We are moving in to what I hope will be our final month of a difficult legislative session so the race is on to finish bills, most importantly the Big Bill – the FY22 Vermont State Budget which will include millions of dollars of federal funding relief from the American Rescue Plan Act. I’ll provide details on the budget in a later email, but for now, I want to update you on the status of COVID vaccines and a few bills moving along toward completion.
As of last Monday, the final age band, Vermonters 16 and older became eligible for COVID vaccines. As of this Wednesday everyone in the state, including Vermont college students who are from out-of-state, will be eligible to sign up for a vaccine appointment. Starting Saturday, states were again able to administer the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, after a national pause due to an extremely rare blood clotting issue.
Demand for vaccines in Vermont remains strong, and I encourage anyone who can be vaccinated to make an appointment. If you have concerns about getting the vaccine, talk with your doctor. There are quite a few options for where to be vaccinated, including many local pharmacies and also state-run or special clinics. Middlebury College will hold a special clinic this Wednesday for Addison County residents of color, in partnership with the Rutland Area NAACP and VT Department of Health. I received my first shot earlier this month at a clinic staffed by the Vermont National Guard, who are doing a great job assisting with the state’s vaccination efforts. Everyone can get more information and sign up for a vaccine appointment via the Department of Health website.
This past week was spring break for most schools in Vermont. Vermonters ages 16-18 were given a bit of a head start to schedule vaccine appointments for their age group so they could snag appointments for the Pfizer vaccine which is the only one approved for their age group. I hope the high schoolers who could finally get vaccinated took advantage of the flexibility of break to get their first jabs. With many secondary schools restarting at near full capacity over the next few weeks, getting those who can be vaccinated started with their shots is an important step toward making our schools safer. I know excitement and anxiety about returning to school is high among teens, so anything we can do to make schools healthier and less stressful is important.
Chauvin Trial Verdict
Last Tuesday, a jury in Minneapolis found White police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all three counts of murder and manslaughter for the May 2020 killing of George Floyd. The murder of Floyd, an African-American man, was captured on video by a 17-year-old girl and initiated a summer of protests nationwide about the persistent police use of force against people of color, especially Black men. Historically, very few police officers have been convicted for the use of force or death of civilians, so the Chauvin verdict was welcomed by many as a potential turn-of-the-tide, or at least a moment of important racial justice.
I know many people of color experienced mixed emotions upon hearing the verdict, and I know also that there is so much more work to be done to ensure fair policing and justice for everyone in our country. On Friday, the Vermont Senate passed H.145 which creates stricter standards for law enforcement use of force, building on work we did last session to ban the use of chokeholds. This bill narrows the circumstances for justifiable homicide, tightens the situations and standards for use of force by law enforcement, and updates provisions related to the use of chokeholds. The bill, which passed on a tripartisan roll call vote, includes this sentence, “Every person has a right to be free from excessive use of force by officers acting under authority of the State.” The bill will now go back to the House for concurrence before going to the Governor for his signature.
Health and Welfare Committee Work
Last week the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where I am Vice Chair, passed six bills out of committee that will hit the Senate floor this week. The bills include H.171 that will provide significant resources to improve the affordability, accessibility, and quality of early childhood education in Vermont, benefiting children, families, providers, and our economy. The bill appropriates $5.5 million to expand the childcare financial assistance program to provide more families subsidies to pay for childcare, especially helping families with multiple children in childcare. The bill also provides resources for scholarships, tuition assistance, and loan repayments for childcare providers, and initiates several studies to improve the childcare system and financing in Vermont. The COVID pandemic has underscored the dire need for affordable, accessible childcare in our state and country. As a mother of three kids who benefited from several excellent early childhood education programs in our community, I was thrilled to help improve and move this important legislation forward. You can see my zoom happy dance when we passed the bill, captured in a tweet from the advocacy organization, Let’s Grow Kids.
The Committee also passed two important bills that would improve health equity in Vermont. The first, H.210 would create a Health Equity Advisory Commission made up of a diverse group of Vermonters representing public health officials, BIPOC and LBGTQ Vermonters, and Vermonters with disabilities that will provide guidance on the development of an Office of Health Equity in the Department of Health, as well as policy, funding, and data collection decisions aimed at identifying and eliminating health disparities and promoting health equity. The second bill, H.430 would create a program modeled after the state’s Dr. Dynasaur program that would provide health care coverage for pregnant individuals and children who are not eligible for Dr. Dynasaur due to their immigration status. This program could greatly benefit the health of migrant families who work on farms in Addison County. For brief descriptions of Senate bills sent over to the House so far this session, check out this list created by our fabulous Senate interns.
Proposed Constitutional Amendments
On April 9th, the Senate passed, for the second time, two proposed amendments to the Vermont Constitution. The first is an amendment that would guarantee personal reproductive liberty and the second would clarify language related to the prohibition of slavery and indentured servitude in Vermont. You can read the remarks I gave on the Senate floor regarding the reproductive liberty proposal before voting in favor of the amendment in memory of my mother who passed away last month. I have heard from many constituents about the reproductive liberty amendment, most of whom strongly support the proposal. I know the topic of reproductive choice sparks passionate stories and opinions, as evidenced by my own remarks. It’s important to note that amending the Vermont Constitution is not easy – it’s a nearly five-year process that requires two votes each by the VT Senate and VT House during different legislative biennia, and then a favorable vote of the People of Vermont during a general election. These proposed amendments still require another vote of the VT House next session, and then will appear on the ballot on Election Day in November 2022. So, regardless of your beliefs, you will get a chance to voice your opinion with your vote.
Green Up Day and Arbor Day
Finally, a reminder that Vermont Green Up Day is this Saturday, May 1st. Sign up to participate in your town’s efforts to pick up trash on roadsides, parks, stream banks, and other high traffic or forgotten areas. Here are the town contacts for Addison County and town contacts for Buels Gore and Huntington. May 7th is Vermont Arbor Day and many communities will be celebrating with tree planting and care activities. In addition, many public libraries in Vermont are providing Arbor Day Celebration Kits for families. Both Green Up Day and Arbor Day are fantastic opportunities to be outside, see neighbors safely, and help keep Vermont a beautiful state!