March 31, 2022
The House has completed its initial work on next year’s spending plans—the annual budget, capital adjustment, and transportation bills. The state budget is balanced and somewhat bigger than usual, as it includes over $400 million in unspent federal ARPA funds. That funding will pay for targeted one-time investments in areas such as housing, broadband, clean water, workforce development, updates to aging IT systems, and our response to climate change. The intent is to make Vermont stronger and better prepared for the future as we come out of the pandemic.
The budget funds state government, supports programs that assist the most vulnerable, and directs funding to a wide ranges of institutions and projects that affect all Vermonters. The bill itself runs nearly 200 pages, and without going into a lot of detail, a few items of interest include a $10 million annual increase to UVM and the Vermont State Colleges (both of which have announced zero percent tuition increases for next year); significant allocations to pay down unfunded pension and other retirement benefit obligations; a seven percent reimbursement boost for United Counseling Service; the first funding increase in decades for the Bennington Regional Planning Commission; higher Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) to towns with state-owned properties, increased funding for CAT-TV and other local access stations; and of course much more.
Ukraine At Governor Scott’s suggestion, the legislature approved an appropriation of $643,077—the equivalent of one dollar for every Vermonter—in humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. We also adopted a resolution condemning the Russian invasion. The House and Senate were united in their support of the people of Ukraine, passing the resolution unanimously.
There are a number of Ukrainian students attending college here in Vermont. I hosted one of them—a freshman at Middlebury College whose family lives in Lviv—during a visit to the Statehouse on the afternoon we took up the resolution. He was invited to deliver the traditional Devotional address to the House at the start of our day’s work, providing us with a personal connection to the war.
Climate This month we passed several climate bills aimed at reducing carbon emissions and meeting our greenhouse gas reduction goals. With global conflict again impacting the price of oil and gas, there is more reason than ever to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels by weatherizing and switching to cleaner energy. H. 715 establishes a Clean Heat Standard that gives fuel dealers and customers new incentives when replacing worn-out water heaters and cooling and heating systems. For Cole Hall and other municipal buildings, H.518 offers grants and loans to convert to cleaner, renewable fuels. The Transportation bill provides continued incentives for a wide range of electric vehicles and new charging stations, and the budget includes expanded support and eligibility for free home weatherization.
Health Insurance for Hearing Aids Many insurance plans do not cover hearing aids, and in some cases—specifically Medicare and most self-funded employer plans—the state lacks the legal authority to do anything about it. For individuals and small employers, the state is on track to require hearing aid coverage beginning in January 2024. H.266 further expands coverage to include large-employer plans. This would be a step forward if passed by the Senate and signed by the Governor, as untreated hearing loss is often related to other health issues, including cognitive decline and depression.
Workforce Since 2019, over 25,000 Vermonters have voluntarily left the workforce. H. 703 targets some of the hardest-hit professions that were already in short supply (nurses, child-care workers, tradespeople) with a variety of incentives, including tuition assistance and loan repayment. H. 572 removes barriers to allow retired teachers to return temporarily to the classroom without impacting their retirement benefits.
Mental Health Workforce and Licensure In addition to the funding increase in the budget for UCS, we passed two bills that address access to mental health services in Vermont. During the pandemic, the state temporarily loosened its telehealth licensing requirements to allow Vermonters to receive care from out-of-state providers. H.655 creates a new telehealth registration and licensing system that maintains this access while protecting Vermonters from incompetent or unethical practitioners, while H. 661 eases the path to licensure renewal by permitting continuing education via telehealth for mental health counselors, psychologists, and other practitioners.
Charleston Loophole Last month I mentioned a bill the legislature had sent to the Governor, S. 30, that would close the so-called “Charleston Loophole” on gun sales (named for the mass church shooting in South Carolina where the weapon was sold to someone who was legally prohibited from owning a gun). Governor Scott vetoed S.30, but offered to compromise by signing a bill that lets a sale proceed if the federal background check exceeds seven days, rather than the current three. S. 4, which does just that, passed quickly and was signed into law last week. Like S. 30, the bill also restricts guns from hospitals and adds protections for domestic violence victims (and to be clear, the loophole is now a little smaller, but still exists).
Redistricting The House and Senate have approved plans for reapportioning the Legislature for the next 10 years. The Bennington-3 House district, which has included Shaftsbury, Glastenbury, and a portion of Sunderland for the last decade, will remain essentially unchanged, with a slightly larger section of Sunderland. The Bennington Senate district will continue to have two members, and in addition to Bennington County will now include the Windham County towns of Londonderry, Somerset, Stratton, and Wilmington.
Some of the other bills that have passed in the last several weeks:
H. 624, the Creative Futures bill, allocates over $10 million in grants to arts organizations that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic
H. 626 recognizes the importance of bees and other pollinators and supports farmers in shifting away from seeds treated with noenicitinoids
H. 728 enhances opioid overdose response services
H. 492 restructures the Natural Resources Board to create more consistency and brings the Act 250 permit appeal process back into the local community
H. 293 creates a State Youth Council
H. 553 makes domestic partners (not just spouses) eligible for the Victim Compensation Fund
H. 730 allows fortified wine (sherry) and ready-to drink-canned cocktails to be sold alongside beer and wine in grocery stores. Currently these are available only in state-controlled liquor stores
H. 551 creates a voluntary and cost-free process for removing and voiding racial and religious restrictions in property deeds
H. 517 expands the National Guard tuition benefit program
If you’d like more information on any of the legislation mentioned here, please feel free to reach out. I should also mention that the State House is once again open to visitors, so if you happen to be heading this way, consider stopping by—I’d be happy to show you around!