Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham
Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons
Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham

State legislators have plenty to do in 2024

County lawmakers will return to Montpelier to address a housing shortage, a drug crisis, climate change, and other issues that top the legislative agenda

When the Vermont Legislature reconvenes on Jan. 3, state lawmakers, having already served the first year of their two-year terms, will hit the ground running.

A lot of legislation from the last session is still waiting to be dealt with.

According to Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham, "Last session, the House introduced 523 bills and the Senate introduced 157 bills. The cutoff date for new bills was Dec. 1, so we will know how many new bills will be introduced this upcoming session once we reconvene."

From new judges to mushrooms, from health care to paid family leave, from housing to fighting climate change, Windham County's legislative delegation is set to play a big part in the Legislature this coming year.

The Commons asked area legislators about their priorities for the coming session.

Climate change: top priority

House Majority Whip Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, says leadership's first priority is further fortifying Vermont against climate change.

"Many Vermonters have faced unprecedented challenges since we adjourned in May," Long said. "The catastrophic flooding we experienced over the summer has had a significant impact on our state, so we must stay focused on flood recovery and make Vermont more flood resilient in the future."

Doing so, she said, "will impact our ongoing climate discussions, including our work on modernizing regulations like Act 250. We will also continue our work to update Vermont's Renewable Energy Standard."

In 2023, the state recognized that insufficient housing was everybody's problem. Since then, the issue has attracted much of the Legislature's attention.

"Housing will remain at the top of our list of priorities," Long said. "We will build on the nearly $1 billion investments we have made over the last five years, including modernization of General Assistance Housing."

The latter program provides a safety net, at least in theory, for Vermonters who have emergencies ranging from medical to housing needs.

"There is a lot more to do and it will take time, but I remain confident that as long as we stay focused on local and statewide solutions, we will continue to make steady progress on housing," Long said.

Expanding health care is another priority.

"Health and public safety are issues that impact the lives of all Vermonters at one time or another," she said. "The cost of health care is a growing burden. We know housing shortages, substance-use disorder, and mental and physical health challenges all contribute to the struggles many Vermonters are facing, so expanding access to affordable health care for Vermonters will continue to be a priority."

Government accountability is another priority for House leadership, she said.

"Are our investments and laws being implemented and monitored as intended, including within the required timeline?" Long asked. "Government in its entirety, including taxes and fees, should be a long-term benefit, not a burden for Vermonters."

Taxes and paid family leave

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which is tasked with writing the state budget. (Last year, it was one of the main bills vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott; his veto was overridden.)

Kornheiser also brought with her to the Legislature a bill promoting paid family leave. It has now passed the House with "a really, really strong vote," she said, and is ready for the Senate.

"I have been working this summer with a few senators and with advocates to make sure it's ready for Senate attention this year," Kornheiser said. "But it's not in my chamber anymore, so it's a little bit out of my hands."

A law like paid family leave costs money, and Kornheiser is deeply involved in ways to raise state revenue. One idea she is considering right now is a wealth tax. While controversial tax-the-rich proposals are nothing new, her method would be different, she explained.

"Even before we were a country, we taxed property because it was the clearest way of how people held their wealth," Kornheiser said. "Over the last few hundred years, we've moved from that to taxing the value of homes and wages."

Most people earn wages and use that money to pay their bills, she said. But most of the wealth in Vermont isn't generated through wages.

That wealth belongs to "the 1% that [U.S. Sen.] Bernie Sanders talks about," Kornheiser said - "the very, very wealthy people who live in Vermont but don't work here."

And that wealth is "usually gains on investments and things like that," Kornheiser said. "People make money by moving money around." As a result, when a state taxes wages, that tax does not by and large apply to the bulk of their money.

"So if we're going to have an equitable tax system, we want to make sure that everyone's paying their fair share," she said. "And if we just focus on a fair share of wages and not on a fair share of income, then we're really doing a disservice to the Vermonters who are in the bottom 95%."

Kornheiser is part of a statewide coalition of people working on the wealth tax issue. Two possible ideas: adding a surcharge to the top percent, or re-examining and overhauling the tax base so it applies to wealth indicators like third homes.

Bills are being drafted right now.

This is a new way of looking at the subject, Kornheiser said.

"I don't think there has been an income threshold proposal on the table before," she said. "People say that if we do something like this, the rich will leave the state. But there is a lot of research showing that people don't leave the state. And we certainly don't have the lowest taxes in the region now."

So, Kornheiser said, she assumes that wealthy property owners who would leave over high taxes "have probably already left."

"People choose where they live regardless of how much money they make," she said. "They want to live in communities where they have social relationships and where their kids can get the education that they need."

Other House issues

Hashim, who passed his bar exam this summer ["State senator becomes lawyer by taking road less traveled," News, Oct. 4], has a few bills of his own that he is looking forward to introducing.

One is establishing "literacy screeners" to help school districts that score low on reading skills, as Bellows Falls has.

As Hashim envisions it, "the screeners would be made available through the Agency of Education at no cost to the district, and would be available to each district."

"The agency would determine the list and number of screeners and publish that list to the districts," he said.

He has also drafted a bill to create two new judge positions, one of which would be used for a separate statewide docket for drug crimes.

"I drafted the bill after communicating with the judiciary branch," he said. "The positions would be float positions around the state."

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, is proud of the way Vermont has handled at least one crisis: women's health care, which is under attack in many other states.

"The scenario playing out in Texas, where a woman had to leave her state to get needed reproductive health care, would not happen in Vermont, because of recently passed laws," Mrowicki said.

In April, the Legislature passed a bill to ensure access to reproductive health care and gender-affirming health care, and Gov. Phil Scott signed it into law in May. Then, in November, voters approved Proposition 5, which establishes in the state Constitution an "individual's right to personal reproductive autonomy."

Next, Mrowicki sees a need to protect agriculture from climate change.

"Locally, our fruit growers were hit hard by the killing freeze in May, and I'll be pushing to try and get them and orchards across the state some funding to get them through to next year," he said.

Also on Mrowicki's priorities list is a new version of Vermont's lauded and successful Bottle Bill, enacted in 1973 to clean up litter; it is now a major recycling law. A revised law would, among other things, expand what can be redeemed. For example, recycling a wine bottle might bring in 15 cents.

The governor vetoed the bill last year.

"We will be voting in the first week of the session to override that veto," Mrowicki said. "Since it's been over 50 years since Vermont passed it's original bottle bill, it's time a new bill reflects the times we are in."

Mrowicki will also be working on laws to keep such hazardous chemicals as PFAS out of the groundwater and PCBs, such as those found in the Bellows Falls schools, out of the air.

Another of Mrowicki's priorities is putting an end to gun violence. Vermont's reputation as a relatively sane and safe place was trashed across the world recently when three young Palestinian men were shot in Burlington.

"We will be introducing legislation to hold people accountable for these crimes," he said.

Mrowicki is also leading an effort to wean Vermont from its state pension investments in oil companies.

"The good news here is that oil companies are not the blue chip investments they used to be," Mrowicki said. "There are so many other options for investing. This is something I'll be taking the reins on in the House - the Senate passed it last year."

Mrowicki said that State Treasurer Mike Pieciak is working with lawmakers on the issue and that they have "been able to bring together various factions that have not yet agreed on this, and we hope to find a mutually agreeable solution."

Transportation and climate change

Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, is the chair of the House Transportation Committee, which serves as both a money and a policy committee.

In 2023, her committee wrote and guided to passage an $850 million transportation budget, the largest in the state's history. The law provided money for dozens of major paving and town highway projects, as well as funding to encourage more Vermonters to transition to electric vehicles.

Coffey sees the Transportation Committee as a place to do significant work in addressing climate change.

"In the coming session, our focus will be on how we can develop and sustain a 21st-century transportation system that is clean, affordable, [and] accessible for all Vermonters," Coffey said.

The committee members will look "at how to best help municipalities adapt and prepare for climate change; ensure equitable access to affordable and reliable electric vehicle charging; accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles in Vermont; support innovation in public transit service to better serve all Vermonters; create more walkable and bike-able communities; and take bold steps for meeting Vermont's carbon reduction requirements."

Safe childbirth is another of Coffey's priorities. With the Women's Legislative Caucus, which she co-chaired last year, she will be working to help pass a bill that expands access to doula care.

The bill would require Medicaid to cover services by doulas, professionals who provide physical and emotional support to birthing parents and families during and after pregnancy, labor, and delivery.

"It's a tool to improve health outcomes for women and infants by improving the experience of care and lowering costs by reducing non-beneficial and unwanted medical interventions," Coffey said. "With 22 additional co-sponsors, we hope to get this bill across the finish line."

In 2021, Coffey was the lead sponsor of legislation that created the Better Places Program, a non-competitive, community matching grant program that allowed Vermonters to create vibrant public places.

"We have seen great projects in Windham County that have been supported the Better Places program, including the High Street mural in Brattleboro and the creation of a community park in Algiers Village in Guilford," Coffey said.

"This session I will be working to advocate for ongoing funding for this program, because we see that these kinds of placemaking projects have such positive impacts in communities," she noted.

Another representative who devotes the majority of her time to transportation issues, Rep. Mollie Burke, D-Brattleboro, works closely with Coffey on the Transportation Committee. Burke's prime motivation is cutting carbon emissions and helping communities deal with future flooding events.

"We hope for extensive resilience planning, design, and implementation," said Burke, who noted that Vermont is currently not on target to meet its mandated emissions reduction goals.

"We want to provide a variety of transportation options to help Vermonters access jobs and age securely in their communities. We want to improve public health and reduce transportation costs while reducing our carbon emissions."

She described these options as "immediate and crucial undertakings that will require investments to meet our targeted emissions reductions while addressing issues of equity and affordability."

"Our proposals are still being finalized, but we have a number of broad areas for inclusion," she said. "These include helping municipalities to plan for and adapt to climate change, promoting more electric vehicle use and adding more charging stations, expanding public transit, and supporting more walkable and bike-able communities."

Solving the drug problem

Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax, thinks Vermont is not even close to solving its drug problem.

"Many recover from this disease if given time and the tools to heal," Roberts said. "But we haven't mustered the resources to get everyone into treatment, and not everyone accepts treatment."

And, he said, "We're also not building enough of the one thing everyone agrees would help most - housing."

Roberts said that the emergency workers he knows say they are frequently cursed out just after saving someone's life.

"In counteracting their overdose, the EMT interrupted their high and wasted their drugs," he said. "Hence the cursing."

"We've long expected the public safety officers who protect and serve our communities to face this abuse. The staff at the courthouse, from security on up to the judges, are doing their part for justice with the imperfect tool of the law," Roberts said.

Society counts on those staffers - including correctional officers, probation officers, and parole officers - to save lives, he said.

"The tools we give them? Threadbare staffing, inconsistent programming, and outdated facilities," Roberts said. "I will do my utmost to work with the Legislature and the governor this session to set a better course for our state. I will look for any place to intervene in the cycles of addiction and dependency playing out around us."

A health care problem: underinsurance

Former longtime nurse practitioner Rep. Leslie Goldman, D-Bellows Falls, spent her summer studying the health care system.

"Almost all of us have had experience with primary care, hospitals, labs, emergency rooms, and long-term care, either personally or with our families and friends," she said.

"Many times we get excellent care, but as a system we know that compared to other developed countries, we have the most expensive health care system per capita coupled with health outcomes that are comparatively worse," Goldman said.

While the Scott administration frequently and proudly points out that only 3% of Vermonters have no health insurance, it rarely follows up with the statistic that 40% of Vermonters are underinsured, she said.

"This means that we have difficulty affording co-payments and deductibles, leading to delay in care resulting in worse outcomes and more costs," Goldman said. "We need to address this inequity."

In addition, she cited "considerable concern regarding the sustainability of our hospitals - like Springfield Hospital's recent filing for bankruptcy. That hospital is not the exception."

She said that watching hospital budget presentations has taught her "that many of our hospitals have razor-thin operating margins, which has raised considerable concern that they could be next."

The Green Mountain Care Board and the Agency of Human Services have been tasked by the Legislature with implementing Act 167 - global hospital budgets - passed in 2022.

"This would move us from the fee-for-service model we are familiar with to a global budget model," Goldman said. "Global budgets focus on the health of an entire population that the hospital serves and incentivizes the hospital to invest in keeping the population healthier."

One of the provisions of the bill, she added, "is to have community conversations about these ideas, which were carried out this fall."

A report will soon be issued, and a new set of conversations will be announced, said Goldman, who described herself as "very committed to a sustainable, population-based health care system in my work on the Health Care Committee."

The Health Care Committee is also looking at a bill to increase income eligibility for people who are receiving Medicare to get help with premiums.

"When some individuals reach 65 and change their health insurance to Medicare, there can be considerable increased costs compared to the insurance that they were paying for prior to that," Goldman said. "This leaves less dollars for day-to-day expenses and could put considerable stress on budgets for the elderly."

Goldman said her committee will also be looking at how the schools can fund mental health services without leaving "less money to pay for the education of our students, which is crucial for their future."

She is also interested in helping to keep Vermont's emergency system operational.

"Current reimbursement rates do not cover the full cost of emergency medical services," she said. "Services are struggling to keep pace with the needs of our community."

An Emergency Medical Services Coordination Study will provide recommendations to the Legislature for improving "the efficiency, effectiveness, and coordination of EMS," she said.

"The Health Care Committee will be digging into these recommendations, and I am working with staff at the Vermont Department of Health as we learn more about this," Goldman said.

The housing crisis

Sen. Wendy Harrison, D-Windham, has been actively looking for ways to help solve the housing crisis. She believes that Brattleboro has already taken important steps in that direction.

"The town of Brattleboro has been encouraging creation of new housing for years, and last year it served as a good example when we discussed housing in the Economic Development and Housing Committee," Harrison said.

"The town encourages the conversion of large single-family homes to multiple units; has reduced parking requirements, which are often a barrier to redevelopment; and promotes 'gentle infill,' such as tiny homes and accessory dwelling units, in existing neighborhoods," she said.

Continuing this work, this summer Harrison served on the Mobile Home Task Force, a temporary group authorized by the Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone (HOME) Act, a new law enacted last year.

Mobile homes may be one way of solving the affordable housing crunch.

"I just went to Wilmington to see a new type of mobile home that is net-zero ready, meaning that if solar panels are added - and if the location gets sun - the overall energy costs of the home will be close to zero," Harrison said.

The Mountain Home Park in West Brattleboro is considering these units for residents currently in the floodplain, she said.

Harrison is also a supporter of the concept of "duplex by right," also a part of the HOME Act.

"It means that anywhere a single-family home is permitted to be built, the owner of a lot in that area may build a duplex or modify a single-family home to be a two-family home," Harrison said.

"Duplexes are an effective way to increase the amount of housing while keeping the overall feel of the community," she said. "For Vermonters who need additional income, they can use the extra unit for rental income."

Others, she added, "may want to provide home for a parent or child."

"Multi-generational housing is a traditional way to share costs and child care, but has been not permitted in some places," Harrison pointed out.

Floodplain restoration is another of her concerns.

"I want to find ways for the state and the towns to increase floodplain restoration, such as was done [in Brattleboro] at Melrose Place and is currently happening at 'Sawdust Alley' at the end of Birge Street," Harrison said. "The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs visited Melrose this fall and was very impressed."

Stormwater utilities, a way to fund the stormwater management of ditches, culverts, ponds, and floodplains, need to be created, Harrison said.

"The difficulty is getting them set up," she said.

Five towns in the Lake Champlain area have already established stormwater utilities.

"Part of the bill includes funding for multiple smaller towns to work together and use one consultant to establish their individual utilities," Harrison said. "I want to make it easier for any town, especially small towns, to establish these utilities; they are going to need the revenue to address flooding."

Stormwater utilities also provide an incentive for property owners to reduce their wastewater generation.

Property owners could be charged according to "the amount of stormwater that comes off their property," Harrison said, a fee that "provides an incentive to reduce impact."

One example: A large commercial property with a lot of asphalt parking, through which stormwater cannot absorb into the ground, "would maybe reduce the lot size to save money," she said.

"The goal is to have as much of the water go into the ground as possible," Harrison continued. "And to have streams, brooks and rivers carry the water."

This would not be a property tax, Harrison said, but an assessment.

Pointing out the floodplain restoration at Melrose Terrace, she said that these measures will help towns maintain ditches and culverts and will fund their replacement or upgrades.

"Many of these are a real problem because they aren't big enough to handle the debris - trees and tree stumps - that get stuck in them and create a dam," Harrison said. "Then you've got flooding on the other side. It's a more fair way to fund these projects, and it's already used in Vermont."

Another bill Harrison is working on would, if enacted, require a town to require bus service when it reviews a new development.

A state mushroom?

Finally, how about those mushrooms?

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun (D-Windham-3), a devoted mycophile, recently submitted a bill to create the Vermont State Mushroom.

"I did this after consulting with some important stakeholders, like the elementary students of Windham Elementary School and the middle school students of the Compass School in Westminster," Bos-Lun said.

"Both groups of students spent time learning about the wonders of wild mushrooms, and after considering diverse contenders, students at both schools chose the same mushroom genus by a majority vote," she added.

When the vote was tallied, Hericium americanu, "commonly known as Bear's Head Tooth, was the winning mushroom," she said.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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