2021 Legislative Wrap-up
June 30, 2021
With summer upon us, the challenging times we’ve been going through are thankfully giving way to more normal routines. It hasn't been easy, and we can be proud of the example Vermont has set by pulling together when it mattered most.
When the legislative session began in January, expectations were modest. With all our work happening remotely, and the primary focus on ensuring a rapid and comprehensive recovery, no one really knew how much we could expect to get done.
As it turned out, we had a fairly productive session. All together the General Assembly sent 81 bills to the governor—just slightly off the pace of a normal year. Some were funded by the unprecedented inflow of federal money coming to Vermont and will have far-reaching impact, some were more technical, and some were symbolic.
Below I’ve listed some of the areas addressed in legislation enacted this year. I’ve also attached my End of Session report, which has some additional information.
Lower Property Taxes: the average education property tax rate will be going down 1.5 cents this coming year, thanks to an economy that is much stronger than expected and modest growth in school budgets statewide.
Health Insurance: small employers should see lower healthcare costs in 2022, while many Vermonters who purchase their own insurance will be newly eligible for tax credits under ARPA. You can read my recent op-ed in the Banner for more details, and get more information on signing up here.
Tax Help for Families: households with income up to $120K will now be eligible to take the Child and Dependent Care Credit, making it easier for parents and caregivers to stay at work. Age limits on the Earned Income Tax Credit were also removed, enhancing an important program for low-income workers.
Job Training: various bills were passed this session that provide scholarships, tuition reimbursement, and loan forgiveness in critical areas. Funding was also provided for Southwest Tech and other regional career centers to purchase new equipment and develop new curriculums related to high-growth, high-need sectors.
Unemployment Insurance: S.62 is a multi-pronged bill that protects businesses from being hit with large UI tax increases caused by COVID-layoffs; ensures the state's UI Trust Fund is prepared to handle another economic emergency; and adjusts the unemployment benefit by $25 a week going forward.
Restaurant Recovery: to help the struggling restaurant industry, H.313 renews authorization for delivery and curbside pickup of alcoholic beverages, when accompanied by a food order. The beverage container must have a tamper-evident seal, and be properly labeled with the ingredients and serving size of the beverage.
Victim’s Rights: H.128 prevents criminal defendants from using a victim’s sexual orientation or identity to have assault charges against them lessened or dismissed. H.183 clarifies laws addressing consent to sexual activity. H.435 expands state law to criminalize sexual contact between DOC employees and anyone under the department’s supervision.
Reducing Opioid Overdoses: accidental overdose deaths continued unabated during the pandemic. H.225 takes a step in the right direction by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of non-prescribed buprenorphine. Buprenorphine reduces the risk of relapse for people in recovery by blocking opioid cravings and reducing the likelihood of fatal overdose from fentanyl.
Pupil Weighting Study Implementation: for years, Vermont’s school funding formula has been “weighted” inaccurately, paradoxically benefiting wealthier districts at the expense of towns that are more likely to be struggling economically. This summer, a legislative task force will be meeting to recommend the best way to implement a new formula recommended in the 2019 Pupil Weighting Study. After the updated weights are in place, our local towns will be able to spend more on their school budgets without increasing taxes (or, conversely, reduce education taxes without cutting programs).
Pensions: a second task force, this one made up of union members, legislators, and administration representatives, will attempt to find and recommend a solution to the state’s pension problems. H.449 got the ball rolling by reconfiguring the pension investment commission to ensure more independence and financial expertise. The Legislature has reserved $150 million, which when added to the actuarily determined contribution of $316 million equals a total investment this year of $466 million, a significant commitment for a single year. Resolving this situation quickly after collecting input from all stakeholders will be a critical priority in 2022.
Charter Changes: last week the legislature overrode two gubernatorial vetoes, approving municipal charter changes that had been requested by voters in the cities of Winooski and Montpelier. In each case, the charters will allow non-citizens who are legal residents of those communities to vote in local elections.
Eugenics Apology: In J.R.H.2, the Vermont Legislature acknowledges and apologizes for supporting eugenics policies that led to forced family separation, sterilization, incarceration, and institutionalization for hundreds of Vermonters 90 years ago. These policies targeted the poor and persons with mental and physical disabilities, as well as those of French Canadian, French-Indian, or of other mixed ethnic or racial composition, and members of indigenous bands or tribes. The resolution recognizes further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impacts of eugenics policies.
School Construction & Safety: H.426 establishes a renewable energy and efficiency heating systems grant program, and implements a requirement that every school in the state perform radon measurements by June 2023. It also requires an update of the school facility standards and a statewide inventory and assessment of all school buildings, anticipating the resumption of a school construction aid program.
Reading Proficiency: S.114 provides additional resources for literacy instruction across the state, especially students in kindergarten through third grade.
Community Schools Pilot Program: H. 106 creates a demonstration grant program for a community schools model. These schools serve students and families in areas that face challenging barriers such as high rates of poverty and hunger by bringing vital services such as health care, counseling and access to information on housing.