Issues, Legislation/Bills

Mid-Session Crossover Update

Last week was Crossover Week in the VT Legislature, meaning it was the deadline for House and Senate policy committees to finalize bills, so they can pass in one chamber and crossover to the other. While there are procedural means to move bills that don’t meet the crossover deadline, most bills that didn’t make the cut will have to wait until next year. The short timeline and high stakes made for an extremely busy and stressful week. I’m proud that between my two committees, we passed ten bills last week.

Government Operations
The Senate Government Operations Committee, which I chair, has broad jurisdiction over how government functions in Vermont, so our bills cover a significant range of topics, keeping our minds nimble and our meetings interesting. One of the most significant bills we passed last week was a bill which will be the Vermont Public Safety Communications Modernization Act of 2023, to provide state-level oversight and organization of public safety dispatch communications and integration of 911 and dispatch operations. For over 50 years, Vermont has been debating ways to provide consistent, equitable, reliable public safety services and communications across all communities in the state (the first official study of the topic was in 1970!). The current patchwork system works for some areas but not others, and the oversight and funding is insufficient and inequitable. Our bill would expand the scope and authority of the current Enhanced 911 Board to enable them to also oversee public safety dispatch standards and funding for fire, EMS, and law enforcement entities. Our goal has been to preserve what’s working and fix what’s not, particularly in areas, such as Addison County, where dispatch operations are fragmented and tenuous. It’s crucial that no matter where an emergency occurs, Vermonters can trust that their calls for help will be answered quickly and reliably. It’s been an honor to help spearhead this landmark legislation.

The Committee finalized S.17 a bill on sheriff reforms which was spurred by numerous cases over the past few years of Vermont sheriffs committing illegal or unethical acts, including abuse of office, sexual assault, illegal use of force, and financial misuse. I introduced this bill after the Addison County sheriff was arrested for sexual assault last year and refused to resign from office. While there are certainly ethical and well-respected sheriffs in Vermont, and we worked with several of them on this bill, the troubling patterns of behavior across the state indicate that the office needs systemic reform. This bill is a first step because the Legislature is limited in what we can require of sheriffs and how we can penalize those who misuse their office. Our Committee is also working on a constitutional amendment which will provide greater ability to oversee sheriffs and remove them from office if they commit serious offenses, so stay tuned.

After several weeks of negotiation with the State Treasurer, the VT Pensions Investment Commission (VPIC), and environmental advocates from Third Act, the Committee unanimously passed S.42 to create a plan of action and divest the State pension funds from fossil fuel companies. The bill lays out a framework and timeline for the work, and ensures accountability through regular reports to the Legislature. The bill also provides clearly defined exemptions and assurances that VPIC must maintain its fiduciary responsibility to healthy pension fund rates of return on behalf of retirees. During our work on the bill, we heard strong support for our efforts from writer and advocate Bill McKibben, a Ripton resident and leader of the divestment movement.

With another presidential election looming next year, the Committee dove into S.32 a bill about ranked-choice voting (RCV), hoping to enact the method for use in the 2024 presidential primary. With time short, however, we decided to provide towns with the option of using RCV for local elections beginning in 2024 if voters or selectboards approve, create a study committee to explore the potential use of RCV in 2026, and set in motion the work to be ready to use RCV for the 2028 presidential primary. Senators practiced using RCV, a voting method already used in Burlington, other cities throughout the country, and states such as Maine and Alaska, to rank our favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavors (Cherry Garcia won!). We hope voters will get the same sweet experience when they use RCV for the first time in a state or local election.

Finally, the Committee passed a bill that would improve the support and compensation for legislators. Over the past several years, numerous legislators have resigned or declined to run for another term because they can’t support themselves or their family with the very modest salary we’re paid, and holding an additional job is difficult given the long hours and schedule of the legislative session. This makes legislative office only accessible to people with means, spousal support, or retirees, so it’s difficult to attract and retain diverse legislators with varying perspectives. Legislators with children have an especially difficult time making the job work. The legislative compensation bill, S.39, would make legislators eligible for the same fringe benefits other state employees receive and would reset legislative compensation starting in 2025 to be equivalent to the average pay in Vermont, meaning that legislators would be treated just like the average Vermonter or state employee. We heard compelling testimony from legislators of all parties and hope that it will help more Vermonters be able to step up and run for office.

Childcare and Early Childhood Education
The comprehensive childcare and early childhood education bill that I introduced, S.56, passed out of the Health and Welfare Committee last week, and while the bill does not include everything I hoped it would, it’s still a monumental step forward for support of childcare and families with young children. The bill would dramatically increase both subsidies for families and reimbursement rates for providers, meaning that childcare would be less expensive for families and more financially viable for childcare centers and home-care programs. The current version of the bill also includes a parental leave benefit that would enable at least one parent to stay home with an infant or newly adopted child for up to 12 weeks, making financial support for parental care an integral part of our overall childcare system. While this bill has a long way to go before it becomes law and I know significant changes are still likely, I’m proud of my efforts to get this ball rolling after years of work on childcare policy.

All of these bills have a long path ahead of them, and even as I write this, other Senate committees are working on the budget and finance impacts of each of them. They will come to the Floor for a full vote of the Senate later this week or next, and then move on to the House. Plus there are other significant bills moving through the Senate, including a major housing bill that we hope will significantly increase access to affordable housing throughout the state. I’ll try to keep you posted on things as more bills progress and decisions are made.

Until then, I’ll leave you with some stories from around my district, including an innovative employment program for formerly incarcerated women getting started at Middlebury College and a panel discussion about military spending on The Problem with Jon Stewart, featuring Rochester resident Lizzy Shackelford, a former US diplomat and fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Thanks for reading and be well.

Note: the photo above is of me this past Monday at the Mary Johnson Children’s Center with Darcy Bean and Kristin Dunne, leaders of the Center and former teachers of my own children who attended MJCC.