Issues, Legislation/Bills

Late March 2022 Update

The late-March snow and mud made for typical conditions for the last day of Maple Open House weekend yesterday, which was still a sweet treat despite the weather. Also in typical late-March fashion, the Legislature has been spending long hours debating major bills on the floor. This past week, the Senate passed a number of significant bills spanning multiple areas of concern including redistricting, education, environmental policy, criminal justice, and ethics. Below are some highlights, and you can find information about the status of any bill on the General Assembly website.

H.722 Reapportionment of House and Senate Districts
The Senate unanimously approved a new map of state senate districts to align with population changes recorded in the 2020 U.S. Census. While there were significant changes to the senate districts to our north due to population shifts in northern Vermont, the Addison District remained fairly stable. However, I’m thrilled to welcome Rochester to the Addison District! I look forward to knocking on doors and getting to know the people of this lovely town where my family has spent many July days participating in the Green Mountain Suzuki Institute summer music camp over the years. The House also approved new districts and both will soon go to the Governor for his approval.

S.287 Student Equity Adjustments to the VT School Funding Formula
This complex bill is the result of many years of research and analysis about whether to update the “pupil weights” used in Vermont’s school funding formula to facilitate school districts equitably raising revenue to educate certain types of students, including students living in poverty, English language learners, and students in very rural areas. Last year, I co-chaired the Pupil Weighting Task Force whose work laid much of the groundwork for the details of S.287. Vermont’s school funding system is complex and interactive, meaning that any change for one school district or to one element of the formula has ripple effects across the state, because each school district pays into and draws from a collective, statewide education fund. To learn more about the history and details of Vermont’s school funding system and the impact of S.287, you can watch the video of me reporting the bill on the senate floor, or read the first part of my bill report or a briefer summary of the bill I prepared for colleagues. I’ve spent much of my career working on education finance and policy, so while the tremendous amount of work that’s gone into this bill has been politically frustrating at times, it’s been an honor to be a part of ongoing efforts to improve our education funding system for the benefit of students.

S.148 Environmental Justice in Vermont
Vermont is one of the few states that lacks an environmental justice policy that works to prevent disproportionate impacts of environmental harm, including pollution, toxins, climate disasters, waste disposal, and infrastructure failures, on vulnerable communities such as people of color, indigenous communities, people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. Thus, S.148 establishes a framework, definitions, metrics, and strategies to ensure meaningful engagement and a more equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Under S.148, this work, which is also required by federal law, would roll out over the next several years with the help of a new Environmental Justice Council and in conjunction with Vermont’s Climate Action Plan. It’s wonderful to see this important bill that I co-sponsored move forward.

S.197 Student Mental Health Supports
The past two years of the COVID pandemic have spurred a mental health crisis for many people, perhaps most especially students, who have missed many weeks of in-person school, extra-curricular activities, and important time with friends. As the mother of two teenagers, I know first-hand the impact isolation, uncertainty, and loss has had on kids. Schools and mental health agencies have been unable to keep up with the demand for services due to staffing shortages, and educators themselves have not always had access to the mental health supports they personally need in order to better help their students. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee, where I’m Vice Chair, sought to tackle these problems with S.197, which provides funding and program supports for both school- and community-based afterschool programs. The bill appropriates $3 million in federal funds to support evidence-based strategies to address educators’ wellness and trauma-responsive school practice and students’ social, emotional, mental health, and wellness needs.

S.171 State Code of Ethics
After many years of debate, the Senate approved S.171 which would implement a state code of ethics that applies to all public servants: people elected or appointed to serve as officers of the State or members of the General Assembly, all State employees, and all individuals who in any other way are authorized to act or speak on behalf of the State. The Code lays out provisions for conflicts of interest, unethical content, preferential treatment, misuse of resources and information, acceptance of gifts, and training and oversight for these provisions. Vermont is one of the few states without a comprehensive code of ethics for public servants, so this legislation is long overdue.

S.219 Use of Public Funds for Private and Religious School Tuition
It’s rare that I break from my Democratic colleagues in the Senate on major issues, but I was compelled to speak up and vote against S.219, which passed the Senate last week. The bill attempts to establish guardrails for the use of public tuition funds by private and religious schools. Over the past several years, numerous court decisions have determined that if states provide funds to any private schools (as Vermont does with its school tuition program), they can’t withhold funds from religious schools. With all good intentions, S.219 tries to set limits on the use of state funds to prevent discrimination or the promotion of religion. However, with a major U.S. Supreme Court case pending in Maine, it’s possible that S.219 could make such limits muddier for Vermont. The cleanest solution would be to eliminate public funding for private or religious K-12 schools altogether, and to find agreeable means for continuing the four historic academies as designated public schools. The provisions of S.219 further legitimize the entanglement of public funds in private and religious education at a time when public schools need our support more than ever.

S.4 Procedures Involving Firearms
As I reported a month ago, the Legislature passed S.30, a gun violence prevention bill that would have closed the Charleston loophole, clarified extreme-risk protection order and emergency relief from abuse laws, and prohibited guns in hospitals, among other provisions. Unfortunately the Governor vetoed the bill and offered what he called a compromise, which would only partially close the Charleston loophole. Under current law, someone can purchase a gun after three days even if a federal background check isn’t complete, causing a loophole in which 3% of gun buyers can purchase a gun without a completed background check, as did the shooter in a tragic 2015 mass-shooting in Charleston, SC. Scott’s compromise extends the period to seven days, which helps, but doesn’t fully close the loophole. Before passing S.4, which contains the compromise language, the Senate overrode the Governor’s veto of S.30, but the House did not have the votes to do so. Although I’m frustrated that the compromise doesn’t go far enough, I’m heartened that some progress was made, with the Governor signing S.4 into law last week.

Supreme Court Justice Confirmed
In stark contrast to the horrible behavior at the federal level, with Republican senators badgering and interrupting Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson during her U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings, the Vermont Senate unanimously confirmed Judge Nancy Waples as the first woman of color to serve on the Vermont Supreme Court after an amicable hearing before our Judiciary Committee. It was an honor to cast a vote in support of Judge Waples’s historic nomination.

This week on the Senate floor we’ll tackle bills related to housing, health care, and public pensions, as our committees turn their attention to the many bills that have come to us from the House, including the Big Bill – the FY23 State Budget. Stay tuned!

Finally, a quick COVID comment, with a new variant on the rise and several Vermont counties again in the “high transmission” range, be sure to get your vaccine shot if you can, including a booster. Full vaccination is the best protection against severe illness and death. Stay safe and well!