COVID-19, Issues, Legislation/Bills

The 2022 Legislative Session Begins

Last week we kicked off the 2022 legislative session. It is our third session during this global pandemic and we again began our work remotely. Given the spread of the Omicron variant, we felt that a remote start was best to keep our colleagues, staff, and the public safe, and to ensure we always have a quorum of legislators present to move critical legislation forward for Vermonters. All of us want to be back in the State House together as soon as it’s safe, but for now, we’re good at remote legislating and have jumped to a quick start in passing bills to keep Vermonters safe.

Last week we passed two bills that will again allow town meetings to proceed remotely and for local voting to take place fully through an Australian ballot, rather than a floor vote. I know townspeople would prefer to be together to take part in this wonderful Vermont tradition, but towns can again opt for remote meetings to keep people safe. Town Meeting is March 1 and nearly every town and school district is likely to have openings for seats on local boards or committees. The future of our democracy and health of our small towns is dependent on people, like you, stepping up to run for office or volunteer for a position. Check out your town’s website or learn more from the Vermont League of Cities & Towns or Secretary of State’s website. Step up and run for local office!

Off-Session Committee Work and Session Priorities
During the off-session, many legislators, including me, worked on study committees to engage in in-depth analysis and make recommendations about vexing policy problems. From June through December, I co-chaired the Pupil Weighting Task Force that made recommendations about how to improve our school funding formula to make it more equitable, accountable, and transparent. You can read our comprehensive report and recommendations, which will be the basis for work by the Education, Finance, and Ways & Means Committees this session.

The Vermont Climate Council, created by the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2020, released the Initial Vermont Climate Action Plan last month detailing a series of recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience, ensuring environmental justice, and evaluating progress. The Legislature will work from past initiatives and current Council recommendations to invest federal funds with the goal of making significant headway in the Vermont’s response to climate change.

Yesterday, the Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force released its final report making recommendations on how to improve the financial viability of the Vermont State Employees’ Retirement and Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement Systems and reduce the retiree health care benefits liability. See also this overview of the recommendations. The Task Force included legislators, state employees, and local teachers working together to adopt a collaborative agreement that would invest state funding and restructure retirement benefits for the long-term benefit of state employees, teachers, and state finances. The Government Operations Committees will take the lead on advancing these recommendations. The Task Force on Affordable, Accessible Health Care will release its final recommendations later this week. The work of these groups will make this incredibly busy legislative session a bit less hectic as so much deliberation, collaboration, and research has already gone into these recommendations. I encourage you to take a look at the reports!

In addition to education finance, climate action, pension reform, and health care affordability, the Legislature will continue to focus on the health and economic impact of the COVID pandemic and finish allocating significant federal funding to address these impacts. Major areas of concern are the toll the pandemic has taken on everyone’s mental health, our schools and health care systems, childcare programs, and small businesses; the affordable housing crisis in the state, continued broadband deployment, and the workforce shortage issues across nearly all sectors of the economy. The House will approve final passage of the reproductive liberty constitutional amendment before sending it to voters in November, and the full Legislature will approve newly apportioned legislative districts based on the 2020 U.S. Census. 

I’m sure other bills and issues will be taken up too – it will be an extremely busy legislative session! You can follow along with our work on the Vermont General Assembly website where you can find committee agendas, track bill progress, read testimony, and watch our deliberations online via our livestream links.

COVID Update
All the while, COVID continues to ravage Vermont. I know first-hand that going back to school last week was stressful for teachers and school staff, students, and parents. While many people were able to access rapid tests, not everyone could get them and supplies ran short in many communities. In particular, I heard from families with young children who felt left out of testing efforts. The Department for Children and Families now has a plan to distribute COVID tests through a Tests for Tots Program intended for childcare programs that serve children ages 2-5 years old. The Agency of Education recently announced changes (again!) to its recommended protocols for K-12 schools, saying that schools should no longer complete contact tracing or PCR surveillance tests and that families would now be responsible for these duties at home. Details of how this will work have yet to be explained and I know this is frustrating and worrisome. Local school districts have been working hard this year to keep students and staff safe with often conflicting guidance and little support from the state.

Please do everything you can to keep yourself, family, and community by getting yourself and your kids fully vaccinated and boosted, testing when possible, wearing a mask inside, staying home when sick, and avoiding high-risk indoor gatherings. You can find lots of information about the safe and free COVID vaccine, including where to sign up for a shot, on the VT Department of Health website. If you have questions or concerns about getting the COVID vaccine for you or your child, please speak with your physician.

Finally, a bit of sunshine to end my update. On Saturday, I had fun attending the kickoff celebration of the community-owned Bristol Community Solar Project managed by the Acorn Energy Cooperative. The project was completed late last year on the former Bristol municipal landfill, with nearly 1,700 solar panels of 440 watts each, covering over three acres of land. See above for a photo of the solar arrays under construction. The project was built by Aegis Renewable Energy, with investment from Cooperative Insurance, collaboration with the Town of Bristol, and participation of hundreds of individuals, businesses, towns, faith communities, and non-profit organizations. It was uplifting and hopeful to be a part of such a celebration. Congratulations to everyone involved!

May we all find sunlight and hope at the end of this long, dark COVID tunnel. Stay tuned for more legislative news and stay safe and warm.