The 2023 Legislative session ended and below I’m providing my recap of the session. We got a lot accomplished that will help folks in the Grand Isle-Chittenden district. Before I get to the whole reports, I wanted to share some legislation that I sponsored, or co-sponsored that I'm really proud of.
The first is Universal School Meals, H. 165. My experience at the Champlain Islands Food Shelf has shown me that that hunger is a big problem in our district, and being able to feed all kids breakfast and lunch will go a long in reducing the pressure on families who can't feed their families the way they'd like. Often, two meals provided at school means everyone can eat dinner.
One of the things I’m the proudest of was adding an amendment to the Affordable heat act that specifically addresses the unique challenges mobile home residents face in terms of fossil fuel use and poor weatherization. I was also able to add an amendment to protect joint account holders from misuse of accounts that might be used for online sports betting. I feel these two amendments embody my commitment to the most vulnerable among us and work to protect assets of everyone.
S.100 the Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone features a some truly wonderful pieces. One of them is the eviction diversion piece that Representative Elizabeth Burroughs and I presented as H. 391, an act relating to creating an eviction diversion program. This was a one-year pilot with funding at $1.6 million. The Housing General committee liked it so much, they wove it into the big bill and added a million more to it to help folks with rental arrears and ensure landlords get the back rent they’re owed. 70% of folks who face eviction for back rent own less than $3,000. This bill works to get tenants and landlords into mediation, promises quick payment directly to landlords, and works to keep folks housed.
Agriculture committee update
I loved serving on this committee and found that we strove to be non-partisan in many of the bills we worked on. One of these was the organic dairy crisis. These are challenging times for organic dairy farms, with more than thirty organic farms closing in the last two years. Production costs are skyrocketing, including rising fuel prices and expensive feed due to the Ukraine conflict, inflation, and last summer’s severe drought. Organic farmers do not have the safety net that conventional dairy farmers have because the calculations used in the federal Dairy Margin Coverage program — which helps bridge the gap when dairy prices are lower than production costs — do not take into account costs incurred or prices received by organic farmers. Meanwhile, organic milk prices have not kept pace with conventional milk. In the budget we were able to fund almost $7 million to help Vermont organic dairy farmers.
Universal School Meals became law without the Governor’s signature. He requested that we revisit this bill next year. I suspect we won’t because the benefit of feeding all the kids breakfast and lunch will outweigh the argument that we’re paying for wealthy families to eat. The program is paid for by a three-cent increase on property taxes. 65% of all Vermonters receive some kind of rebate on their property taxes, the remaining 35% do not, so in this instance the wealthy will be paying more and funding the program. The other huge benefit of Universal School meals is the connection to Vermont farms. The more local food school districts purchase the more money they get back from the Federal and Vermont governments. If schools hit between 15-25% of food purchases being local, they get back 15-25 cents per meal served from the Feds and the state. And the more meals served, the more Federal money is available. This will help offset the cost to the state. To put this in perspective 84% of Alburgh students already receive free or reduced meals, and 45% of Grand Isle students receive free or reduced meals. There is a need for this in our district.
H.205 sets up a new one-year pilot to provide grants for small farmers to improve financial resilience. By covering upfront costs, the bill aims to help farmers transition and diversify their products — for example to switch from dairy to beef, or to add hemp or winter vegetables. The bill broadly defines “small” farmers to allow for the greatest participation, and unlike existing programs, farmers would not be expected to provide matching funds. This bill language was folded into the final FY24 budget. Once this program is established, applicants will be selected by the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets based on the viability and projected success of the proposed projects.
The Budget and what it does:
On May 12th the House and Senate gave final approval to a balanced $8.4 billion budget that funds our state government for the 2024 fiscal year. H.494 is a fiscally responsible, values-based budget that invests in top constituent priorities, including housing, childcare, workforce development, climate and conservation, and vital human services that help Vermonters across the state. The Governor vetoed this budget and the veto was overridden on June 20th during the veto session.
The override shows that we’re investing in Vermont, we support our economy, our communities, and our families. We built the budget in a way that steps up to solve problems, rather than kicking the can down the road. This is a responsible approach to good governance — one that carefully weighs costs and benefits, makes tough choices, and then delivers sufficient dollars to meet the needs of today while moving toward a stronger future. Key investments include:
-Housing ($211 million)
The budget includes $109 million to expand affordable housing and $102 million for emergency shelter and support services for unhoused Vermonters, recovery housing, transitional housing for Vermonters exiting prison, and housing for young people exiting the foster care system.
-Raising Provider Rates ($99.7 million)
The budget also contains a major update to rates that support our medical and human services programs. These rates have been underfunded for years, causing a substantial shortfall for providers. We’re boosting the rates for primary and specialty care, dental care, home health, nursing homes and residential care, adult day care, substance use and mental health, ambulance services and more. Increasing these rates will help us attract and retain workforce, meet demand for services, and free up hospital emergency rooms.
-Childcare ($76 million)
This investment — the first in a multi-year system transformation — will make childcare more affordable for families, raise rates to provide financial stability for childcare providers, and boost pay for our valued early childhood workforce.
-Workforce and Higher Education ($74 million)
The budget contains a $47 million package to attract and retain workers in fields with severe shortages, including nursing, dental hygiene, teachers, psychiatric care and the skilled trades. It also funds UVM and Vermont State University, successful scholarship programs like 802 Opportunity and Critical Occupations, adult education, small farms and organic dairy producers, and allocates funds to help small business, rural industry, and working lands enterprises.
-Human Services, Prevention, and Recovery
H.494 starts a $20 million two-year pilot to expand the “hub and spoke” treatment system for opioid use disorder; funds a statewide expansion of mobile crisis units (to relieve pressure on hospital emergency rooms); and invests in recovery centers, recovery housing and after school, youth mentoring and substance misuse prevention programs. It also funds the Vermont Food Bank, Reach Ahead and Prevent Child Abuse Vermont.
-Environment and Climate
The FY24 budget contains significant climate and environmental investments. It invests $9.8 million as a state match for the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Funds. $8 million is allocated for assessment, planning, and cleanup of contaminated “brownfield” sites and $6.1 million will be used to address septic, water, and energy needs of older VT housing stock. The state aquatic invasive species prevention grants program received $500,000 in stabilization funding and a position was also funded to support this program. The budget also provides the Agency of Natural Resources funding to be used as incentives to replace high global warming potential refrigerants and funding to support groundwater remediation due to PFAS contamination (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). There is also funding for the Department of Public Service to help eligible schools to repair, renovate, or replace existing wood chip or pellet heating systems.
-Plus: Investments in E-911 and emergency dispatch, updating our state IT networks and critical infrastructure, addressing staffing shortages in our judiciary system to help with court backlogs, funding the important social equity work of Vermont’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Land Access and Opportunity Board, and a long-overdue increase to Department of Motor Vehicle fees that have not been adjusted to keep pace with inflation since 2016.While it is true this increase was not asked for, it was time to keep the DMV able to pay for itself and not continue to draw funds from the general fund as the administration wanted.
H.217, the Child Care bill
This bill was vetoed by the Governor because he stated he didn’t want an additional payroll tax. To which I counter, the benefits are far more substantial than the $50 a year it will cost people who work. I don’t have children, but I will happily contribute 0.11% as a payroll tax so that more folks qualify for child care assistance. This bill was supported by legislators across party lines, and it builds on the current system to ensure that all partners, families, schools, and early educators have the resources they need to best care for our youngest Vermonters. The bill increases the number of families who will not have any co-pay from 150% of the federal poverty limit to 175%. It also expands eligibility for middle-income Vermonters to 575% of the federal poverty limit. H.217 will infuse over $140 million into the child care sector and, starting next year, will be funded by a payroll tax of 0.44% (employers pay 0.33% and employees pay 0.11%). H.217 passed by a vote of 118-27 and will have a lasting impact on the lives of Vermont families and our economy. Gone will the decision of having one parent stay home and drop out of the work force because child care is too expensive. This often negatively affects women as they’re the one who stay home to raise the kid while their partners continue to work. To be able to have kids in day care will help their careers stay on track and they will continue to earn the pay they should. Also, paying day care providers more makes great sense. These people take care of Vermont children, and this is an important job that should be paid well above minimum wage.
Environment and Energy bills: Affordable Heat: Exploring a Future Solution
Please see my explanation of why I voted to override the Governor's veto of S5. It can be found under the "more" tab.
S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, targets how we heat and cool our buildings. The goal is to help Vermonters save money and reduce pollution by transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner, more sustainable heat. We’d accomplish this not by taxes or mandates, but by requiring fossil-fuel dealers to earn credits. Dealers would earn these credits by helping interested Vermonters — and especially those with fixed, low or moderate incomes — do things like weatherize, install heat pumps, or switch to cleaner fuels at a lower price. In May, the legislature gave final approval to S.5 by overriding Governor Scott’s veto. The Public Utilities Commission will now spend the next two years researching and designing the proposed Clean Heat Standard.
30 by 30: Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection H.126, the “30x30” bill, charts an inclusive path to achieve the permanent conservation of 30% of Vermont’s landscape by 2030 and 50% by 2050. It also funds an updated inventory of the approximately 26% of lands currently conserved, including working lands and old forest.
Housing Omnibus Bill:
Our comprehensive housing bill, known as the HOME bill or S.100, lays the groundwork for more affordable housing stock for Vermont’s working families. It updates our land-use policies to encourage housing development where we want it — in vibrant, livable and walkable downtowns — while discouraging sprawl.
These land-use updates include zoning changes to enable more housing density, like allowing duplexes wherever single-family homes are allowed and at least five housing units per acre in areas served by water and sewer. We also made time-limited changes to Act 250 in growth centers, designated downtowns, village centers, and neighborhood development areas (NDAs) by changing the so-called “10-5-5 rule” (in which building or developing 10+ units within 5 miles in a 5-year period triggers Act 250 review) to a “25-5-5 threshold” (25 units, within 5 miles, in a 5-year period). In designated downtowns, growth centers, and NDAs, we also eliminated the cap on the number of housing units in priority housing projects. Importantly, we also made it harder to appeal much-needed housing projects. Key investments include:
- $49 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to increase the supply of affordable housing (plus $27.5 million in the mid-year FY23 budget adjustment)
- $10 million to the Vermont Housing Improvement Program (VHIP) to rehab apartments that are offline or in violation of building codes, or to build or renovate accessory dwelling units (plus $5 million in the mid-year FY23 budget adjustment)
- $60 million for emergency shelters, temporary housing and supportive housing services
- $7 million to fund recovery housing and housing for youth exiting foster care or Vermonters leaving prison
- $1.2 million to the Vermont Land Access and Opportunity Board, created last year to create opportunities and improve access to woodlands, farmland, and land and home ownership for Vermonters from historically marginalized or disadvantaged communities
- $30.4 million to stabilize and expand capacity in long-term care facilities
- $4 million for manufactured housing repairs
- $2.6 million for eviction diversion (this was the bill that I originally sponsored that got woven into this omnibus housing bil)
- Supporting Our Mobile Home Communities In 2021, there were an estimated 20,651 mobile homes in Vermont. About 6,700 are located in mobile home parks. While some data is collected annually, there’s much more we need to know about the condition and infrastructure of our mobile home communities. How many parks provide a resource for affordable housing for Vermonters? How many need updates to sewer and water access? How many have gone co-op, and how many are owned and rented? The legislature set up a study committee for the summer of 2023. With clear data in hand, we can follow up during the 2024 legislative session to strengthen and benefit this important housing sector. Mobile home representation was something I fought to add as an amendment to S5.