COVID-19, Issues, Legislation/Bills

Early April Update

Happy Spring, and Easter for those who celebrate! Although spring in Vermont includes plenty of mud, snow flurries, and wind (even tornadoes!), I’ve been grateful for the sunny days. The daffodils in my yard are budding up, and I hope the flowers near you are too.

The legislative session continues to be busy as we do our best to tackle important, complex issues remotely. The Senate has passed more than 40 bills, sending them to the House for their work and then hopefully on to the Governor for his signature before they could become law. Below is information about a few of those bills, as well as an update on the status of COVID and the state employee and teacher pension situation.

COVID Cases & Vaccines
It’s important to remember that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic and unfortunately, COVID cases and hospitalizations in Vermont continue to rise. Last week, we had the highest new case rate ever, with most positive cases among Vermonters in their twenties. Despite this, the Governor announced that Vermont college students from out-of-state would not be eligible for vaccinations, which includes most college students in our community. Read this excellent piece from the student editors at The Middlebury Campus about the Governor’s decision.

Over the past several weeks, now that the vast majority of Vermonters over age 65 have received the vaccination, I have advocated that the Governor change his approach to vaccinations. I believe we should now open up vaccinations to everyone, with targeted outreach and access for specific, vulnerable communities. Sticking to the age-bands, even for three more weeks, is no longer working as cases continue to rise. We should stop excluding and dividing Vermonters and allow everyone to sign up to be vaccinated. Read my commentary in VTDigger which lays out more details of how I think we can get as many Vermonters vaccinated as possible, equitably and effectively.

Unfortunately, the Governor is sticking to his piecemeal approach. So if your age-band or demographic group is eligible to be vaccinated, I encourage you to sign up. Starting tomorrow, everyone aged 40 and over is eligible, as well as all BIPOC Vermonters; people with certain health conditions and the parents/caregivers of children with certain health conditions; teachers, school staff, and childcare providers; and frontline healthcare and public safety workers. I have signed up and will receive my first shot this week. For more information how and where to get the COVID vaccine, visit the Department of Health website.

Pension Problem Update
Early in the legislative session, the State Treasurer released a report announcing that the state pension funds for state employees and local teachers were in financial trouble and that significant changes would be required to address this crisis. Most of the changes the Treasurer identified would significantly cut employee benefits and place a huge financial burden on state workers and teachers. The timing couldn’t have been worse as these employees have been working extremely hard to keep our schools and state government operating during a pandemic. It’s also been frustrating and difficult for legislators to understand and tackle such a complex topic when we’re serving remotely and in-person conversations with colleagues, staff, and advocates cannot take place.

I have done my best, during a difficult time, to keep constituents informed. I addressed the topic in my February Update and have spent many hours talking with and exchanging emails with public employees in my district, although I’m sorry that I have not been able to keep up with the hundreds of the messages I have received. In early March, I spoke at a forum with a large group of local teachers and expressed my support, and encouraged them to continue to speak up, which they have. I have also tried to learn as much as possible about the complicated problem, talking with fiscal analysts, investment professionals, economists, and an insightful math teacher. If you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to read some of the excellent presentations from the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office.

From the beginning, I have made it clear to Senate leadership that I could not support a solution that was rushed, unduly and inequitably harmed the financial stability of teachers and state employees, and did not include new revenue as part of the fix. It also seems clear that changes need to be made to how the funds are governed. As a proposal for a new revenue source to help ease the problem, I co-sponsored S.59 which would provide dedicated revenue to reduce the state retirement liabilities.

The House took the lead in drafting a proposal to meet the challenge, and eleven days ago unveiled a preliminary plan to address governance and structural issues with the pension funds. The Senate was not involved in crafting the plan and was taken by surprise by the content, which would have imposed significant financial burdens on employees. I made it clear to Senate leadership that I would not support such a plan. Fortunately, after listening to feedback on the proposal during two public hearings and many communications from teachers and state employees, the House abandoned its plan. Friday, the Senate Pro Tem issued a statement saying that the we would not make structural changes to the pension plans now, but move forward with an off-session task force to address this complex problem more fully, and would include significant one-time funding in the state budget to help address some of the unfunded liability.

I know this has been an extremely difficult few months for public employees as they have worried about the outcome of this process, and unfortunately, we have not found a solution yet. However, I’m hopeful that we can tackle the problem with more time and without the pressure of the busy legislative session and an ongoing pandemic. I am grateful to all of the teachers and state employees who reached out to me constructively and thoughtfully to express their concerns and opinions. I hope you know that you were heard by me and legislative leadership.

Highlights of a Few Bills
As I mentioned, the Senate has passed over 40 bills so far this session, some significant, some mundane. None of these bills have become law yet, as they must be approved by the House and signed by the Governor first. Below are a few highlights, and I hope to have a link to more summaries soon. You can also search for the status of bills on the Legislative website and reach out to me if you have questions.

Voting by Mail. The Senate passed S.15 which would require ballots be mailed to all active voters prior to November general elections, as was done for the 2020 election. In 2020, universal vote-by-mail provisions increased voter turnout significantly, with 73% of eligible voters in Vermont voting, breaking the state’s turnout record. The bill also includes provisions for how absentee voters can correct defective ballots and other measures to improve voter access and voting procedures. By making elections more accessible, Vermont is working toward a more equitable democracy. This bill, which passed with tri-partisan support, stands in stark contrast to voter suppression laws being considered in most other states.

COVID Relief Measures. Meant as a preliminary relief package to get funding out to Vermonters as soon as possible, H.315 includes dozens of provisions that will help start or continue important COVID relief and economic recovery initiatives. A conference committee between the House and Senate is still working out final details, but you can read a preliminary summary of funding provisions, which would include significant funds for broadband, housing, mental health programs, school in-door air quality, brownfield remediation, business grants, and more.

Housing. The Senate has been doing considerable work to improve access to affordable, quality housing in communities throughout Vermont. S.79 would improve the health and safety of rental housing with better safety standards and inspections process, as well as a rental housing registry and a program to refurbish non-code compliant or vacant rental units. S.101 would promote housing choices and opportunities in “smart-growth” areas by creating incentives and resources to support municipalities in modernizing zoning regulations and removing hurdles to constructing new housing with a focus on downtowns and village centers. Several other bills also include provisions to fund and improve access to housing.

School Disciplinary Advisory Council. Across the country and in Vermont, BIPOC and students with disabilities are disciplined at higher rates than their peers, leading to increased risk of academic failure, entering the juvenile justice system, and dropping out of school. S.16 would create a Council to collect and analyze data regarding student discipline in Vermont’s public and independent schools, including suspensions and expulsions in each school district, to guide policy-making and measure the fairness and efficacy of current policies. The bill would also prohibit the expulsion of students under eight years old, unless they pose a danger to others in the school.

Toxic Chemicals. S.20 would impose restrictions on the manufacture, sale, use, and distribution of products containing perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) and other chemicals, including firefighting foam, food packaging, rugs, ski wax, and other products. These chemicals have been linked to significant negative health consequences. This bill, which passed unanimously, is an important step in preventing the spread of these toxic chemicals.

There are many more important bills on the table. Senate bills are now under consideration in the House and the Senate is working on House bills. Last week my morning committee, Health and Welfare, began work on the H.171, a bill related to the structure and financing of Vermont’s childcare system, and my afternoon committee, Finance, began work on H.360, a bill related to accelerating community broadband deployment in Vermont. The importance of equitable and affordable access to both childcare and broadband has been starkly highlighted during the pandemic, so I’m thrilled to be able to directly shape both of these crucial pieces of legislation.

There’s much more to come, but that’s it for now. Finally, I highly recommend taking a look at the photography exhibit online at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History, Faces of Addison County: A Trent Campbell Retrospective. These beautiful photographs from the amazing former Addison County Independent photographer will definitely make you smile. Stay safe and well.