town Meeting traditions and talking with folks to present my updates, hear their various issues, and listen in on the hearty town debates about different articles.

But there's always a silver lining! Since I can't go out in person, I realized I can make the most of this isolation time to write a letter containing some legislative updates for folks to read.

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This biennium has been packed with learning lots of new information. The Legislature has seen its highest count of new members in the state's history; of the 180 members of the General Assembly, 80 of us are new in our positions. Although this can create some challenges, it also creates room for educating and learning about the context surrounding current state laws.

In my first year, I am serving as vice chair of the Judiciary Committee and as a member of the Education Committee. Outside of these standing committees, I also serve as a member of the Senate Panel on Ethics and as a member of the Joint Legislative Management Committee.

One of my top priorities before entering the Judiciary Committee was to help address the backlog of court cases, both in the criminal and civil divisions. We're still doing the work within two bills to reduce the number of hearings that arise.

This will shorten the amount of time that people spend detained or litigating their cases - especially within the youthful offender program, which is an important program but has led to an increase in the court backlog.

Our committee's primary focus has turned to a bill that establishes a forensic mental health facility specifically for high acuity patients, while also revisiting and reconsidering the current criteria and process for admission into a mental health facility.

We also voted out bills that would prohibit straw man purchases (when an individual who is disqualified from purchasing a firearm convinces someone else to purchase a firearm for them, typically in exchange for drugs) and defacing firearm serial numbers, prohibit law enforcement from using deception on juveniles in custody, and ban paramilitary training camps.

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In the Education Committee, we've been covering a wide range of topics. Two of my top priorities include legislation to address school construction (including PCB remediation), and universal school meals.

We have not built a new school in this state in over 20 years, and a number of our facilities across the state are in disrepair.

To reverse that trend, we are planning to repeal a construction moratorium put in place back in 2007. We have held conversations with other states, such as Rhode Island, that have successfully addressed their infrastructure issues. We have also had conversations with our new state treasurer, Mike Pieciak, about bonding for municipalities and different pathways we can take to fund school construction and renovation.

Our federal delegation also has had conversations with our committee about this topic. Our committee has communicated an urgent need for assistance from the federal government in the area of school construction. We are drafting an official joint letter from both the Senate and House education committees to be sent to all three members of our federal delegation.

The bill involving school construction creates a strategic plan and an additional group in the Agency of Education to address the construction issue; this bill will take up a majority of the Education Committee's time. There is strong bipartisan support for investing heavily in school construction as well as PCB remediation.

Regarding universal school meals, I have learned that there is a significant positive impact on students in Vermont who have access to this service. This was reinforced when I went to Bellows Falls Union High School and spoke with students and faculty about the benefits of universal school meals and the effects the program had on academics and overall morale throughout the school day.

Universal school meals have also bolstered farm- to-school programming, which is a great benefit to our local farmers, as the schools they work with provide them with a reliable source of income. The committee is largely in agreement about universal school meals, but we are exploring the different ways in which we can pay for it.

Another topic: declining test scores in Vermont and across the country. Statistically, our students perform better than those in many other states. However, these scores have been declining since before Covid.

One of the points I regularly interject into conversations about test scores is that instead of trying to pick apart the nuances of curriculum or test administration, we really should be focusing more on basic needs.

What I mean by that is that we cannot expect our children to perform well in the first place in our schools if they are hungry, coming from unsafe homes, or if their schools are deteriorating. Additionally, we also have to consider the support we provide for both our teachers and school staff - we cannot reasonably expect them to do their jobs if they are feeling unsafe, overworked, and underpaid.

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Beyond my committee work, I've also introduced and co-sponsored a number of bills, including these three out of the many other bills I have either introduced or co-sponsored. The full list is available on my legislative biography page.

An act relating to qualifications for a public defender (S.7): Currently, about 5% of the population cannot get access to a public defender even if they meet the financial requirements. By law, if the punishment for the crime is a fine of less than $1,000, the defendant may not receive a public defender. I believe strongly in fairness and balance in the courtroom, and that all indigent defendants should have access to a public defender.

An act relating to access to legally protected health care activity and regulation of health care providers (S.37): This is the Senate's version of a “shield law” that is meant to protect individuals who seek reproductive health care and health-care workers who provide reproductive health care in Vermont. Its purpose is to protect both the patient and service provider from prosecution by other states for legally protected health-care activities in our state.

An act relating to prohibiting business entities from making contributions in state elections (S.121): This bill will prohibit businesses and corporations from providing donations to state candidates, parties, or PACs. I do not believe that businesses should be able to sway and influence election outcomes simply because they have more capital than an average Vermonter. I believe that all parties and individual candidates should seek their campaign donations from the actual people who they will represent rather than from business entities.

I am also working on other bills that have not yet been introduced, but serve to strengthen labor union laws, create more transparency in the judicial nominating process, and invest in harm reduction and rehabilitation approaches to drug usage.

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Serving in Montpelier has been an incredibly rewarding experience (aside from getting Covid) and I am enjoying each opportunity I get to support local communities.

Introducing bills and amending existing laws is not the only opportunity for me to get work done, though. I am also available to help individuals or communities connect with government to correct issues or address concerns.

I recently connected a Windham County town with multiple Agency of Transportation resources to support their highway goals, and I connected a resident with the Department of Motor Vehicles commissioner to resolve a car title issue that had been lingering for months.

These are just a few examples, and if you need help, I am here to provide it. Please don't hesitate to reach out to me with any concerns, requests for assistance, or questions at [email protected] or [email protected]. You can also reach out to me if you'd like to get put on my email list for a monthly update.

Thank you all again for the opportunity to serve Windham County. It is a true honor, and I am learning something new each day.

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