Town Meeting Report
Town Meeting Report on the Legislative Session
Prepared by Caleb Elder and Mari Cordes, Addison-4 District
We’re halfway through the 2023 legislative session! Our work officially began on January 4, when we returned for the first in-person opening week ceremonies in a few years. We’ve passed some significant legislation in these first two months, and this report provides highlights. Meanwhile, work on our key priorities will continue, across the House and in collaboration with the Senate, as we debate bills and consider investments prior to our anticipated May adjournment. It’s an honor to serve as your state representatives. Please reach out anytime with ideas, questions, and concerns.
BUILDING A BALANCED BUDGET FOR FY24
The House is working on the next Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget, which covers state government and its community partner organizations from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024. The committee expects to present its proposed budget to the full House for discussion later in March. We are seeing substantial revenue growth this year, largely due to the impact of federal pandemic stimulus and recovery dollars. Our challenge is to make strategic use of one-time funds to meet state priorities. Those priorities include leveraging federal funds to support improvements in roads, bridges and other infrastructure needs under Congress’ Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (passed last year). Other targeted statewide priorities are those that will deliver long-term dividends for Vermonters including investments in housing, broadband expansion, workforce training, clean energy and childcare. As is our Vermont tradition, it will be a balanced budget, even though Vermont does not have a statutory requirement to do so.
UNIVERSAL SCHOOL MEALS
During the pandemic, the federal government provided free school meals to all K-12 students. Last session, the legislature provided funding to continue offering universal school meals in Vermont for the current school year. The legislature must now determine the best path forward. Universal school meals offer many benefits, including more predictability for schools in meal planning and purchasing, less stigma surrounding school meals, and increased opportunities for partnerships with local farms, leading to the re-entry of dollars into Vermont’s economy. Several Vermont schools have applauded how the program has positively impacted health and behavioral outcomes and expanded nutrition and food education. If the state chooses to continue offering universal school meals, there will be new strategies in 2023 to access federal dollars in paying for the program—both through increased student participation and a new Medicaid eligibility criterion that automatically qualifies schools to receive more federal funds. To learn more, see H.165.
ADDRESSING SCHOOL CONSTRUCTION NEEDS
The House Education committee is considering options to address the statewide backlog of renovation needs or replacement of school buildings. Prior to the financial downturn of 2007-08, Vermont had a policy of the state contributing 30% of the cost of a school construction project. A moratorium was implemented in 2007, and Vermont is now the only New England state without an active program of state assistance for school construction. A statewide assessment of school facilities is currently underway with a completion deadline of October 2023.
The committee is considering school construction models being used in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Wyoming. Given Vermont’s small, mostly rural population, the RIDE (Rhode Island Department of Education) School Construction Program is likely the closest fit. The Rhode Island rubric provides a minimum state match of 35%, with certain projects being eligible for greater state-level support. Once projects are completed, districts are required to spend 3% of their budget annually on maintenance. The Education Committee is considering how to move forward with a similar program that includes a non-partisan commission to develop a formula to allocate any state contribution to a school construction project. The Treasurer has also expressed a strong interest in this area and will be a key partner in figuring out initial funding options.
BOTTLE BILL 2.0
Updating and expanding Vermont’s bottle bill — first enacted in 1972 — will help reduce landfill waste, litter, and greenhouse gas emissions by increasing the amount and quality of plastic, aluminum and glass recycling. Although Vermont has a high recycling rate thanks to the universal recycling law, returnable bottles and cans dropped off at redemption centers around the state produce more marketable and reusable materials than what gets tossed into our commingled recycling bins. As the number and variety of beverages has exploded over the years, H.158 proposes a needed expansion of the decades-old deposit system to cover most beverages, including plastic water bottles and glass wine bottles. To fund more conveniently located redemption centers, provide fair compensation to redemption center owners, and keep an increasing number of bottles and cans out of the landfill each year, the bill requires that beverage manufacturers and distributors collaborate in a stewardship program overseen by the Agency of Natural Resources that will address the limits of the current system.
In preparation for crafting suicide prevention bills, we were privileged to hear from some of the bravest and most sincere witnesses — family members of those irreplaceable Vermonters lost through suicide, in addition to experts and academics who study this tragic phenomenon. The facts are heartbreaking: More than 700 Vermont residents died of gunshot wounds in the decade from 2011 to 2020. 88% of these deaths were suicides. Children are 4.4 times more likely to die by suicide in a home with a firearm compared to a home without a firearm. Suicide among Vermont men and boys is 50% higher than the national average. Persons at greatest risk of suicide in Vermont are men, persons living in rural areas, persons with a disability, veterans, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. There are few bright spots in the statistics, but one is this: 90% of the people who attempt a suicide, and survive, do not try again. Suicide by firearm almost never allows this opportunity for a second chance at life.
H.230 attempts to reduce suicide by lethal means with three distinct strategies. One, mandating the safe storage of firearms in places where they might be accessed by children and those legally ineligible to possess them. Two, instituting a mandatory waiting period for the purchase of firearms. Most suicides are impulsive acts, and having a bit of time to cool off will save lives. Three, extension of our current extreme risk protection order law to include family members. Following the work on H.230, the committee will focus on additional suicide prevention methods.
CHILD CARE AND EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION
The lack of affordable, high-quality early childhood education profoundly impacts Vermont and its economy. As introduced, H. 208, an act relating to child care and early childhood education, develops a blueprint for a significant investment in our children, families, and communities. The bill would significantly increase state-funded financial assistance for children in child care; expand the current funding for part-time pre-K to a full-time program for all 4-year-olds in Vermont; increase compensation for early childhood educators and financial support for community and home-based child care programs by reimbursing centers for enrollment; and elevate and streamline state-level oversight of early childhood education.
The proposed legislation has support from over 90 representatives across party lines and builds on the current system to ensure that all partners, families, schools, child care providers, and early educators, have the resources and support they need to best care for our youngest Vermonters. In developing this bill, legislators considered recommendations presented in the recently released Child Care and Early Childhood Education Systems Analysis and the RAND Corporation’s Vermont Early Care and Education and Financing Study commissioned by Act 45 of 2021. Work on this topic is well underway in the Senate, and the House Human Services Committee is looking forward to taking up this critical legislation later in March. We will hear testimony from parents, child care providers, schools, employers, early educators, state agencies, and essential stakeholders.
PROTECTING HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS AND PATIENTS
H.89– also known as the Shield Bill – provides protections for patients and providers from prosecutions and investigations by states that have banned or restricted reproductive and gender-affirming care that is legal in Vermont. It also provides some protections for out-of-state patients receiving this care from Vermont providers.
The Shield Bill reinforces the legislature’s ongoing efforts to protect safe access to reproductive and gender affirming care for Vermonters at a time when these essential and personal health care choices are under attack in many states across the country. With the passage of Proposition 5 in November, Vermonters overwhelmingly demonstrated their support for enshrining reproductive liberty as a constitutional right. The legislature has also recognized the right to gender-affirming health care and stated a commitment to ensuring that transgender youth and their families are safe to make the best decisions for themselves, in consultation with their health care providers.
EDUCATION FUNDING & PROPERTY APPRAISALS
Vermonters all know how much the real estate market has fluctuated in recent years — it’s fair to say the rise in property values has been historic. The Committee on Ways & Means has spent the first few months of this legislative session looking at a wide range of ways to bring this system into alignment. The committee heard testimony on innovative solutions including: moving away from funding education with property taxes, and moving to a consistent statewide system for property appraisals. The intent of a more consistent system is to avoid large changes in values that catch property owners by surprise, and to relieve pressure on municipalities to manage appraisals with limited resources. The committee is also looking at ways to recategorize non-homestead property values to get a better sense of how these properties are used. Currently the non-homestead property category includes everything from second homes to businesses to industrial use.