So. Vermont lawmakers reflect at halfway point

Fate of legislation decided during hectic weeks of Crossover, where bills jump from one chamber to the other — if they can get over the hurdle

Since the first days of the year, Windham County's legislators have been hard at work in Montpelier. And now, as the midpoint of the Session looms, Vermonters are starting to see the diverse and interesting results.

Among them? An more than $873 million transportation bill. A bill taxing the wealthy. A tweak to the Renewable Energy Standard. Multiple and massive suggested changes to Act 250, the state's land-use law.

A bill protecting African Americans from being discriminated against because of their hair. Repairing the Vermont Building at the Big E. Addressing the opioid crisis. Adding more judges. Picking a Vermont state mushroom.

Addressing the housing crisis. Credentialing immigrant medical professionals to help solve the workforce crisis. Letting us know that firefighter gear may be hazardous to the health of firefighters. Whether to keep a fish hatchery open.

It's a lot to think about.

What is Crossover, exactly? On March 15, bills that do not involve money and have been voted upon by the originating body cross over to the other body. On March 22, the bills that require spending make the crossing. After this do-si-do, the Senate works on the House bills and vice versa.

Each Windham County legislator sits on one or more committees. They have put in hard hours studying bills, hearing testimony, holding discussions and voting their bills out of committee. Here's what they report at this inflection point.


Housing heads the list of issues that House Majority Leader Emily Long, D-Newfane, considers most important.

"As usual, housing is at the top of the list, as is climate resiliency and flood recovery," Long said. "We have been updating our Renewable Energy Standard and we're now working on land use regulations, including modernizing Act 250."

Lawmakers, she said, "are taking steps to increase access to affordable health care by looking at an expansion of Medicaid to lessen the health care burden on Vermonters who are underinsured."

The funding mechanism for Vermont's schools is another top priority, Long said.

"An equitable public education system is a cornerstone of democracy, and it is past time to transform Vermont's public education delivery and funding system," she said.

"We must ensure every child in Vermont has equitable access to a high-quality education, regardless of their needs, race or gender, socioeconomic status, or where they reside.

"While change will be hard and it will require local and statewide support; this is also a unique opportunity to strengthen our public education system for students today and into the future," Long said. "If done thoughtfully with broad support, it will have a positive impact on our state's economy and future."


Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, chairs the House Transportation Committee, which is responsible for producing the FY2025 omnibus Transportation Bill.

It addresses all aspects of the transportation system: all the paving and reconstruction for roads and bridges as well as the budget for rail, public transit, bicycle/pedestrian, airports, infrastructure, Department of Motor Vehicles, maintenance, and more, along with funding for grants for Vermont towns and cities.

"This year the Transportation bill will provide more than $873 million in funding for transportation policies that go beyond just road maintenance, upgrades, and snow removal," Coffey said. "My priorities have been to support transportation greenhouse gas reductions, alternative transportation - bike and pedestrian - infrastructure, and public transportation that serves both urban and rural communities."

The state will continue to take advantage of unprecedented federal funding made available through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), Coffey said.

"These funds, which will total $1.6 billion over five years, provide Vermont the opportunity to make transformational investments in our transportation infrastructure and to address climate change," Coffey said.

Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, also sits on the Transportation Committee. Weaning Vermont off fossil fuels has been one of her longstanding goals. The IIJA is a key accomplishment of the Biden administration, Burke said.

"In addition to cutting carbon pollution, there are co-benefits: better public transit helps low-income citizens, and increased funding for bike and pedestrian infrastructure helps to create more vibrant and economically successful downtowns and village centers," Burke said.

This session, Coffey and Burke were also the lead sponsors of H.693, the Transportation Infrastructure and Resiliency Act.

"This bill aims to provide more affordable, accessible, and reliable [electric vehicle] charging, mobility and transit options to help Vermonters get around more easily, walkable and bike-able communities, directing the agency to expand passenger rail service and bicycle storage on the train, and funding for resilience improvements to reduce community vulnerability and mitigate future damage," Coffey said.

"Many of the policy ideas from H.693 have been incorporated into this year's transportation bill," she continued. "Building more resilient transportation infrastructure enables Vermonters to access jobs, age successfully in our communities, [and] improve our health as we reduce the state's greenhouse gas emissions."

Due to the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020, the state is bound to meet the goals for carbon emission reduction laid out in the Climate Action Plan, Burke said.

"The goal of H.693 is to follow those recommendations and enhance programs and policies to reduce carbon emissions," Burke said. "We also hope to address the resiliency of our communities in the wake of this summer's flooding.

Another section of the bill calls for transportation projects to provide access for all users of the transportation system, not just vehicles.

"Pedestrians, bicyclists, and persons with disabilities need to be included in the planning and execution of various projects, as do users of the public transit system," Burke said.

"We are also asking the state treasurer to convene a group to look into multi-state cap-and-invest programs that may provide the funding necessary to meet the climate goals of our State Climate Action Plan," she added.

Several incentives also make electric vehicles more affordable.

"There are up to $6,000 in state incentives plus $7,500 in federal tax credits available to purchase a new or used hybrid, plug-in hybrid, or electric car or truck," Coffey said.

She pointed Vermonters to, which she called "a great resource with details about the incentives, a tool to compare vehicles and information about electric vehicle charging."

This year's Bicycle and Pedestrian Grant Program, which will provide an additional $4 million for communities, "improves access and safety for bicyclists and/or pedestrians through the planning, design, and construction of infrastructure projects," Coffey said.

Burke is also on the leadership team of the Climate Solutions Caucus.

"We meet every other week and stay active in promoting various bills that are circulating in both the House and Senate regarding carbon emission reduction and mitigation, flood protection, and resilience," she said.

"This summer's floods have definitely intensified the conversation and the need to not only cut emissions but also protect our communities from future flooding," Burke observed.

Wealth taxes

Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, chairs the all-important House Committee on Ways and Means. Her passion project has long been finding a way for all Vermonters - wealthy as well as poor and middle-class - to equitably shoulder the state's tax burden.

With a population of just under 650,000, funding from more diverse sources is needed to keep Vermont running fluidly and well. That is why two new pieces of legislation from Kornheiser's committee would impose new taxes on the state's wealthiest residents. The idea of fairly taxing the wealthy is so radical right now that, in January, The New York Times did a feature story on Kornheiser's work.

Vermont joins "a growing national campaign being pushed by Democrats who believe that the measures will gain traction as states reckon with post-pandemic budget squeezes," according to the Times.

As described in the article, "One proposal would tax people with more than $10 million in net worth on their capital gains, even if the gains have not yet been realized. Another would add a 3 percent marginal tax on individual incomes exceeding $500,000 a year - a measure that supporters contend could pump $98 million, or almost 5 percent of the annual budget, into the state's coffers."

"The way our tax structure is set up, our middle class is carrying an undue burden, compared to folks at the top," Kornheiser said. "We want to make sure that all Vermonters are paying their fair share."

Gov. Phil Scott has said he will oppose any tax increases this year, but the Legislature has the power to override his veto if it chooses to do so.

Renewable Energy Standard

The Renewable Energy Standard is a performance standard that has helped Vermont set emissions targets for utilities since 2015. It's been updated this year in the House Committee on Environment and Energy, of which Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, is vice chair.

"H.289 is making its way through other committees right now," Sibilia said. "It helps us set targets for utilities with the goal of reducing fossil-fuel greenhouse gas emissions. This update takes the approach of recognizing the differences in our utilities."

Vermont has several kinds of utilities: one gigantic private utility, Green Mountain Power, covers the largest part of the state. Two cooperatives, holdovers from rural electrification, also still exist, along with a bunch of small municipal utilities and one large municipal utility that serves Burlington customers.

"Our Renewable Energy Standard has really treated them all the same," Sibilia said. "This update provides an opportunity to meet the standard in differentiated ways."

The Department of Public Services did community outreach and identified the three highest priorities of Vermonters: suitability, reliability, and reduction of greenhouse gases.

Some tension has arisen, however. The DPS has its own proposal, which includes nuclear power and the elimination of net metering.

Act 250

In light of the pressing need for new home construction across the state, Sibilia's committee is also grappling with "massive" Act 250 revisions in a bill from the House (H.687), but she doubts all of it will make it out of committee this year.

"The bill incorporates so much work that has been done outside of the session that my sense is that it may not all make it across the finish line," Sibilia said. "But it looks at establishing location-based jurisdiction for Act 250 as well as changing who approves town plans and regional plans."

Much more public education is needed before Act 250 can be rewritten, she said.

"To my way of thinking, this requires a significant amount of public education and feedback," Sibilia said. "I am not in support of the bill as it is right now. But we have literally just really started as a committee to work with it."

She said that her communities are requesting help "in dealing with water and flooding."

"They need people and tools and dollars to work within their communities to help people be safe and have a more resilient infrastructure. This is, I think, an important tool and a mid-to longer-term strategy."

Over on the Senate side, Wendy Harrison, D–Windham County, has also been thinking hard about Act 250, pointing out that "the Natural Resources Board - the governing body of Act 250 - convened a work group of developers, conservationists, businesses, and housing advocates who came together in a consensus-based process to recommend these historic changes to Act 250."

Their goal, she said, is to "update Act 250 to support and promote growth in compact settlement patterns; facilitate appropriate rural economic development; focus on critical and increased protections for key natural resources; establish a clear, consistent, and navigable permit process; and minimize redundancies with other local, state, and federal regulations.'"

Sibilia estimates that only a portion of the work on Act 250 will be finished this year.

"If we do pass something that is kind of whittled down from where we are right now, it could include study language that could come back to the 2025 Legislature," Sibilia said. "The big need right now is housing."

Sibilia lives in a resort town, which gives her a unique perspective, she said.

"I can see, with regularity, that motivated developers are able to move through and afford all of the work that is required to get the Act 250 permits in areas that are pretty ecologically sensitive," Sibilia said.

"I do worry about the regular Vermonter being able to move through the process to build a house," she said, adding that the problem is "much larger than just fixing a few market factors."

"I think that we really need to be acting with intention," Sibilia said. "We need to have towns identify if they want housing, where [the housing would be built], and what income level housing folks want. This challenge is so big right now and multi-layered, with short-term rentals and our demographic issues."

Baby boomers are aging out right now, and towns are seeing a marked decline in families with children. Given these current population projections, in 15 or 20 years, the state might have a glut of available housing, Sibilia pointed out.

"I think this situation requires more than kind of a tweaking of some market factors," she said. "I think we really would like to see a much more heavy-handed leadership role out of the administration in this moment, to ensure that we are building housing for all income levels."

At least three other committees in the Legislature are working on Act 250 recommendations.

"Instead of triggering the review by the type and size of the development and the number of miles and years distant from a previous development by the same person, the update would determine the review process by the location of the proposed development," Harrison said. "The regional planning commissions, towns and the Natural Resources Board (NRB) would together produce maps dividing the state into three main 'tiers' to be used for development review purposes."

Under this system, Tier 1 would have places where development would be encouraged and exempt from Act 250, such as towns with robust planning and zoning, sufficient staffing, and water and sewer systems with capacity for growth.

"When Act 250 was enacted, there were very few towns with this capacity," Harrison said. "Now, a good number of Vermont towns and cities provide an equivalent level of development review and regulation as the NRB. It is likely that most of Brattleboro would be Tier 1."

Tier 3 would lie at the opposite end of the spectrum and would include ecologically important natural resource areas where any and all development would be under Act 250 jurisdiction.

"Tier 2 is the area left over and is likely to be most of the state," Harrison said. "Tier 2 is proposed to initially be subject to the existing Act 250 jurisdictional thresholds of lots, units, time, and distance."

Mapping out these specific areas will be complicated and probably controversial, Harrison said.

"Our committee bill (S.311) proposes interim Act 250 exemptions to spur housing development during that mapping process, estimated to take two to four years," Harrison said.

"As an example, our bill would allow developments up to 75 units of housing in towns with permanent zoning and bylaws in an area served by municipal sewer and water," she said. "We also propose that commercial conversions to up to 29 units of housing be exempt from Act 250, as we see unused commercial space as potential housing."

To reduce the outsized negative impact of appeals, the bill proposes higher thresholds for residents to appeal municipal housing decisions, sets goals for the court to act on appeals, and adds a judge to the Superior Court.

"We have sent our bill to the Senate Natural Resources Committee for further review," Harrison said.

Supporting discriminatory schools

An issue of great concern to Sibilia, and one that the Legislature has not addressed, is that of public funds going to religious schools which might discriminate against certain types of students.

"There are public taxpayer dollars paying for private education in schools that discriminate," Sibilia said. "So I would have a problem with that."

She says she's watching the issue carefully "and hoping that we will take some action."

"I think that's pretty crazy, considering all the state has done on civil rights and civil protection," Sibilia said.


The word from Rep. Tristan Roberts, D-Halifax, is that when it comes to budgeting, everything is more expensive this year.

"We knew that the end of federal Covid-era funding would make this a difficult budget year," said Roberts, the clerk of the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions. "I regret to report that's not the worst of our problems."

Across-the-board inflation is hitting the state's budget hard.

"Going into the second year of the two-year Capital Bill, the governor has asked for an additional $3 million to cover cost increases for major maintenance projects such as roofing and masonry repairs that are already underway," Roberts said.

"Meanwhile, cost estimates for projects in the planning stages seem to be going up every year," he said.

For example, in Massachusetts at the Eastern States Exposition ("The Big E"), the 1929-built Vermont building is showing the consequences of deferred maintenance.

"For example, the beautiful cupola with the cow on top is leaking and needs to be removed, restored, and replaced," Roberts explained.

The state had initially planned to spend $4 million to renovate in time for the building's centennial, "but estimates are now pushing $8 million and up," he said.

Vermont typically pays for capital construction by selling bonds.

"Our frugal track record for borrowing means that we have the highest credit rating of the New England states and the lowest borrowing costs," Roberts said. "Our one-year bonding capacity is $54 million. To increase that pot of money to keep up with inflation would mean increased borrowing costs, which wouldn't be good in the long term."

The conundrum: How do we take care of the buildings we have, and meet our future needs?

"I am working hard in House Corrections and Institutions to make sure that we get federal money out the door, and to ensure that our major maintenance projects are targeted to our most pressing long-term needs," Roberts said.

This means making hard choices.

"In the case of a new courthouse that's needed in Newport, for example, we declined to purchase a suitable parcel because the asking price is double the assessed value," Roberts said. "Projects like the planned restoration of the Bennington Battle Monument or the replacement of the women's prison might proceed more slowly than we would prefer as we set aside money for them over multiple budget cycles."

He pointed out that, "as Vermonters, we're used to doing more with less."

"Asking our state agencies to improve their coordination is one way the Legislature can get better results while spending less," Roberts said.

Prisoner assistance

When prisoners are released from the state's correctional system, they enter a world that sometimes induces failure, Roberts said. This is another issue his committee is working on.

"Imagine leaving prison at the end of your sentence with little more than the clothes you walked in wearing," Roberts said. "Many folks in this situation lack a valid ID, health insurance, essential prescription medications, and referrals to treatment providers and recovery coaching."

He said it is "no wonder that many are not able to find housing and jobs, and wind up back in prison."

"I've been pushing the state agencies and the health care providers involved to improve their re-entry planning and coordination so that we can help offenders break free of these harmful cycles," Roberts said.

Farm businesses

Roberts strongly supports H.128, which supports accessory on-farm businesses without going through Act 250.

"We need state government to get out of the way and allow our farms and small businesses to grow their revenues," he said.

"Instead of opening a creemee stand or an event space, farmers find themselves opening a multi-year, six-figure permitting process," Roberts continued. "This is not acceptable."

He said he is "urging the Legislature and the governor to agree on a streamlined process for small business development on working lands."

Health insurance

The House Committee on Health Care is working on the aftermath of COVID-19, said Rep. Leslie Goldman, D-Rockingham, who is looking back at when the state was flooded with federal money and people were kept on Medicaid because of the emergency.

"That condition ended on March 31, 2023, and Vermont was required to resume normal operation of our Medicaid program," Goldman said. "This was described as 'unwinding,' and states had up to 12 months to return to normal eligibility and enrollment operations."

She said that "tens of thousands of Vermonters were affected."

"We have been working with the Vermont Department of Health Access to support Vermonters during this transition," Goldman said.

The goal is to make sure that Vermonters who no longer qualify for Medicaid due to income requirements continue to have access to other coverage.

"Although we know that 97% of Vermonters have access to some form of health insurance, we also know that approximately 40% of Vermonters are 'underinsured' because of high deductibles and copays," she said.

"This leads to people not getting the health care they need earlier in a disease process," Goldman continued, adding that the cycle "leads to poorer outcomes and higher costs."

Goldman's committee has also been working on H.721, an act relating to Medicaid expansion.

"We hope to expand access to Medicaid to age 26, which mimics the [federal] Affordable Care Act provisions," Goldman said. "Another provision of H.721 is to assist with increased premium payments for those elders who are transitioning from Medicaid to Medicare."

The mental health issues of students whose lives were interrupted by COVID-19 are also a concern for her committee, Goldman said.

"Locally, we have seen a worrisome increase in the consequences of the Covid disruption on the mental health of students, teachers, and staff at our schools," she said.

"Federal funds are now gone, and funding these positions has fallen to local budgets," added Goldman. "Unfortunately, using the funds from school budgets to support mental health has reduced the funds available for our educational programs."

She said that as lawmakers move through this legislative session, "we are exploring every lever available to us to address this unprecedented moment in history and create a Vermont that works for everyone."

BIPOC hair

A bill that is close to the heart of Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, protects Black and Indigenous people and people of color (BIPOC) from being discriminated against because of their hair.

Mrowicki has written a Vermont version of the CROWN Act - an acronym for "Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair." The bill protects BIPOC people from the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of the way they wear their hair.

At least 23 other states have already passed some form of this legislation.

"I had the bill written and introduced it at the request of a constituent who came to this country when she was 10 from Kenya," Mrowicki said. "After hearing her story and those of other people of color, I was compelled to try and address this injustice."

Mrowicki cited the story of a parent whose daughter came home after having her hair cut off by her teacher in her classroom. And he mentioned the one about a mother who had to put a sign on her child that says "Please stop touching my hair."

"I had no idea," Mrowicki said. "I did some research and started uncovering some unbelievable stories of mistreatment and discrimination. And how prevalent it is."

The bill then went to the Housing and General Affairs Committee, and it passed, 132–5.

Justice reform

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, also sits on the House Committee of Corrections and Institutions and believes that at least two reform issues of hers will make it to the Senate.

The first helps incarcerated individuals continue to maintain strong relationships with family members while they are in prison.

"Vermont's single women's facility, the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility, has a program which supports and facilitates visits between incarcerated mothers and their children in a family or child friendly environment at the facility," Bos-Lun said.

"Our five men's facilities lack policies and spaces to facilitate supportive visits between incarcerated fathers and their children."

Corrections Committee bill H.815, addresses reentry, health and parent-child visitation policy issues. "Our bill will move Vermont towards equity for children and their incarcerated fathers," Bos-Lun said.

Another bill, H.807, addresses an inequity in sentencing. Given a choice, it seems that defendants are discouraged from choosing a community service option, which requires 200 hours, instead of a 60-hour incarcerative sentence, for certain offenses.

"This is likely to move forward in a Judiciary Committee bill," Bos-Lun said. "People are discouraged from choosing community service by the disproportionate time requirement. Most people facing these options choose weekend incarcerative sentences, which put pressure on our corrections system and deny an individual the opportunity to engage in their community in a beneficial way."

Mushroom reform

Bos-Lun's passion project, mushrooming, is on track to make Vermont the sixth state to have a state mushroom.

"My project with students at two Windham county schools is looking likely to pass," said Bos-Lun, the lead sponsor of H.664.

"Testimony began on Feb. 28 in the Agriculture, Food Resiliency and Forestry Committee with my introduction of the bill, followed by numerous mycological experts from the Department of Agriculture, to a Middlebury College professor, to wild mushroom guides and educators," she said.

She noted that on March 12 three students from Windham Elementary School and three students from the Compass School are scheduled to testify.

Students from both schools studied the mushrooms and took a vote, where they chose Hericium americanum, or bear's head tooth.

"It would be a valuable symbol to Vermont, to the importance of fungi in our ecosystem, to the democratic process each school went through to determine which mushroom to move forward," Bos-Lun said.

Criminal justice changes

In the Senate, Sen. Nader Hashim, D-Windham County, has been working on a collection of statutory changes that would affect conditions of release. (S.195 and S.196).

"The larger issue seems to be compliance with conditions," Hashim said. "S.195 would allow for more options to ensure compliance with conditions of release. This includes supervision, electronic monitoring, and home detention.

"S.196 is a technical change that would clarify current law so that victims of violent felonies will not have to testify in pre-trial hearings within only a few weeks of the incident," he added.

Another bill Hashim has been working on, S.163, passed out of committee and will be voted on the floor after Town Meeting. The bill creates three new judge positions to help alleviate the criminal justice backlog in the courts.

"One of the judge positions will also be used to support a statewide drug docket," Hashim said. "Creating a drug docket has been one of my top priorities for years, and this is a substantial step that I'm confident will help in addressing the opioid crisis while also reducing recidivism."

Other issues Hashim is working on include a bill to create a climate change superfund (S.259). "It would be used to address damage caused by climate change and also to build our climate resiliency."

New neighbors

Hashim is also sponsoring a bill (S.191) that seeks to remove barriers for refugees, humanitarian parolees, and Afghan Special Visa Holders to access advancement grants through the Vermont Student Assistance Corp.

"This would allow our New American neighbors to more quickly gain access to skill training such as English classes, driving classes, or other skills that are necessary when starting a new life here," he said.

Harrison has been working on a bill (S.263) to expand the health care workforce by putting U.S. credentials more quickly into the hands of graduates of international medical schools.

The Senate is starting to take testimony on the idea right now.

Firefighters' gear

Harrison reports that the Senate heard disturbing news last week from a study of PFAS - per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - in firefighters' protective gear.

"We heard that the gear is likely a cause of the higher cancer rates experienced by firefighters," Harrison said.

"It's terribly ironic - and irresponsible of the manufacturers - that the pants and jackets firefighters depend on to keep them safe may actually be making them seriously sick," she said.

Harrison said the Senate is "looking at ways to reduce their contact with PFAS, find other sources of the gear, and make sure that the firefighters have insurance coverage to protect them and their families."

Fish hatchery

The most controversial decision that the Institutions Committee that Harrison serves on will most likely be whether to keep the Salisbury fish hatchery open.

"The governor's budget proposes to close the hatchery this year," Harrison said. "There are water quality issues that need to be addressed, but they are proposing to close the hatchery before the end of the current wastewater permit in 2027."

The historic hatchery "is the only source of our trout brood stock and is valued by Vermont anglers," she said.

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

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