Legislative Policy Update and Relief Funding Info

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I hope you’ve been able to find ways to stay safe and cool during this heat wave! I’m writing to provide information about how to apply for some of the economic relief funding programs I outlined in my previous post, and to highlight a few major policy initiatives prioritized by the legislature during this unique session.

Economic Relief Funding
Many people are eager to access the economic relief funding allocations the Legislature approved last month, so here’s a list of websites where you can find application materials or information about the status of the grant programs:

As more information is available, I will do my best to share what I know. Please contact me if you have questions or need assistance finding information about a specific program. As much as possible, I want to be sure my constituents and senate district get the assistance they need.

Policy Initiatives
As you know from reading my updates, the Legislature focused the vast majority of its efforts on COVID-19 emergency policies that could help our health care providers and front-line workers better respond to a global pandemic. We also focused on policies to enable state and local government to continue to function and serve the people of Vermont effectively during an emergency. The Senate Health & Welfare and Government Operations Committees were particularly busy this session! Many of us also spent considerable time helping individual constituents understand the status of the state’s efforts to react to the pandemic and the related health and safety protocols, as well as access crucial health and economic services and relief. Finally, the Legislature has had to implement a fragmented state budget that could mean significant reductions in important state services due to a dramatic decrease in state revenues.

With all of this on our plates, many bills that would likely have passed in “normal” years have stalled or been winnowed down. Despite the pandemic, we did still manage to pass some important legislation and get the ball rolling on some others. I’ve heard from a lot constituents about a few areas in particular, so I’ll focus my update on these topics.

Climate and Environmental Legislation. At the start of this session, there was quite a bit of momentum to pass major legislation focused on mitigating climate change, but much of the this legislation was put on hold in March. However, in late June, the Senate did pass the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.688) and sent it back to the House to be finalized when we return in August. This legislation would turn the current statutory greenhouse gas reduction goals into actual requirements, to be met over the next several decades. In order to ensure the State meets these goals, the bill would establish the Vermont Climate Council that would be tasked with developing a Vermont Climate Action Plan. There would be various deadlines along the way for the Council to provide reports and seek input from the public and Legislature. The implementation of the Plan would be outlined in rules developed by the Agency of Natural Resources and approved through the legislative rule-making process. In order to ensure public accountability for the Plan, there would be a citizen “cause of action” provision that enables a person to bring suit against the State for failing to meet the goals.

In addition, after nearly three years of research and public engagement work, it appears likely that a bill with changes to Act 250, the state’s landmark development law, will move forward in August with details still to be determined. There are also bills pending that would build upon work done last session to limit single-use plastics; create a public health climate change plan; require energy efficiency training for front-line professions doing work on homes and buildings; create a program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the thermal energy and transportation sectors; and protect migratory birds passing through Vermont. Each of these bills will likely come up again in August. I voted in support of all of these efforts and I’m thrilled that despite one global emergency, we’re still making progress on fighting a different global crisis.

Criminal Justice & Police Reform. In late February, the Senate unanimously passed the Justice Reinvestment Act (S.338), which builds on previous criminal justice reforms and comes as the result of a major study by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. The bill makes significant changes to Vermont’s prison furlough, parole, and probation policies, simplifying the system to ensure that fewer people will be sent (back) to prison due minor violations or technical errors. Provisions of the bill also seek to enable a smoother transition from prison back into the community for people leaving the correctional system. The overall goal of the legislation is to reduce recidivism and the number of people incarcerated in Vermont, and reinvest the savings from these policies into prevention and support services.

In late June, following the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers and nationwide calls for police reform initiatives, the Senate passed S.219, which 1) requires police departments to report demographic data related to traffic stops; 2) prohibits the use of restraint holds by police officers; 3) includes both the use of such restraint holds and the failure to intervene when observing another officer using such a hold as gross unprofessional conduct punishable by law, particularly if it results in serious bodily injury or death; and 4) requires the use of body cameras by State Police officers. The bill also includes provisions which will require the Legislature to do more next session regarding both the use of restraint and justifiable homicide laws. Both of these bills have been sent to Governor Scott for his signature.

In addition, the Legislature will do more work in August on S.119, a bill on the deadly use of force by police officers, and S.124, a bill updating the membership and work of the Criminal Justice Training Council, which is a major oversight body for police in Vermont. The latter bill includes various requests for recommendations on models for civilian oversight, police complaint and misconduct reports, body camera use and support, and use of military equipment by Vermont police departments. While there is much more work to do, our efforts this session build on previous reforms, make important strides in preventing racist, violent and unprofessional conduct by police officers, and provide a framework and timeline for additional work necessary to ensure that our police forces and criminal justice system in Vermont are humane and just. It’s clear that more conversations and decisions are still to be had regarding both racism and the appropriate level of policing in Vermont.

Vermont State Colleges. I received more emails and phone calls opposing the proposal to close three VSC campuses than I did on any other issue this session except the COVID crisis. It’s clear that Vermonters are passionate about ensuring a strong future for statewide public higher education in Vermont. The Legislature requested two studies regarding the status of VSC, one from State Treasurer Beth Pearce and one from an independent higher education consultant. Both painted a fairly bleak picture of the financial status of VSC. As I previously reported, the Legislature provided significant funds to VSC to cover COVID-related costs and to bridge funding for FY21 while a longer-term plan can be formulated. We also created a Select Committee on the Future of the Vermont State College System that will create a roadmap over the next 18 months for the future of the VSC. While I believe that significant changes are in store for VSC due to the financial and demographic challenges already faced by the System, as well as the nationwide crisis in higher education created by the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m optimistic that we can find a sustainable path forward for these colleges which have proven to be vital resources for students and communities throughout Vermont.

State House Portraits and Legislative Pay. If you’ve been to the State House, you know that it’s filled with portraits of former governors and military generals, the vast majority of whom are older white men. Only three portraits are of women and none are of people of color. In January, I introduced a bill that would establish a process to diversify those portraits and the story they tell about leadership and history in Vermont. The bill was just about to come to the Senate Floor for a vote when we closed the building and the Governor declared a state of emergency. I watched my bill sit on the Senate calendar for months, as it was rightly passed over for more pressing matters. In the final week of June, I was able to move the bill forward, with unanimous support from the Legislature, as an amendment to the State Capital Bill, which funds state construction and building projects. It was a small victory for me, but one that I hope means a more diverse and inclusive future for the Vermont State House.

Finally, you may have heard a rumor that the Legislature voted ourselves a pay raise. This is absolutely not true. No state legislator will receive a pay raise this year. We know that the vast majority of Vermonters will not see a raise this year. We are no different. What we did vote for was a change in the formula for how increases to legislative salaries would be determined in future years. The change would align our pay raises with those of other state employees, including the governor and other elected offices. This change, which was initiated by the House, is a small attempt to recognize that the lack of sustainable pay for legislators prevents most people from being able to serve in office. In Vermont, we say we value a “citizen legislature” but most citizens, especially young Vermonters and people with modest incomes, simply cannot afford to run for office. Read the thoughtful piece written by one of my House colleagues, Rep. William Notte of Rutland, and let’s be willing to have an honest public discussion about legislative pay and a more inclusive legislature for our state.

Elections are Coming
With the primary election coming up on August 11, I’ll be turning my attention to a bit of campaigning. As promised, I have separate email lists for my campaign and constituent updates, so if you’d like to follow my campaign and are not already on that email list, please be sure to sign up here. This year is a big election year for our country, so I hope you’ll follow along and of course, cast your votes in August and November. You can register to vote and request a mail-in ballot here. I will provide more legislative updates here, as I have them.

Finally, we are so fortunate to be living in such a beautiful state, especially now when being outside is more important than ever. To further appreciate the beauty of Vermont, check out these gorgeous photographs by a local photographer, featured in a New York Times article, “Behold Vermont, From Above.”  They are stunning! Thanks for reading – stay safe and cool.

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