Issues, Legislation/Bills

February Legislative Update

I’ve heard from a lot of constituents with questions, concerns, or ideas about bills we’re considering and I’m not able to respond to everyone individually, so read more for information and details on the affordable heat act, protected health care, protecting public schools, the budget adjustment, and childcare legislation.

Affordable Heat Act
Last week the Senate Natural Resources Committee passed the Affordable Heat Act, S.5. There’s been a lot of attention and misinformation directed at this bill, but it’s important to know that it’s meant to both save Vermonters money and reduce green house gas emissions and climate change. Its basic structure is modeled after the hugely successful Efficiency Vermont program which has reduced electric usage and saved Vermonters billions of dollars over the past two decades. Below are a few key points about the bill:

  • The best way to reduce heating bills is to get off of fossil fuels, which are significantly more expensive and volatile than renewable energy sources.
  • We all need help to make this transition to slow climate change and save money. The Affordable Heat Act will make clean heat installations and biofuels much more affordable.
  • It does this by requiring fuel importers to subsidize clean heat installations and biofuels, creating an incentive for them to diversify their business and become “heating service providers” rather than simply fossil fuel dealers. This will help make their business more sustainable and create a skilled workforce.
  • The Affordable Heat Act specifically prioritizes low- and moderate-income households to receive heat-saving and carbon-saving installations and biofuels, making the transition affordable for all of us.

The bill has a long way to go before it becomes law, and I know it’s not perfect, but I plan to vote for the bill when it comes to the Senate floor because it moves us in the right direction to reduce the use of fossil fuels, save Vermonters money, and combat climate change. As my kids remind me, passing the Affordable Heat Act is the least we can do to make the future more sustainable for their generation.

Protected Health Care
In the wake of the US Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and actions in other states to criminalize both abortion care and gender-affirming health care, we are working on legislation to protect patients who need this vital care, their families, and the medical providers who care for them in Vermont. The House has already passed H.89 which addresses civil and criminal protections and the Senate Health and Welfare Committee is working on S.37 which addresses regulation of health care providers and services. Both bills use the same definition of “legally protected health care” to include both abortion care and gender-affirming care. H.89 would protect patients and providers from civil and criminal penalties for seeking or providing such care in Vermont. S.37 protects health care providers from medical license or malpractice insurance penalties for providing such care in Vermont, and protects patient privacy and access to such care in Vermont. Vermonters in every town affirmed their support for protecting reproductive health care by voting for the Reproductive Liberty Constitutional Amendment last November. Vermont law prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and medical research shows that gender-affirming care is life-saving, essential health care for individuals suffering from gender dysphoria. I am angry that national politics have made these bills necessary, but proud to be a leader in introducing and advancing this critical legislation to protect Vermonters.

Public School Protections
Similarly, the US Supreme Court decision in Carson v. Makin last year has put public school education at risk: if public funding is provided to any private schools, this decision requires public funds to go to religious schools, even if they discriminate against students and teachers. This is especially challenging in Vermont because we have one of the least restrictive “school choice” programs in the country, with school districts in about 80 small towns tuitioning some or all of their students to public schools in neighboring towns or private schools nearby, or even in other states and countries. According to the Supreme Court, this now must also include religious schools. In order to make clear that taxpayer dollars would only go to public schools and would not be used to discriminate against students or educators, I introduced S.66 which would limit school tuition funding to public schools, including the historic academies in St. Johnsbury, Thetford, Manchester, and Lyndon. These four schools have generally been considered public schools: they were charted by the VT Legislature, operate public career & technical education centers, have teachers in the public pension system, and have been defined as public schools in state law. The bill would permit school districts to continue to contract for specialized services at therapeutic schools for students with disabilities whose individualized education plans require specific services that cannot be provided in a regular school setting. This is a complicated issue (listen to me and others discuss the bill on Vermont Public). I know it’s wrenching for areas of the state where “school choice” is the norm , and there will certainly be more court cases in Vermont and nationally as this issue is sorted out. However, I believe it’s important to protect students and educators from discrimination, affirm Vermont’s constitutional right to an equal public school education, and ensure that public taxpayer funds are spent appropriately and equitably.

Budget Adjustment Act
This week the Senate will pass the Budget Adjustment Act, H.145, which makes standard adjustments to the state budget we passed last year. The bill invests in rental assistance and housing, and essential social services such as adult day programs like Elderly Services in Middlebury, and funds health and safety testing for the state cannabis market. I have heard from many organic dairy farmers who were hoping the Budget Adjustment would include emergency relief funding for their operations. Unfortunately, that funding was removed from the Budget Adjustment by the Senate Appropriations Committee because more work was needed to start up this new grant program. The Senate Agriculture Committee has committed to developing a bill to create this new program, with the goal of passing it later this session. I will keep track of these efforts and advocate for moving a bill forward as quickly as possible.

Childcare and Early Childhood Education
A few weeks ago, I and other senators introduced a comprehensive childcare and early childhood education bill, S.56. The bill would: 1) significantly increase financial assistance for children at community and home-based childcare programs, and afterschool and summer programs; 2) expand the current part-time pre-K program to a full-time, school-based program for all 4-year-old children in Vermont; 3) increase compensation for early childhood educators and financial support for community and home-based childcare programs; and 4) elevate and streamline state-level leadership and oversight of childcare and early childhood education. To read more about the bill, check out my op-ed in the Addison Independent or VT Digger, and stay tuned for more information as this important bill evolves and moves through the Legislature.

Each of these bills, and much of the major legislation we’re working on require us to do things differently. We have to heat our homes differently due to climate change, provide health care and public education differently due to a radical Supreme Court, and fund childcare differently due to the impact of demographic and workforce challenges, especially in light of the pandemic. Change is hard, but the last three years have shown us that Vermonters are resilient and creative in the face of challenges. I know we can do this together.

I leave you with this story, about an amazing school bus driver in Vergennes, who does her job with resilience, creativity, and kindness. Thanks for reading and be well.

Photo note: A Senate Selfie of most of the women in the Senate, gathered for a Galentine’s Day Party 🙂

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