January 6, 2022
The Vermont Legislature is officially back at work. On Tuesday we met in Montpelier to start the 2022 session—and promptly voted to return home and work remotely until January 18th. For better or worse, we are reasonably adept at that, having legislated over Zoom for much of the past two years.
While there was broad support for this decision, no one was happy about it. There is a shared sense that we can work more effectively when we’re all in the same building, and disappointment that the start of the session coincided with the latest surge in Covid case counts (including several House members who didn’t show up) and, more critically, hospitalizations.
Although we were only together briefly, I can report that the values that distinguish democratic lawmaking in Vermont—a bipartisan, collaborative approach where civil discourse is the norm—were on full display. Even in these extremely challenging times, I am confident that we can work effectively together, whether side-by-side or remotely.
State of the State On Wednesday, the Governor likewise chose to deliver his annual State of the State address remotely. Among the issues he highlighted were two that are closely linked: the statewide housing shortage, and the shrinking workforce. Those are areas the legislature also intends to prioritize, and I am hopeful that working together we will be able to accomplish much, whether we are able to meet in person or not.
Immediate Priorities Among our first orders of business this week was legislation that will give municipalities the flexibility to move their Town Meeting Day votes to the polls, even if they traditionally hold a floor meeting as we do in Shaftsbury and Sunderland. The bill also allows towns to hold an informational hearing over zoom. If you aren’t usually able to get to the evening meeting, this year you’ll again have the opportunity to cast an in-person (or early) ballot for the March 1 vote. The House passed this legislation earlier today and sent it to the governor for his signature.
Another early priority is finalizing a legislative redistricting proposal. Every 10 years House and Senate districts have to be redrawn using population counts from the latest census. I would like to acknowledge the work of our local Boards of Civil Authority, who this fall submitted compelling responses to draft maps that were circulated by the Legislative Apportionment Board, and which would have divided Shaftsbury into two House districts. The House will be distributing a new set of maps to towns as soon as next week for more feedback.
Mental Health The impact of the pandemic on our healthcare and education systems has been widely reported. Physicians, nurses, teachers, and care-givers are exhausted. In less obvious ways, many other Vermonters are too, and we have seen a spike in the need for mental health services over the past year. As the governor noted in his speech, the severe shortage of mental health workers is compounding the problem. For many patients—including college students trying to adjust during a difficult time—telehealth provides a viable alternative to an in-person consultation. However, when your doctor or therapist is located in another state, there are potential licensing restrictions. After hearing from a constituent, last year I introduced H. 104 to address this issue. It was ultimately signed into law as Act 21 and resulted in a task force that met over the summer and fall. This week the House Health Care and Senate Health & Welfare Committees reviewed its recommendations, which will make it easier for patients to continue receiving care. I look forward to further progress on this issue in the coming weeks.
State Finances As the Commissioner of Finance put it this week, Vermont’s budget is in an “extraordinary” position, as revenues continue to come in higher than expected, and federal funds continue to flow to the state. There are many critical needs, chronically underfunded programs and other legitimate uses for any budget surpluses, but there is also some discussion of tax cuts for families, especially those with small children. Early indications are that statewide education tax bills will also be lower again this year as a result of an unexpected surplus in the Education Fund.
Other Issues I’ll be providing periodic updates throughout the session on childcare, broadband, housing, workforce development, climate change, pensions, two proposed constitutional amendments, and numerous other issues as they come before the legislature. Please feel free to reach out in the meantime, though, if you have questions or feedback on specific legislation. I’m happy to chat or meet anytime.
consider stopping by—I’d be happy to show you around!