COVID-19, Issues

New Legislative Session Begins

This past week, the Vermont General Assembly began the new 2021-22 biennial session. The Senate met in person the first day, with 19 of 30 of us carefully gathering in the Senate chamber to be sworn in and approve rules for our work this year, including the ability to again legislate remotely, at least until March. We elected as the President Pro Tempore the first woman to ever lead the Vermont Senate, Senator Becca Balint, and the first woman of color elected to the Vermont Senate, Senator Kesha Ram, was sworn in. In fact, for the first time ever, none of Vermont’s legislative leaders of any party are white men.

It was good to be back in the State House briefly, but our strange and historic first day was quickly overshadowed by the horrific events in Washington DC, where an armed mob, incited by President Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol while Congress was meeting to certify the presidential election results. At least five people died as a result of this terrorist attack, the historic building was trashed, and the tenets of our democracy were threatened. Legislators, staffers, reporters, and security officers were terrorized, including members of Vermont’s delegation and other Vermonters working in the building.

Most of Vermont’s state elected leaders quickly expressed our disgust at Trump’s central role in the insurrection. The Governor issued a strong statement condemning the violence and calling for Trump’s immediate removal from office. The Legislature quickly followed suit and passed a joint resolution condemning the incident and calling for the resignation or removal of President Trump. You can read the full resolution here. Given that it’s unlikely Trump will resign or be removed by his cabinet, it’s imperative that Congress acts quickly to impeach and convict this dangerous president. We cannot let this unprecedented blatant attack on our democracy stand without strong and direct consequences for the person most responsible. Members of Congress and other officials who were complicit in spreading lies about the election, provoking this attack, or failing to quell it must also be held accountable. Finally, we also must move forward as a democracy and a country, and I’m looking forward to the inauguration of our new president, Joe Biden, and first woman of color as vice president, Kamala Harris. A new day is coming.

Committee Assignments and Overview
On Friday, the Senate Committee on Committees assigned senators to our 2021-22 committees, which indicates where much of our policy focus will be over the next two years. I will serve as Vice Chair of the Health and Welfare Committee and a member of the Finance Committee. During a global pandemic and related financial crisis, I cannot think of two committees more important to the safety and recovery of Vermont, its people, and economy. Legislative leaders have made it clear that our continued COVID response and recovery is the Legislature’s first priority during this session, so these committees will be busy.

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee has jurisdiction over matters relating to healthcare, eldercare, and social & economic security, so all bills covering these topics will be assigned to this committee for further discussion and revision. This coming week we will have our first briefing from Vermont’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Mark Levine. I have heard from many constituents with questions and concerns about the state’s vaccination process, and I will be asking the Commissioner for justification and clarification of the current plan. We will also be investigating the COVID-19 response more broadly, hearing from leaders across all health and welfare areas. A strong focus of the Committee will be on improvements to our state’s fragmented childcare system. The pandemic has underscored just how important access to high quality, affordable childcare is to families, particularly mothers, who have been disproportionately impacted by a lack of family care services during this crisis.

The Senate Finance Committee, which I’ve heard called “the Atlanta Airport of legislative committees” because so many bills go in and out of the committee, has a broad jurisdiction covering anything that impacts revenues of the State (including all taxes and fees), banking, insurance, utilities, and corporations. This week we will hear briefings about the status of the federal Coronavirus Relief Funding (CRF) and recent federal stimulus package, as well as the state Education Fund, which funds Vermont’s PK-12 schools.

Recent projections forecast a $58 million deficit in the Education Fund and the Commissioner of Taxes estimates projected school budgets could translate into a 9% education property tax increase for FY22. While there are many state and local decisions that are likely to reduce these figures before the end of the legislative session (see this JFO memo for more information), given that the State spends $1.8 billion on PK-12 education through a mix of sales & use and property taxes, this will be an ongoing discussion throughout the session.

A major focus of the Finance Committee will be methods to expand affordable access to broadband throughout Vermont. Like with childcare, the pandemic has underscored both the necessity for and inequitable access to high speed internet service, which is essential for work, education, and medical services at home. Finally, we’ll review recommendations from the Vermont Tax Structure Commission, which is completing a two-year, in-depth review of our state’s tax system, a draft of which you can find here. I don’t expect any significant restructuring immediately, but there may be ideas that could make our tax system more equitable and effective moving forward out of the pandemic.

I will definitely miss my work on the Education and Agriculture Committees, which will also be busy discussing the COVID recovery of schools & colleges and farms & food producers, respectively. A major focus of the Education Committee is likely to be the status of higher education, including the budget crisis at UVM and especially the restructuring of the Vermont State College System following recommendations from the Select Committee on the Future of Higher Education in Vermont. I will again be introducing a bill on scholarship aid for CCV and VSC students, which I hope will be incorporated into these plans. The Education and Finance Committees may work together on proposals to modify the school funding formula as a result of a pre-pandemic report on Pupil Weighting Factors in our current system. I anticipate that the Agriculture Committee will be reviewing the lessons learned from farms and producers during the pandemic about ways to make Vermont farms more resilient and sustainable, environmentally and financially. I hope also to work with my colleagues on the Committee to address food insecurity issues, especially for children and seniors.

COVID Update
As you know, COVID-19 continues to rage across our state and country, with cases in Addison County increasing sharply as well. The County has seen over 200 new cases in the past two weeks, with 80 of those linked to a Christmas service at a Vergennes church. As I have for the past 10 months, I cannot stress to you enough that we all must remain safe and vigilant – wear a mask, wash hands, don’t gather with others, stay home if you’re feeling sick, and get tested if you have gathered or been exposed. You can read the latest update from the Department of Health and check out the daily COVID statistics online. Find testing information and schedules and information about the vaccination rollout from the Health Department and UVM Health Network online as well. While Vermonters are slowly being vaccinated, this does not prevent the virus from spreading to the vast majority of us who have not yet received the vaccine.

The events of last week underscored both how fragile and how strong our democracy is, and how glad I am to be part of it. It’s an honor to serve my constituents in the Vermont Senate and take part in the rituals, traditions, and requirements of Vermont’s state government. We all are part of our American democracy, and we need to protect and cherish it. Stay safe and take care.