Our state legislators. We elect them, they disappear into rented Montpelier apartments, they get assigned to committees, they have meetings in the State House, they write - or help write - legislation, they send out newsletters.
And meanwhile, the rest of us go about our daily lives and wonder: What exactly are they doing up there?
Now that they are in the final weeks of the 2023 session, The Commons thought it would be interesting to see what Windham County legislators have accomplished. We asked them all a few simple questions in an email, and we were flooded with email responses. Here is what they have done so far in Montpelier and what they anticipate doing.
Paid family leave
One of the most powerful of the Windham County legislators is undoubtably Emilie Kornheiser, P/D-Brattleboro, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Her biggest priority going into the session was advancing a universal paid family leave bill. And she did!
“I'm incredibly proud of the passage of H.66, the Universal Family Medical Leave Insurance Bill, out of the House of Representatives,” Kornheiser said. “Vermonters know that the health and resilience of our families and communities are integrally connected. Last year, we put these values into action when we passed the historic child tax credit and expanded the earned income tax credit (EITC).
“We're ready to build on that commitment by enacting legislation that strengthens our capacity for care: universal family and medical leave, child care funding, and universal school meals,” she continued. “When caregivers are supported and kids' basic needs are met, we're stronger as a state.”
Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, said her organization has been working “for decades” to get a family leave bill through the Legislature. She's thrilled with the bill that came out of Kornheiser's committee.
“The paid family and medical leave bill in the Legislature right now is a very, very strong one to provide the kind of needs that people need the most,” Brown told The Commons. “It would provide really comprehensive paid leave for people who need to take time off when they have a new child, when they have to care for someone who's sick or injured, or when they themselves are sick or injured.”
Right now, most Vermont workers are allowed to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave time for serious personal issues. For parental leave, they must work at firms that employ 10 or more workers who work an average of 30 hours a week; for unpaid family leave time, their company must employ 15 or more such workers.
All workers would be covered in the new legislation, including part-time, full-time, self-employed and seasonal workers. They would get at least 12 weeks covered without gender distinction.
“This bill would mean that people could actually get paid, or at least I think it's 90 percent of their pay, up to a certain limit,” Brown said. “So they'll get a certain amount of wages for that time. We are in support of that bill. We would love to see it happen.”
For Kornheiser, the bill means people can take care of their loved ones without sacrificing their financial well-being.
“All Vermonters will need to take time to recover from an illness or injury, bond with a new child, or care for a loved one at some point in their life,” Kornheiser said. “Ensuring we can each do so without falling behind financially is the right thing to do, and it's good public policy.”
According to Kornheiser, 65% of Vermonters don't have access to paid family and medical leave. This includes a disproportionate share of low-wage workers, people of color, and parents. The bill's inclusive programs also cover military family needs and “safe time” for people impacted by intimate partner violence.
“These workers are forced to either come to work sick or injured, delay or cancel necessary treatments, forgo critical bonding and recovery time with a new child, or take unpaid leave that jeopardizes their family's financial security,” Kornheiser said. “We must do better.”
“The adequate wage replacement would be high enough to ensure all workers can afford to take the leave they need, including low-income workers who need as much of their income as possible to pay their bills,” Kornheiser said. “We are looking at 100 percent replacement for workers making at or less than the average weekly wage in Vermont.”
This raises the question, of course, is who will pay for this program.
“We are paying for this program with insurance premiums paid by all workers, exempting the pay of our lowest-wage workers,” Kornheiser said. “The cost for a Vermonter making average weekly wages is approximately $125 per year. For that cost they will have access to 90 percent wage replacement for 12 weeks of needed leave.”
Vermont Public's Peter Hirschfeld called it “the most generous paid leave benefit in the United States.”
“What's also interesting about this bill is that it would create a whole new layer of bureaucracy in state government to actually administer the paid leave insurance system,” Hirschfeld said. “Gov. Phil Scott favors a voluntary paid leave program. He also says Vermont should enlist a private-sector insurance company to run the program. He says this is complicated stuff that's best left to established experts in the field.”
The Child Tax Credit
During the current tax season, the Vermont Commission on Women as well as state officials are calling attention to the Child Tax Credit (CTC), legislation passed last year that allows any family with children under 6 to receive $1,000 per child. The upper wage limit is $125,000, and there are adjustments if wages are higher.
Families get the money by filing a tax return, even if their incomes are too low to require filing.
Oddly, the Vermont Senate just passed a bill (S.56) eliminating the tax credit in order to fund other improvements in child and family care. But even if S.56 becomes law, people eligible for the $1,000 credit can still get it this year.
However, eliminating the Child Tax Credit is an unpopular move, according to Brown and Kornheiser.
“The Senate Finance Committee has proposed eliminating that child tax credit as one way to save some money,” Brown said.
“Instead of spending that $1,000 in the child tax credit, they would spend it on something else to help with child care, which will be taking it away from the families that are already in need of help and need more help,” Brown added. “Because $1,000 a year doesn't go very far. It's certainly not going to cover the cost of child care. For the families who are currently receiving the child tax credit, they need that money. And they also need additional help to pay for child care.”
Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Dummerston, is one of the sponsors of S.56, the child care bill that calls for eliminating the credit. He said his most important accomplishment so far this session has been getting the bill successfully voted out of the Senate.
“This bill provides a significant investment to child care providers and families so that we can create more access to affordable and quality child care, while also ensuring we pay child care providers a livable wage,” he said.
During his campaign, Hashim said he heard from both businesses and families, as well as people across the political spectrum, that child care is essential.
“While our work is certainly not done, we have taken a big step toward investing in child care, and I know this bill will have a positive impact on families and businesses in Vermont,” he said.
That puts Hashim at odds with Kornheiser.
“The repeal of the child tax credit was added by the Finance Committee, after the bill left the Health & Welfare Committee, as part of the tax package to fund the large increase in spending on child care,” Hashim said.
“The other portion of funding is an implementation of a new payroll tax,” he continued. These funding sources would fund a substantial increase in the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, raising eligibility for the program from 350% to 600% of the federal poverty level for families, and increase the payments to child care providers by 38.5% in 2024.
“This is a major investment that needed a consistent funding source,” he said.
Hashim suggested that the Child Tax Credit was only meant to be temporary.
“One of the arguments for it was that it would help people pay for child care because it was focused on children 5 and under,” he said. “The removal of this credit for use within child care is offset by the very substantial investments that are being made to make child care accessible to more people, and affordable, and also provide child care providers with a livable wage so that we'll have more providers available.”
Kornheiser, however, vows to fight to protect the Child Tax Credit.
“It is one of the most powerful pieces of policy we've passed in Vermont and we've passed nationally,” Kornheiser said. “Policy-wise, it is one of the best lessons learned from the pandemic that we can carry forward, and other states all across the country followed our lead after we passed this.
She says that the CTC has created “a clear and significant message in our tax code that Vermont is a place that supports families.”
“We cannot - and will not - sacrifice this groundbreaking new policy in the midst of the first year of success,” Kornheiser said.
In many ways she supports S.56, but in many other ways, she doesn't.
“But we are just beginning our work on it in the House, and I'm confident/hopeful that we can find a more progressive funding source and make changes to some of the policy pieces before the bill gets sent to the governor,” Kornheiser said.
Statewide home appraisals
Kornheiser is also sponsoring a bill that would put home appraisals, now done by listers in each town, into the hands of the state government.
Vermont, she said, might be one of the few states that haven't done this.
“This bill begins a multi-year project with the Department of Taxes, town clerks, listers, and assessors to address the strains in our current appraisal system and to create equity and consistency in our grand lists by shifting the responsibilities for property reappraisal from local towns to the state Department of Taxes,” Kornheiser said.
She suggested that it has been more than a decade since half of Vermont's municipalities have conducted a reappraisal.
“The wild fluctuations of the housing market of the past few years have strained our property reappraisal systems,” Kornheiser said.
“Reappraisals are triggered when the state determines that the property values on a town's grand list no longer accurately reflect what properties are selling for,” she explained.
With the wild housing market, “the vast majority of towns are now under a reappraisal order and due to limited availability among local assessment firms, they are struggling to hire reappraisal firms to complete the work in a timely manner,” Kornheiser said.
As Kornheiser's Ways & Means Committee studied the issue, they increasingly came to believe in professionalizing and consolidating the appraisal process.
“Most other states conduct reappraisals at the county or state level with appraisals conducted on a rolling schedule,” Kornheiser said. “Given that property taxes in Vermont are raised at the state level, we need consistency, clarity, and equity in our grand lists.”
One of the big money bills that the House writes each year is the Transportation Bill. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, is the new head of that committee, and she's very proud of the “T Bill,” as it is called in Montpelier, and how it addresses climate change in Vermont and continues working to develop a “21st Century transportation system that is clean, accessible, and affordable.”
The bill, H.479, is designed to boost electric transportation be it cars, buses, or e-bikes. One highlight is an incentive plan for new plug-in electric vehicles, the MileageSmart and the Replace Your Ride programs.
“We included some changes to broaden eligibility and increases in incentives to help expedite both Vermonters getting into more fuel-efficient cars and to accelerate EV adoption,” Coffey said.
The bill is designed to reduce dependence on single-use vehicles.
It creates an incentive for entities with vehicle fleets to convert them to electric vehicles. It continues funding for e-bikes, “with some changes to the eligibility to ensure that they reach the people who need them and are helping to reduce emissions,” Coffey said.
The bill also includes funding for public transit, as far as it can go in Vermont. For one thing, it supports public bus service as well as experimental on-demand micro-transit pilot projects. These work like ride-sharing apps in that the passenger can call up the bus for transport when needed.
Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, also sits on the transportation committee. Every biennium she and her climate change caucus create an ancillary transportation bill (H.101) containing a wish list of programs and projects. Some of the aspects of her bill, like the on-call bus trials, made it into the transportation bill.
Burke said she was very pleased that a number of proposals from H.101 found a home in the transportation bill.
She is pleased that, among other initiatives, the T-Bill ties the efforts of the Agency of Transportation to implement the federal carbon reduction program to the mandates of the Global Warming Solutions Act and the Climate Action Plan.
Public health issues
Rep. Leslie Goldman, D-Rockingham, a family nurse practitioner, serves on the House Health Committee.
“We have focused our time and research in making recommendations for the FY24 budget,” Goldman reported. The committee has proposed increasing Medicaid reimbursements to primary and specialty care, emergency medical services, long-term care, dental, and mental-health systems of care.
“These chronically underfunded services have put tremendous strain on our health care system and have reduced services available to Vermonters,” Goldman said. “These increases will help stabilize our health care system.”
She said her committee continues to support forgiving educational loans for students in nursing, mental health, and dental hygiene if the student serves in Vermont for each year of the loan. “The design is to encourage students to continue working in these fields in Vermont,” she said.
Goldman is also excited by the proposal to create an Unused Drug Repository. Such programs “collect, inspect, and redistribute prescription medication from hospitals, long-term-care facilities, and other locations to those individuals who need them at no cost,” she said.
“The program will help Vermonters access critical medications, reduce environmental contamination of unused drugs that require disposal, and reduce system cost,” she added.
Her committee is also working to create ways to assess emergency medical services (EMS) in Vermont.
“EMS is the first step in the continuum of care when one of us is sick or injured, and it needs to be reliable,” Goldman said. “Chronic underfunding has led to a workforce shortage that is crucial to address. I will also follow through the Senate the provisions we added to the budget to support the EMS. There is funding for a study to do a deep dive into the system, funding for training, as well as budget recommendations to increase reimbursements to EMS providers.”
In the last portion of the session, Goldman will be busy working with her committee “to develop legislation protecting consumers and independent pharmacies from the practices of pharmacy benefit managers, a little known player in the pharmacy world. This work aims to reduce the cost of prescription drugs.”
This is especially important for independent pharmacies. The predatory pricing of the pharmacy benefit managers was a large factor in the recent closing of Brattleboro's beloved Hotel Pharmacy [“'I had nothing left': The closing of Hotel Pharmacy marks the end of family-run drugstores in Brattleboro - thanks, its owner says, to insurance and pharmaceutical industry pricing practices that made it impossible not to lose money,” News, Jan. 25].
Goldman's committee will also be working on the Shield Bill, which came to her committee from the Senate. This bill protects Vermont clinicians who provide abortions from being prosecuted in the home states of their patients.
She also said she is closely following the debates on bills such as child care, paid leave, the affordable heat act, and housing.
“What I have learned is the bills that are introduced in the House can get dramatically changed when committees dive deeply into the topic,” Goldman said. “Therefore, the bill presented to the House for final approval will likely be very different from the initial bill, and if passed will be vetted in the Senate likely, too, with revision.
“So I keep an open mind as things unfold,” she continued. “In areas that I don't have expertise in, I learn from experts and colleagues, listen to constituents, and then form an opinion on various topics we have to vote on.”
Incarceration for healing and recovery
Windham County has two representatives sitting on the Corrections & Institutions Committee: Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax, and Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster.
“Vermont's 110 female incarcerated persons reside in the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (CRCF) in South Burlington,” Roberts said. “The facility is aging and out of step with current standards. The Legislature has been planning to replace it since 2018, and we took a big step forward in the two-year Capital Construction Bill that passed the House.”
One change that the committee wrote into the Capital Bill is that all spending on design, planning, and construction for correctional facilities must incorporate “trauma-informed design practices.”
That means “correctional facilities must be safe and secure environments,” Roberts said. “But experience in Vermont, and in places from Norway to Maine, has demonstrated that a punitive living environment with bright, 24/7 lighting, clanging doors, and zero privacy is counterproductive to our goals.”
Bos-Lun, along with Sen. Wendy Harrison, D-Brattleboro, has been touring correctional facilities in Vermont and Maine to understand what might be needed. She said agrees with her committee on the importance of environmental factors.
“We heard a lot of testimony about how physical space can impact rehabilitation: how more natural light, elements of nature, gentle colors can actually promote an environment more conducive to healing and recovery,” Bos-Lun said. “Since 80% of the women at CRCF are in recovery and over 90% have been victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence, promoting a healing environment is an important direction for Vermont's Department of Corrections to move towards, and my committee is helping support that.”
The committee also wants to ensure that the Department of Corrections “will be required by statute to build a facility and to support it with programming that is centered on restorative justice, and also to support the successful re-entry of justice-involved individuals into the community, once they have paid their debt to society,” Roberts said.
A new senator reports a housing bill
Over in the Senate, where Harrison and Hashim are both in their first terms, things were also starting to move quickly.
Harrison is one of five members of the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee. She reports - no surprise here - that housing is one of the top four issues of the Senate. Her committee worked for weeks on a housing bill.
The bill has many moving parts and addresses many of the causes of the housing crisis, including state regulations, local regulations, energy codes, emergency shelters, rental housing, ownership housing, accessory dwelling units, access to funding, and discrimination, among other topics.
“Bills generally are not self-explanatory,” Harrison explained. “They are the language necessary to change the law, and they don't normally explain the purpose of the change or how the change to compares to the existing law. At the second reading of the bill, the reporter explains in a speech to the Senate what problem the bill is addressing and how the bill will accomplish that goal.”
Harrison said that because of her experience with local government and municipal management, she was asked to step in and report the housing bill.
That was not the original plan.
The committee is chaired by Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale, who was planning to report the bill on March 29.
“But she is expecting her first child on May 9. Her water broke on March 28, and she is confined to the hospital for the foreseeable future,” Harrison said. “Although she could participate via Zoom, someone had to report the bill on the floor.”
Harrison said she was “honored and honestly, somewhat daunted.”
“I had reported twice so far, [first] on my resolution to urge the U.S. Government to honor its commitments to Afghan Refugees and on S.102, an anti-discrimination bill, and had plenty of time to prepare for both of them. In this instance, the combination of the magnitude of the bill and the time to prepare made the experience especially intense.”
Harrison said she was able to report the bill successfully.
“In the end, I was able to explain my sections so that the Senators knew what we were proposing and were able to decide whether or not to support it,” Harrison said. “The bill ultimately passed 27–2, and now it goes to the House. I'll find out how I can support the changes and programs in the bill as it goes through the process.”
Legislation addresses sheriff misconduct
Because Hashim was once a trooper with the Vermont State Police, he has insight into new legislation that, if it becomes law, will rein in what many consider unjust practices by the various county sheriff's departments.
“These changes are being made due to the numerous and recent instances of sheriff misconduct around the state,” Hashim said. “Many of the provisions have not been updated in years, and it is important to modernize our laws related to all sectors of government.”
The changes include elimination of the sheriff's personal 5% bonus; uniformity of the contract pay across towns; a requirement to provide at least one deputy to support courthouses; creation of a task force to explore accountability and future reform; and the inclusion of gross negligence, willful misconduct, and abuse of powers in “Category B Conduct” in 20 VSA 2401.
Following legislation in the Senate
The Legislature in now in high gear with Senate bills passing into the hands of House committees and vice versa. The Windham County delegation has that to work on, plus plenty of other projects.
Kornheiser plans to spend her time protecting the Child Tax Credit, continuing to support the House's Family Medical Leave Insurance Bill as it makes its way through the Senate, and supporting her colleagues as they “dive into a comprehensive housing bill.”
She also said that she was “incredibly heartened” by the “meaningful harm reduction and opioid treatment work” in “An act relating to reducing overdoses” (H.222), which was passed out of the Committee on Human Services and is now in the Senate.
Since addiction is a major problem in Windham County, this bill is a very important one. According to Kornheiser, it decriminalizes buprenorphine, a drug that is used in the treatment of heroin and methadone dependence.
The proposed legislation also removes barriers to treatment for Vermonters on Medicaid, removes some zoning barriers that will allow recovery housing “as a permitted use for single family dwellings,” establishes a statewide syringe disposal program, and funds services through updated fees on pharmaceutical manufacturers which are deposited into a special fund dedicated to substance use disorder.
“However, our community needs more,” Kornheiser said. “I'm hoping that we can take the next step of establishing an integrated treatment court, and establishing safe use programs in Brattleboro. I know all of our community agencies are ready to collaborate to make this a reality.”
Coffey is interested in supporting the child care bill as it moves through the Senate. Also, over the summer, she met with a group of Windham County veterans and learned about something that impacts them negatively.
“When there is an error on a veteran's death certificate, it interferes with surviving spouses accessing benefits that they are entitled to,” Coffey said. “To address this issue this session, I introduced H.59, a bill that would help make it easier for the families of a deceased veteran to correct or amend a death certificate to accurately record that the death was caused or hastened by a service-connected injury or illness.”
Harrison, who also belongs to the Institutions Committee, is finalizing recommendations for the two-year Capital Budget prepared by the governor and now amended by the House. The committee will also be examining the plan to replace the Women's Correctional Facility in Burlington; that plan just came out of the House.
In the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, Harrison will be working on the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (VEGI), online sports betting, the Basic Needs Budget (“a market-based analysis that accounts for estimated monthly living expenses in Vermont,” according to a report from the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office), and the Working Communities Challenge) which “advances local collaborative efforts that build strong, healthy economies and communities in Vermont's rural towns, regions, and smaller cities,” according to the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
A 'safe, affordable, and friendly place to live'
Hashim said he will be working to make sure future negotiations with the House on bills will be “smooth, deliberate, and meaningful. Both chambers have hard decisions and conversations ahead of us, but the general assembly is fully capable of cooperation and compromise in order to ensure we manifest our top priority - to make Vermont a safe, affordable, and friendly place to live.”
One of Hashim's other top priorities will be working with the Education Committee to solve the problem of how LGBTQ+ students can be protected if or when private schools, many of which are religious, are allowed to receive public money [“Supreme Court changes put state school choice in flux,” News, March 22].
“We will soon be discussing how to manage public taxpayer dollars that go to private institutions, and we will also discuss the challenges related to private institutions that utilize discriminatory practices in their enrollment process or how they treat staff,” Hashim said.
Another priority for Hashim is ensuring that universal school meals continue for students and that the state continues testing and remediation for PCBs, toxic industrial chemicals that were banned in 1979 but still linger in the environment with devastating consequences.
Roberts is concerned with how much things cost. “The top concern I'm hearing from Vermonters is the cost of living,” he said. “We feel especially vulnerable around cost increases associated with basics like food, gas and automotive costs, and home heating fuel. This is an ideal time for the Legislature to take strong action toward more environmentally sustainable energy sources, and a more reliable electrical grid.”
Roberts would also like to convince the Legislature to spend more time on protecting LGBTQ+ youth.
“Seeing 28 LGBTQ+ youth speak on the Statehouse steps during a rally [on March 31], I was struck by how it continues to be hard in Vermont to simply be oneself,” he said.
Goldman will continue to work with the Health Care Committee to develop legislation to protect independent pharmacies and consumers from pharmacy benefit managers, as well as work on the Shield Bill, which protects abortion providers, which came to her committee from the Senate.
“I will also follow through the Senate the provisions we added to the budget to support the Emergency Management System in Vermont,” Goldman said. “There is funding for a study to do a deep dive into the system, funding for training, as well as budget recommendations to increase reimbursements to EMS providers.”
Goldman said she was very pleased with the work that the Legislature has done so far this year.
“The House has passed 66 bills so far that include the approximately $8 billion budget bill,” Goldman said. “We have tackled issues like paid leave, homelessness, and housing. We have passed a budget that funds workforce development in health care and trades, two crucial sectors that are facing a crisis.”
As the bills wend their way through committee, language will change and debates will continue.
“These last weeks of the legislature are extremely busy, with long days and often nights on the floor of the House,” Burke said. “We are trying to enact policies that help Vermonters in a variety of ways.”