Late last month, the Vermont Legislature completed its historic legislative session, officially adjourning after months of work largely focused on responding to a worldwide pandemic and its implications for Vermont. We legislated together from our homes throughout Vermont, with the assistance of incredible staff members who were themselves working remotely. While I missed the camaraderie of the Vermont State House, I am extremely proud of what we accomplished together on behalf of Vermonters. This email provides an overview of some of the major work we did in the final six weeks of the session. The email is long as I wanted to be sure you know the scope of our work, feel free to read carefully or skim to find the items you care about, and of course, let me know if you have questions.
We distributed over $1 billion in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to help Vermonters stay safe and recover from the COVID-19 crisis, passed a $7.2 billion state budget that continues the vital work of state government, and passed important legislation to mitigate climate change, reform policing and our criminal justice system, support our public schools and colleges, create a regulated cannabis market, and protect older Vermonters, among many other initiatives. Below are highlights of the work we completed during our September session; you can read earlier posts summarizing our spring policy work and distribution of CRF aid, view my July summary of CRF funding here and an updated September summary from the Joint Fiscal Office here.
Support for Schools, Childcare Programs, and Colleges
As a member of the Senate Education Committee, one of my priorities was to ensure that our local schools had the resources they needed to re-open safely and meet student needs this fall. We provided $103 million in CRF funding to PK-12 schools to reimburse them for health, safety, and educational costs related to the COVID pandemic, including $13.5 million for maintenance and upgrades to school ventilation systems to prevent the spread of the virus through aerosol transmission. In addition to funding, we passed legislation to hold school district budgets harmless for pandemic-related enrollment declines, allowed a shorter 2020-21 school year, provided accommodations for continued remote instruction. Childcare providers received two rounds of restart grants for $12 million, in addition to the stabilization grants provided earlier in the spring. This funding included increased subsidies for families with low and moderate incomes, and start-up grants for childcare programs for school-aged children during remote instruction days.
To ensure the safe re-opening and financial stabilization of Vermont’s colleges and universities, we allocated $93.4 million in CRF funding to institutions of higher education. Most of this funding was provided during the spring session, but in September we provided an additional $10 million each to UVM and independent colleges respectively, as well as $2.3 million to the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) for workforce training for Vermonters whose employment has been impacted by the COVID-19. If you’ve been laid off, furloughed, or had work hours cut, you may qualify for free classes through VSC; check out Training for Vermonters Impacted by COVID-19 for more information. Finally, we provided a total of $28.5 million as bridge funding for VSC to enable their continued operation while a long-term plan is created for the system. Our state and community colleges will be crucial to the economic recovery of Vermont, so it’s important that we were able to provide them with the support necessary to weather this storm.
Frontline Employees Hazard Pay Program
Last spring, from March 13 to May 15 during the depths of the shutdown in Vermont, frontline employees continued to go to work to provide vital services to Vermonters, including health care, emergency response, housing and social services, childcare, cleaning and trash collection services, and sale of food and vital supplies. They did so even though the full risks of public exposure to COVID-19 were not well known, and health and safety protocols were not yet fully implemented. To recognize the vital work of these employees, most of whom were women, the Senate led efforts to create the Frontline Employees Hazard Pay Grant Program. During our September session, we expanded the program to include a broader array of workers, including grocery store clerks, cleaning and janitorial workers, essential childcare providers, trash collectors, and others. The Department of Financial Regulation and Agency of Human Services will host a webinar on October 26 to outline the program and answer questions about eligibility, application processes, and timing of payments. Updated program guidance and application instructions for round two of the program will be available this week. If you have further questions about the program, you can email COVIDHazardPay@vermont.gov. As a state, we have done a tremendous job of supporting each other during this crisis, and frontline workers last spring led these efforts on behalf of all of us. I am thrilled we could recognize their vital work.
Stimulus Payment Equity Program
This past spring, most Vermonters received $1,200 stimulus payments and $500 for each dependent child from the federal government. However, Vermonters without social security numbers, including migrant farm workers, recent immigrants, and their family members did not receive such payments, even though they too were impacted by the COVID crisis, pay federal and state taxes, and contribute to the economy and culture of our state. I led efforts in the Senate Agriculture Committee to provide payments to migrant farm workers who were vital to our state’s ability to continue farm operations during the pandemic. However, we hit several roadblocks that prevented us from allocating federal CRF funding for this purpose. The Governor then included funding for a limited program in his state budget proposal and the Legislature expanded it to provide $5 million of state funding to create a Stimulus Payment Equity Program which will provide payments to these Vermonters at an equivalent level to payments provided to most residents this past spring. Details regarding the application process are still being determined, so I will try to provide an update on the status of the program as more information is available. As Vermonters, we have all been in this crisis together, so this program, which recognizes and corrects the discriminatory decisions of the federal government, is an important bipartisan effort to ensure an inclusive state where all Vermonters are treated equitably.
Agriculture Assistance Grants
In order to allow more time for farmers to complete grant applications during the busy harvest season, the Senate Agriculture Committee worked to extend the deadline for applications from October 1 until November 15. In addition, we worked with the Agency of Agriculture to ensure that more farmers would qualify for the grants by streamlining and expanding the eligibility requirements. If you’re a farmer and have not yet applied for the COVID-19 Agriculture Assistance Program, please do so by visiting the Agency of Agriculture website.
Global Warming Solutions Act
In June, the Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act which creates the Vermont Climate Council to develop a plan for the state to meet required greenhouse gas emission reduction targets over the next 30 years. The Agency of Natural Resources will develop rules to implement the plan, which will be overseen by the Legislature. In addition, the Act allows for narrowly defined opportunities for a citizen right of action if the state fails to meet these targets. In September, after the House passed the final version of the legislation, the Governor vetoed the bill which sent it back to the Legislature for a successful veto override vote. Now law, the Global Warming Solutions Act (Act 153) is an important tool to ensuring that Vermont reverses its current path of annually increasing emissions, and that we all do our part to mitigate and reverse climate change before we are faced with another catastrophic global emergency.
Policing and Criminal Justice Reform
While several policing and criminal justice reform bills have been on the table for the past few years, work in this area accelerated this session due to several high profile police brutality cases around the country, especially the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Earlier in the spring, we passed the Justice Reinvestment Act (Act 148), which reforms Vermont’s furlough and parole system. Late in the spring, we passed S.219/Act 147, which addresses racial data reporting, restraint holds by police officers, unprofessional conduct by police officers, and the use of police body cameras. In September we passed S.119/Act 165, which limits the use of force by police officers, creating parameters for when use of force, including deadly force, is allowed, and requiring a report on model statewide policy. Of note, Act 165 states that “a law enforcement officer shall use only the force objectively reasonable, necessary, and proportional” and must take into consideration the “totality of the circumstances.” Act 165 also updates and limits the definition of “justifiable homicide” to bring it in line with the use of force provisions and current criminal justice standards. In addition, the state budget included a directive to the Department of Public Safety to reallocate funding within their budget to hire embedded mental health clinicians within State Police ranks to better ensure a well-trained, compassionate response to mental health calls. Finally, Act 167 provides for the automatic expungement of all criminal history records related to cannabis violations prior to January 1, 2021. This provision will positively impact over 10,000 Vermonters and is an important parallel to creating a legal cannabis market, as described below. This complete package of criminal justice and police reform legislation is a major accomplishment, particularly during a legislative session focused on a pandemic. There is more work to do, but I am proud of these important, and hopefully transformative, changes to criminal justice and policing in Vermont.
Regulated Cannabis Market
For nearly a decade, members of the Legislature have been working to reach agreement on the details of establishing a legal, regulated cannabis market in Vermont. In the final days of our September session, the House and Senate reached agreement on S.54, finally passing legislation that will create a legal market for cannabis in Vermont. The Senate introduced S.54 in 2019 with strong bipartisan sponsorship and this month Governor allowed the legislation to become law, Act 164. Act 164 creates a Cannabis Control Board, funded by licensing fees, to oversee the administration, implementation and enforcement of the program. The current medical cannabis program will be folded into the oversight of the Board and remain an avenue for Vermonters who need cannabis for medical purposes. While not considered farming operations, cannabis growing and processing must meet the Required Agricultural Practices and would not automatically exclude cannabis cultivation on a current farm from the Current Use Program, as long as strict size limits and requirements are met. State taxes on the sale of recreational cannabis include a 14% excise tax and a 6% sales tax. Revenue from the taxation of cannabis will fund substance misuse and prevention programs, and after-school & summer youth programs, with the remaining revenues deposited in the state’s General Fund. Act 164 includes provisions related to impaired driving including the allowance of saliva tests under certain conditions, strict product labeling requirements, background checks for licensees, prohibitions of high THC products, advertising limitations, and absolutely no sale or use by people under age 21. The legislation also includes a number of social justice and equity provisions, including a preference for women and minority-owned businesses, equitable professional advancements, living wage requirements, environmentally sound practices, a geographic balance for businesses, and the creation of an advisory council with broad membership and expertise. This new market will be rolled out over the next few years, with time to make adjustments to the program as necessary.
Older Vermonters Act
Vermont is the second oldest state in the nation, with proportionally more senior citizens than any state except Maine, so the Older Vermonters Act (Act 156) was an important, though quiet, bill moving through the legislature this session, passing in the final week of the session. The act requires the Department of Aging and Independent Living to report annually its adult protective services activities, including reports of abuse, neglect, or exploitation of a vulnerable adult; data on types of maltreatment; timeliness of investigations; and information on substantiations and appeals. The act also requires the Secretary of Administration to propose a process for developing the Vermont Action Plan for Aging Well to be implemented across State and local government, private sector, and philanthropies. The Plan must promote aging with health, choice, and dignity in order to establish and maintain an age-friendly State for all Vermonters. The Act also establishes a 16-member Self-Neglect Working Group to consider issues relating to adults who, due to physical or mental impairment or diminished capacity, are unable to perform essential self-care tasks. I’m optimistic that this Act will help lay a stronger foundation for better ensuring that more older Vermonters can live safe, healthy, productive lives in our state.
In addition to these highlights, our September session included passage of bills protecting migratory birds in Vermont, banning the sale of animal parts from endangered species in Africa, promoting affordable housing, increasing the supply of nurses in Vermont, and updating the laws overseeing town tree wardens, as well as other bills. We also passed a large bill with changes to professional regulations in Vermont, including provisions that will require massage therapists and other body workers to meet certain professional standards and register with the state to allow for greater oversight of the profession. I am proud to have led efforts to ensure clients of massage therapists are better protected from unprofessional and hurtful conduct, after a case in Addison County where over 70 women were victims of voyeurism at a massage therapy practice. The work the Vermont Legislature did this session was expansive and important to Vermonters and our state. It has been an honor to be a part of it.
Voting in the General Election
Have you voted yet? Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd. With an important presidential election at stake, 2020 is a crucial year for everyone to vote. If you’re an active voter in Vermont, you should have been mailed a ballot for the general election. If you have not yet sent in your ballot, make a plan to vote:
- If you have a ballot, you can return it by mail by October 24 or at the drop box at your town clerk’s office before November 3.
- If you didn’t receive a ballot by mail (or misplaced it), you can register to vote and/or request an absentee ballot online or by calling your town clerk.
- You can vote safely in person on November 3 with your mail ballot, or register and vote the same day.
Check out the Vermont Secretary of State’s website for more information on how to vote or watch this great video created by the staff at VTDigger. Voting is an important right and responsibility, so vote and remind your friends and family to vote too!
Finally, it continues to be crucial that we all stay vigilant and follow COVID-19 public health protocols, including staying home when feeling ill, always wearing masks when around anyone not in your immediate household, maintaining physical distance from others, and washing hands frequently. With COVID cases increasing, even in Vermont, we all must do our part to protect each other from the virus and also ensure that schools and businesses can safely remain open, especially as we move into colder weather months. You can visit the Department of Health website for more information.
If you have questions, please feel free to contact me. I am juggling quite a few work and family duties right now, but I will do my best to get back to you within a few days. Enjoy the fall colors while they last. Stay safe and be well.