Let’s Grow Kids held a rally on the steps of the Vermont State House in Montpelier on April 12 in support of childcare legislation that subsequently passed both the House and the Senate. Gov. Phil Scott is expected to veto the bill.
Natalie Williams/VTDigger
Let’s Grow Kids held a rally on the steps of the Vermont State House in Montpelier on April 12 in support of childcare legislation that subsequently passed both the House and the Senate. Gov. Phil Scott is expected to veto the bill.

Memorable moments in Montpelier

Local lawmakers look back on a hectic session in the Legislature and offer an update on the wins of the past few months

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Legislature, which convened its 2023-24 biennium session on Jan. 4, wrapped up its first year's work on May 12.

Although it will regroup in June to see if it can override Gov. Phil Scott's expected veto of the budget, among other things, the 13 Windham County legislators - two in the Senate and 11 in the House - are now free to return to their lives, their day jobs, and their reflections of the past hectic, momentous five months of their lives.

One thing every representative and senator learns in Montpelier - as Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, put it - is that once you're in the Legislature, “the word 'Vermonter' does not describe a political party, a birthplace, a religion, a race, sexual orientation, or gender. We're all in this together.”

Elected officials had their ups and downs, their successes and disappointments, in the Legislative churn. In a future issue, we will discuss some of the failures and frustrations our legislators faced in the past session. But this week, elected officials share some the accomplishments and experiences that made them proud.

New senators dive in

Windham County's new senators, both Democrats who were newly elected in November, managed to not be overwhelmed by their new positions.

Sen. Nader Hashim, who served on the Education Committee, scored a big win when he shepherded a universal school meals bill through the Senate.

“This was one of my priorities going into the session, and after much deliberation we were able to pass it,” Hashim said.

“I'm a firm believer that people can thrive when their basic needs are met, and food is certainly one of those basic needs,” he continued. “Last summer I went to Bellows Falls Union High School and met with students and faculty to learn about the program, and their stories are what drove me to prioritize this issue in the Education Committee.”

Sen. Wendy Harrison came to the Senate with much experience in municipal management. She served on the Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee and was pleased at how important her knowledge turned out to be in Montpelier.

“My experience with town systems and constraints and with organizational dynamics generally was appreciated by my colleagues,” Harrison said. “I'm also not afraid to ask questions, and the combination of experience and systems thinking was more helpful than I had expected.

“It truly is a citizen legislature, where a wide variety of people are sent by their neighbors to write the laws. The citizens decide what they want in a law, the attorneys draft the language, and the Joint Fiscal Office lets us know what it will cost, how much it will save, and who will pay or save. We decide if and how a bill proceeds first in our committee. The Chair has much power - they alone decide if a bill gets considered.”

Sibilia: tripartisan Act 250 exemptions

Sibilia herself served as vice-chair on the House Environment & Energy Committee and was co-chair of the House Rural Economic Development Caucus. She was also the founder and co-chair of the Vermont National Guard and Veterans Affairs Legislative Caucus and belonged to the Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee.

One of her most memorable moments?

“With support from the Speaker, sitting in the governor's office with members of his team and Republican and Democratic representatives and senators hammering out details for the $3 million in rural capacity funding that was included in the Budget Adjustment,” she said.

Sibilia said she was “really proud of the work the tripartisan Rural Caucus did with the Speaker and other legislative leaders to ensure modest Act 250 exemptions made it into the Housing Bill,” she said.

Roberts: Investing in state buildings

Rep. Tristan D. Roberts, D-Halifax, served on the Corrections and Institutions Committee, where members dealt with Vermont's worn-out prison facilities. He is particularly proud of the fact that the Legislature, after five years of discussion, put a priority on replacing Vermont's only women's correctional facility, which houses about 110 prisoners.

Money for a new facility is in the fiscal year 2024 budget.

“I was particularly proud of our state on the day we heard testimony about the facility from women currently and formerly incarcerated there,” Roberts said. “Their voices supported our case in requiring the Department of Corrections in not only building a new facility with a focus on re-entry but in supporting it with programming that is centered on restorative justice.”

When Roberts was campaigning last fall, voters told him they liked it when their elected leaders collaborated and compromised across the political spectrum. And he listened.

“Both the House Corrections & Institutions committee, and then the entire House of Representatives, voted to approve the two-year Capital Bill on unanimous votes,” Roberts said. “While a lot of important policy happens despite disagreement, I'm proud that our committee worked for months to form consensus on a $122 million spending plan for the state's buildings and capital programs.

“Our committee provided fiscal rigor to each item, and we found millions in unspent funds to reallocate,” he continued. “We found common ground in places as diverse as the popular Barn Preservation Grants, and in investing in air conditioning in our sweltering correctional facilities.”

Burke: overriding governor's vetoes

Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, came to Montpelier with a list of transportation items related to greenhouse gas emissions that she wanted to pass. Many of her ideas made it into the annual Transportation Bill.

“There are always a number of memorable moments during a legislative session, and some years more so than others,” Burke said.

“I would say one memorable moment happened recently, when we overrode the governor's veto of the Clean Heat Standard. This was a banner policy of our Climate Action Plan and our need to meet our climate goals. It proposes to set Vermont on a path to cheaper, cleaner heating options.”

The bill was passed by the House and Senate last year, but Scott vetoed the legislation. “We failed to override it by one vote,” Burke said.

The debate about the bill was rife with misconceptions and misinformation.

“Actually, it does not raise heating bills, nor does it require anyone to change how they heat their homes,” she said. “Final implementation decisions will have to come back to the Legislature for approval in 2025.”

This time around, the bill passed in the House, and they voted 107-42 to override the governor's veto. The Senate also voted, 20-10, to override Scott's veto and assure that work will now begin on drafting a clean heat standard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.

“As a member of the leadership team of the Climate Solutions Caucus, I worked with colleagues and advocates to make this happen,” Burke said.

“Another memorable moment came with the House approval of childcare legislation. This has been a multi-year project of the organization Let's Grow Kids. The legislation raises the income level for subsidies and raises the pay for childcare workers.

“The pandemic exposed even more the need to provide comprehensive and affordable childcare so that parents can participate in the workforce. The House proposed paying for this with an increase in corporate taxes, but the Senate held firm on a payroll tax. The governor is sure to veto this, and we will hope to override this when we return for our veto session in June.”

Burke, who is on the leadership team of the Women's Caucus, is especially proud of the work its members did this year.

“We have a number of priorities we work on, including issues of women in the correctional system, child and elder care, and issues of sexual assault in the National Guard, among others,” Burke said.

“One of our priorities for several years has been abolishing child marriage with no exceptions until age 18,” she noted. “Up until this session, 16- and 17-year-olds were permitted to marry with parental consent.”

Child marriage is considered a human rights abuse “and a form of gender-based violence that robs children of childhood and disrupts a child's education,” Burke said, adding that it “creates a vulnerability to violence, discrimination and abuse.”

“We had been trying to get the Judiciary Committee to address this bill for several years and finally they took it up and the bill passed,” she said. “Only eight states have banned child marriage with no exceptions. Vermont proudly joins this group.”

Mrowicki: Shield Bill and Youth Council

The proudest moment for Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was passing the Shield Bill, which protects people from out of state who travel for abortions to Vermont, where it is legal.

“When people come from out of state for reproductive health care unavailable in their home state, this bill shields them and providers from retaliatory actions,” Mrowicki said.

He was also delighted to see the Vermont Youth Council get started.

“Six years ago, two other representatives and I sponsored the bill to start this process after hearing from youth that they wanted this passed,” Mrowicki said.

In the five years the bill was “on the back burner for various reasons,” the lawmakers kept building support until it was passed in 2022.

“As it's starting up this year, students from all over Vermont are coming together to share their concerns and ideas for the future,” Mrowicki said. “The bill then requires the Legislature and Governor to meet with the students and hear our youth talk about what they want to see Vermont do for their future.”

Coffey: Resuming Statehouse traditions

For Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, a legislator since 2019, a lot of this term was new. For one thing, her new assignment was chair of the Transportation Committee.

“Given that we had roughly one-third new membership in the House and nine of the 13 committees have new committee chairs, I am very impressed with the quality of the work in committees and the collaboration across committees to get priority legislation across the finish line this session,” she said.

Her most memorable experience, however, came outside of the legislative process itself.

“Over the last several years, I have volunteered to organize the Farmers' Night Series,” Coffey said. “This is a longstanding Statehouse tradition which goes back over 100 years to a time when lawmakers entertained themselves in the House Chamber mid-week while away from home.

The free, public series resumed this year after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, bringing “artists, writers, and performers from around the state to perform in the well of the House Chamber each Wednesday night during the legislative session.”

Bos-Lun: suicide prevention bill

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, served on the Corrections and Institutions Committee.

“The single vote I feel best about this session is H.230, an important suicide prevention bill,” Bos-Lun said. “It impacts access to guns that could prevent harm to others as well.”

She said that gun reform policy is “of critical importance.”

“I am also very glad that we passed a comprehensive childcare bill,” she said. “This will benefit children, families, child care workers, and all who work and contribute to the economy.

“It was an important win for all Vermonters,” she said.

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