The Montpelier Marathon: 2015 Legislative Session
At the start of this Legislative marathon, there was quite a pack of issues to deal with, and this being Vermont, a lot of hills between the starting line and finish. There was a budget gap, health care access and cost, the challenge of creating a plan to clean up our state’s waters, (or the EPA would come in and impose a solution), and concerns about how to keep growing the Vermont economy in a way that was fair to all workers.
In the middle of the pack, were a myriad of other issues from the safety of our children to gun safety, as well as the ongoing concerns related to the seemingly omnipresent effects of drug abuse from both legal and illegal drugs ( an issue which also leaks into child safety and many property crimes such as theft).
Then, there were the regular, nuts and bolts issues. With 25 standing committees in the House and Senate, and each committee with at least 5 parochial issues, alongside the Big Issues, the 4-month Legislative session fills fast.
But wait, that’s not all. Just as the session was about to start, we got more tough news. There was a bigger gap in the budget than originally thought, due to flagging revenues.
If we look at these problems, especially the clean up of our state’s waters, like we had found a hole in the roof leaking onto everything inside, it was clear we had to act. However, two schools of thought emerged on how to deal with this. Some of us said, there’s no way we can get around spending some money on new shingles. So lets figure out how many shingles we need, how to pay for it and, stop the leak.
Another strategy on how to deal with the leaky roof also emerged. Some said, there’s plenty of shingles already on the roof. Let’s not spend any money and just use what we have and make do. Problem with that, though, is it creates another hole elsewhere on the roof.
What a majority of us in the Legislature said was, we need to make some tough decisions here, and do it in the most fair way possible. Whether it was the budget, or cleaning up our water, it was going to take raising some money.
The tough decision was to balance the budget in a fair way through some revenue increases and some reductions. We didn’t take the easy way out, and when we got to that 20 mile mark of the Montpelier marathon, when some ” hit the wall” and headed to the sidelines, we made the tough decisions -and made it to the finish line.
Those sound bites that try to make things sound easy can be seductive, but they don’t get you to the finish line, and they don’t fix your roof from leaking.
Similarly, with all the talk about “spending in Montpelier”. the fact is; spending includes everything from a dam in Guilford to paving roads in Newport. That kind of investing in Vermonters, and Vermont, was only up a bit more than One per cent-and this budget puts us on sound fiscal ground for now, and the future.
Last year, there were some headline issues that still warrant attention, such as the GMO labeling bill that just passed it’s first test in a Court of law.
Every year won’t have those kinds of issues and this one hasn’t been a very glamorous session, but full of necessary work and tough decisions to get us to the finish line. We did pass some laws though, that keep Vermont in the front of the pack:
-Same Day Voter Registration is a bill that will boost voter participation at a time when other states are trying to restrict voter participation. That’s good for Vermont, good for the nation and good for Democracy.
-The Healthy Workplace law allows workers, especially food service workers, to earn sick leave, so when they, or a child, happens to get sick, taking time off doesn’t add to the stress of the illness.
-RESET, the energy bill, continues the path to a greener, more economical energy future for us- and our children.
This year, we made the tough decisions to keep us on track for growing the economy and increasing access to health care for more Vermonters with the Vermont Blueprint for Health ( even as our uninsured rate is like our unemployment rate, and has fallen to under 4%). We made Vermont safer for our children, for our elders, and paved the roads-and fixed the roofs. All of these factors add to the quality of life and infrastructure to keep Vermont attractive to new residents and businesses for a more prosperous future for all Vermonters.
Now that the session has ended, I’m getting back to work here at my “paying job” as well as planting peas, setting in my Cole crops and looking forward to that first tomato sandwich and ear of corn later this summer. And, I’ll be preparing for heading back to the starting line for another marathon in Montpelier doing the people’s work. We have a lot to do and we want to hear from you.
Please feel free to be in touch with any of your citizen legislators with questions and suggestions. We’ll be listening.
Vt. State Representative
Windham 4 District :Putney,Dummerston,Westminster
Here’s a more comprehensive report on many of the bills we passed this year;
Improving the Quality of the State’s Water
Our lakes, rivers and ponds are struggling from pollution and our efforts over the decades have not kept pace with the impact of stormwater runoff, agricultural use, and high water events. This year, a comprehensive and far-reaching water quality bill passed the Legislature. It engages all land use sectors, including roads and highways, agricultural operations, developed land and urban areas, treatment plants, and forestlands. All will be required to improve practices and participate in providing resources to fund and finance a sustained, dedicated effort.
A key part of ensuring that we remain accountable for improving our water quality is to fund meaningful efforts to achieve our goal. A special fund will be created as a mechanism to assist municipalities in complying with requirements and implementation schedules. Money from this source will also support the required staffing of the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and the Agency of Natural Resources to administer and implement technical assistance and enforcement.
Microbeads are pinhead-sized plastic orbs found in personal care products, household cleaners, and over-the-counter drugs. Approved by the FDA in 1972 and in wide use in the 1990s, microbeads were seen as the cheaper alternative to almond meal. The original designers of these products have since realized that they failed to take the long view and follow these products to the end of life. Microbeads are often too small to be captured by wastewater management facilities and are not broken down in septic system processes. Once on land or in water, they persist for decades acting as sponges for toxic chemicals and pollutants, and damage the health of aquatic life that confuses them for food. Numerous alternatives are already available. The House passed bill to prohibit the sale of products containing microbeads beginning in 2019. Manufacturers are currently finding alternatives to microbeads and phasing them out of products, partially due to legislation like ours.
Working for Workers
Earned Sick Leave Currently, about 20 percent of working Vermonters – an estimated 60,000 people – have to make the difficult choice between a paycheck and taking care of a sick child. These jobs are concentrated in low-wage service-sector fields and are disproportionately held by women, who are more likely to be the primary caregiver for family members. The workers that come into greatest contact with the general public are currently the least likely to be provided with paid time off, including most restaurant and retail store workers.
The House passed a bill that provides a minimum standard of paid sick days to long-term employees because a robust economy depends on a strong and supported workforce. The legislation also provides “safe days” for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking – critical time during the workday to seek protection. The bill awaits action by the Senate in 2016.
Paid sick days allow working Vermonters to balance their responsibilities as parents and caregivers with their duties as employees. The bill also recognizes the public health impact of people going to work and school sick. Everyone gets sick, but right now in Vermont not everyone has the ability to take the time to recover without putting at risk their livelihood and the health of co-workers and the general public. We need to change that.
Protecting Teachers’ Collective Bargaining Rights Education reform was a top priority this session. In that context, the House took a hard look at the role of collective bargaining between school boards and teachers through proposals to end strikes and impositions. Our work was guided by concerns that changing the status quo would require replacing it with a mechanism that created a fair bargaining process, including a level of finality. In the end, we made no changes to the law and anticipate continuing the discussion regarding outcomes for students, parents, taxpayers, teachers, and school boards.
Military Suicide Prevention An average of 22 military veterans commit suicide each day across the country. According to news reports, the national military hotline receives 22,000 calls a year. This year, the Legislature passed a resolution calling for full backing and expansion of the existing support systems for our veterans, including the Vermont Veterans Legal Assistance Project, Vermont Vet to Vet, and the provisions in the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. In addition, we asked the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to designate Vermont as one of five pilot programs in the treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is our hope that both raising awareness and increasing our efforts to help these veterans will save the precious lives of those who have protected ours.
Green Burials are increasingly in demand and represent an extension of what we can already choose for burial in Vermont. A green or natural burial does not involve embalming or a casket, unless it is biodegradable, and often does not include a marker or groomed lawn. Input from green burial proponents, funeral directors, town clerks, and bankers spurred action to encourage cemeteries to create natural burial areas. This would require the formulation of basic guidelines: distance from water sources, depth of graves, registration of the exact location of the grave, and the identity of the person buried therein. This bill is a reasonable solution that protects the public and allows a clear path for those who choose a green burial.
Transforming our Renewable Energy Policies
Over the past decade, Vermont has led the nation with its energy efficiency programs, lowering both electricity costs and rates. With this year’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) law, Vermont will launch a new energy transformation in the heating and transportation sectors. The law will incentivize a shift in these sectors from fossil fuels to clean electricity, reduce carbon emissions, and save Vermonters money.
The house of the future, as envisioned under this law, will be well insulated and tightly sealed. Appliances and heat sources, such as air source heat pumps, will be highly efficient. Solar panels will promote energy independence and reduce transmission and distribution costs for all Vermonters. Electric vehicles will harness local sources of clean energy and reduce carbon-emissions in transportation. Specifically, the legislation:
• Establishes a renewable energy standard that will protect the value of in-state sources of renewable energy and requires total renewables, including hydro, to grow from 55% of total retail electric sales in 2017 to 75% in 2032.
• Incentivizes construction of new distributed renewable energy from 1% of total retail electric sales in 2017 to 10% in 2032, growing local jobs and promoting energy independence.
• Requires utilities to offer products and services, such as heat pumps and home weatherization, that will reduce Vermonters’ fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Through energy conservation, efficiency and local generation, our energy transformation programs are projected to save Vermonters $275 million on energy costs over 15 years, and exert downward pressure on electricity rates resulting in a half-percent reduction in electricity costs by 2032.
Solar Siting Going forward, communities will have greater say in the siting of ground-mounted solar projects. Municipalities and planning commissions will have automatic party status in permit proceedings before the public service board. They will be empowered to adopt screening requirements for solar projects, either as a zoning bylaw or standalone ordinance, which must be adhered to by the public service board. In addition, the public service board must follow the recommendations of the town regarding screening unless the recommendations would have the effect of prohibiting the project. And finally, solar projects will be required to comply with minimum statewide setback requirements. Towns can request larger setbacks if they feel the minimum setbacks
Carbon Tax The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee began taking testimony on a proposal for a carbon pollution tax developed by Energy Independent Vermont (EIV). Although the Legislature did not take action on a carbon tax proposal this year, the committee took testimony to learn how a pollution tax might reduce carbon emissions and, at the same time, promote economic growth in Vermont.
The EIV proposal would tax retail sales of gasoline, diesel and home heating fuels based on their carbon emissions at one of three potential prices: LOW (a tax peaking at $50 per metric ton of carbon dioxide), MEDIUM ($100 per metric ton) and HIGH ($150 per metric ton). For a gallon of gasoline, this translates to a tax of $.45/gallon, $.90/gallon or $1.35/gallon.
The proposal is 90% revenue neutral, meaning that 90% of the revenues would be returned directly to taxpayers, including a proposed reduction in the sales tax, a tax credit for filers, a tax rebate for low-income people, and a per-employee rebate to companies. The remaining 10% of revenues would be used for carbon-reducing programs such as weatherization.
Universal Recycling and Solid Waste Disposal This summer, key components of our Universal Recycling Law will take effect. Beginning on July 1, residential trash charges must be based on volume or weight, recyclables are banned from the landfill, transfer stations/drop-off facilities must accept leaf and yard debris, haulers must offer residential recycling collection at no separate charge, public buildings must provide recycling containers alongside all trash containers in public spaces (exception for restrooms), and food scrap generators of 52 tons/year (1 ton/week) must divert material to any certified facility within 20 miles. The Legislature adopted a waiver process from parallel collection or haulers and municipalities that are attaining the state’s disposal and diversion goals through alternative means. The Agency of Natural Resources will work with municipalities that want to take advantage of this waiver
Breaking Down Barriers to Democracy
Election Day Registration (S.29) eliminates our current voter registration deadline so that eligible citizens can register to vote at their polling place on the day of an election, and then vote in that election. By removing barriers to voting, we strengthen our democracy and bring the voice of everyday Vermonters back into our collective decision-making. In 2014, Vermont ranked 27th in voter turnout. In 2012, we ranked 30th. The results of our last gubernatorial election underscore the importance of strong voter participation.
Election Day Registration (EDR) is a time-tested and proven “pro-voter” reform measure. States who have enacted EDR—including the nine states and the District of Columbia who participated in EDR during the 2012 Presidential Elections—stand as a testament to its benefits. Along with other states that have enacted similar laws since 2012, early adopters have experienced an easing of problems at the polls, while maintaining the integrity of the vote.
In response to concerns about implementation of EDR during a presidential election, the law will not take effect until 2017. The Secretary of State’s Office will work with our local town clerks addressing their concerns on how they will implement the new law in a seamless manner. The Secretary of State will report back to the Legislature in January 2016 with any recommendations or concerns.
Lobbying Disclosure and Prohibited Lobbyist Conduct Over the last decade, the opportunity for professional lobbyists to influence or augment our legislative process has grown dramatically. As a citizen Legislature, resources like administrative, policy, and legal staff are limited while demands for greater engagement and expertise have grown. Nearly 400 registered lobbyists will be paid over $6 million for their work this session. While we acknowledge the valuable work of lobbyists and the contribution they make to democracy by giving voice to citizen interests, the Legislature felt it important to increase transparency and accountability for those seeking to influence legislative decisions.
Lobbyists, lobbyists’ firms, and lobbyists’ employers will now be required to publicly disclose when they spend $1000 or more on advertising during the legislative session within 48 hours of the expenditure. This ensures that the general public— and legislators—have information, in “real” time, about large advertising expenditures designed to influence the legislative process. Further, an easily understood and prominently positioned “Paid for By” statement must be contained on any such advertising. Second, more frequent public reports of overall lobbyist activity will be required. The Secretary of State will establish an on-line database for lobbying disclosures, allowing any person to have instant access to the individual data elements in each disclosure.
Finally, the Legislature took decisive action to prevent the perception of improper lobbyist influence by prohibiting them from contributing to certain political committees when the Legislature is in session. On a nearly unanimous vote, lawmakers sent a clear message to Vermonters that the will of the people is and will always be the driving force in our work.
Our economic development bill also moves Vermont forward by:
• Directing the Agency of Education, Department of Labor, and Agency of Commerce and Community Development to work together to use Vermont’s Centers for Career Technical Education (CTEs) to provide training aligned with high-wage, high-skill, and high-demand employment opportunities.
• nd Community Development to work together to use Vermont’s Centers for Career Technical Education (CTEs) to provide training aligned with high-wage, high-skill, and high-demand employment opportunities.
• Creating more jobs and on-the-job training by reforming the Vermont Economic Growth Initiative (VEGI). We lowered the qualifying wage threshold for employers seeking the incentive in areas of the state with higher than average unemployment, expanding job opportunities in rural areas. Though the wage threshold is lowered, companies must include benefits in their compensation packages. We approved enhanced on-the-job training for new employees, frontloading incentives for VEGI participant employers as they create qualifying jobs, and removing barriers for companies claiming credits when circumstances beyond their control keep them from meeting program deadlines.
• Helping first time homebuyers with a down payment assistance transferable tax credit. Too often young families with college and other debt are stopped from buying homes and putting down roots because of down payment costs. This initiative will also help stimulate the housing market.
• Creating the Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone as a pilot program to create opportunities between counties and strengthen collaboration between hard hit areas and state government by deferring to local and regional planning efforts.
• Modernizing Vermont’s liquor control system to be more efficient, effective, and profitable and a permitting the sale of fortified wine and beer.
• Supporting our tech sector by repealing the sales tax on remotely accessed prewritten software. This is the “cloud tax” and repeal will give us a competitive advantage with neighboring states while helping Vermont’s growing tech sector.
• Committing funding and resources to marketing Vermont’s economic development opportunities along with our recreational and tourism opportunities. Vermont is a highly valued place to live, work, and play.
Farm fresh (“raw”) milk has been a longstanding part of Vermont’s agricultural heritage. Renewed interest in locally produced food is sparking new efforts to expand availability of raw milk for public purchase. Relaxed regulation—balanced carefully with health and safety interests—will come as a breath of fresh air for many small Vermont dairies producing raw milk.
Among the changes included in the law is the repeal of the “farm visit” requirement before purchasing or taking delivery of raw milk. Some farmers cited a potential bio-security concern if visitors unknowingly introduced harmful pathogens, bacteria, or viruses to the farm animals. Also included in the bill is a relaxation of testing requirements for certain diseases that have been eradicated in Vermont, increase in Tier 2 production limits (from 280 to 350 gallons per week), permitted use of the small plastic vials used by conventional dairies to deliver milk samples to FDA-accredited labs, and codification of the current Agency of Agriculture’s bacteria and cell count testing policy.
Animal control officers often rely on their own discretion when determining if specific animals have access to adequate shelter because of a complaint. The Legislature acknowledged that greater clarity could be brought to current laws and created the Animal Shelter Working Group. The group will convene over the summer to propose draft legislation designed to amend and improve statutory requirements for adequate shelter of animals in the State of Vermont.
Accountability of Vermont Health Connect Exchange
Only 3% of Vermonters are uninsured– one of the lowest in the nation. Many individuals and families are finding affordable coverage through Vermont Health Connect, the state’s health care “exchange.” Though improvements continue to be made, many Vermonters have been unacceptably caught in a bureaucratic backlog as they seek to change their circumstances or overall coverage. This session, the Legislature established clear performance benchmarks for Vermont Health Connect, while making contingency plans in the event the exchange’s performance continues to lag.
Among these benchmarks will be delivery of functioning technology by May 31, 2015. This will include addressing the account paralysis when a “change of circumstance” occurs and delivering a fully automated system by October 1, 2015—in time for 2016 enrollment. We required the Agency of Administration to explore alternatives to the Exchange should the General Assembly decide to seek an alternate path
In the meantime, the Legislature responded to the very real frustrations of Vermonters by insisting that individuals be allowed to purchase health insurance policies directly from insurance carriers (Blue Cross/Blue Shield or MVP), bypassing the Exchange website and telephone system.
Improving Health Outcomes & Access to Care
The Legislature took measurable steps to address two key components of our health care reform agenda this session: access to care and improvement in health outcomes. By investing additional resources in our Blueprint for Health, expanding the responsibilities and support of the Green Mountain Care Board, sustaining Medicaid funding for underinsured Vermonters, and increasing support for educational loan forgiveness for primary care doctors, we’ve made an appreciable difference for all Vermonters.
Additional detail on the major provisions in the bill:
• Strengthening the Blueprint for Health (B4H): Increases B4H funding by $2.45 million in FY16 ($1.1 million state funding supplemented by a $1.35 million federal match). B4H directs health care resources at the community level to better coordinate patient services with a focus on primary care and preventative medicine. B4H moves Vermont from reactive to proactive health care. It is proven to save money and improve outcomes, and is currently being promoted at the national level as a model program for enhancing community health.
• Expanding the work of the Green Mountain Care Board (GMCB): Funding provides the resources for the GMCB to establish the rate setting mechanisms necessary to pursue the All-Payer Model. The All-Payer Model is a system whereby health providers are paid to improve patient outcomes rather than for the quantity of care they provide. The GMCB has proven to be effective at curbing costs in Vermont’s hospital system, and capitalizing on this effectiveness will be critical to reducing health care cost inflation and moving toward universal coverage for Vermonters.
• Increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates: Directed $2 million in FY16 ($930,000 state funding and $1.15million federal match) to doctors treating Medicaid patients. Increasing these reimbursement rates enhances access to the health care system for Medicaid patients and supports providers in treating some of our most vulnerable citizens.
• Restoring funding to support the underinsured: Sustained funding to help reduce deductibles and the out-of-pocket costs for middle-income Vermonters.
Focus on primary care: Strengthening the Blueprint for Health and increasing the Medicaid reimbursement directs resources to the most cost-effective element in our health care system – primary care. In addition we provided $700,000 of annual educational loan forgiveness to encourage primary care doctors to practice in VT
Expanding Treatment Options for Alcohol and Substance Abuse
Addiction is a complex disorder, impacting individuals in very different ways. Specialists in substance abuse and mental health are a key component of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. With over 10% of Vermonters coping with alcohol and substance abuse problems, Medicaid patients are often put on long waiting lists to access appropriate treatment. The Legislature took action this year to offers more choice and availability of treatment to patients by allowing licensed alcohol and drug abuse counselors (LACDs), who are in private practice, to participate in the Medicaid program, regardless of whether they are employed by a preferred substance abuse provider.
Medicaid recipients currently have access to mental health care provided by private practitioners such as Licensed Independent Clinical Social Workers (LICSW) and Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselors (LCMHC). This bill will ensure that Medicaid recipients have access to substance abuse treatment services from any private practitioner licensed as a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors (LADC). Licensed Alcohol and Drug Counselors have similar educational and professional requirements for licensure as private practitioners, including a master’s degree in a relevant field, successful passage of an exam and documentation of over 3000 hours of supervised practice.
This bill takes an important bill to address parity, access to treatment, and appropriate service delivery. It allows LADC professionals to be afforded the same billing privileges as other behavioral health professionals. It provides appropriate compensation and will increase treatment access for Vermonters with primary substance abuse disorders.
Organ and Tissue Donation In 2013, the Organ and Tissue Donation Working Group was formed to make recommendations to the Governor and the General Assembly about increasing and facilitating these life-saving donations. At the time, the rate of organ and tissue donations was at 4%. Because of the work of this group and collaboration with the Department of Motor Vehicles (allowing for an individual to check a box on driver license renewal applications to indicate consent to organ and tissue donation) this rate has increased to 31%. Driver license renewals come in four-year intervals, so the rate of increase comes at the half way mark of license renewals.
Realizing the value of the Working Group, the Legislature acted to extend its charge to 2020 and provide it the administrative, technical, and legal assistance of the Department of Health. The group will submit a report on its findings and recommendations to appropriate legislative committees by January 15, 2017.
Patient Choices at End of Life The Legislature voted to continue the procedural safeguards in Vermont’s end of life bill, which took effect two years ago. As passed in 2013, the explicit procedure set forth in the Patient Choice at End of Life act was set to sunset (be repealed) in 2016 and be replaced by provisions giving much less guidance to doctors and less protection for patients. The Legislature removed the sunset to assure that those patient safeguards will stay in place.
Available only to patients with a terminal illness and a prognosis of six months or less to live, the law sets up a procedure for the patient to obtain a prescription for lethal medication to be self-administered. The patient must request the medication three separate times, including once in writing (with disinterested witnesses) and wait at least 17 days from the first request to receipt of the prescription. The doctor writing the prescription must report to the Vermont Department of Health and affirm that all the requirements in the law have been satisfied – including that the patient is a Vermont resident, does not have impaired judgment, made the request voluntarily, and was offered all end of life services (e.g. palliative care and hospice).
Participation under the law is completely voluntary for all parties— the patient, the doctor, the consulting doctor, the pharmacist and any facility where the patient may reside. Clarification that the safeguards will continue assures that this law will work properly for the small number of Vermonters who choose to use it.
Child Protection Bill The Protection of Children is one of the most basic and important functions of a society. In the past year the number of reports of child abuse and neglect has continued to increase and has led to an increase in the number of child safety investigations and more children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”). There has been an 82% increase in the number of children under 6 who are in custody.
Serious child maltreatment associated with adult substance abuse has challenged our system as well. These increased pressures are not just on DCF. In the past year, prosecutors and the judiciary have seen an increase in the number of petitions filed for both children in need of supervision (CHINS) and termination of parental rights (TPR). No single agency or system can keep all children safe from harm. Child Protection is a community responsibility requiring collaboration among the various departments within DCF, families, the courts, treatment providers, other stakeholders, and the public.
Legislation that we passed this session will go far in improving how we in Vermont protect our children by requiring better communication between these stakeholders, clarifying and strengthening the mandatory child abuse reporting law, focusing on the best interests of children rather than a rigid placement hierarchy, and enhancing the penalties for those who harm children with death resulting, serious bodily injury or sexual acts.
Protecting Consumers Fighting off Fraud The Legislature enacted a law that penalizes those who knowingly submit false or fraudulent claims to the state. Full enforcement of this law should bring revenues to the state while also providing a further deterrent to those who would defraud the government. Addressing a separate type of fraud, the Legislature amended laws related to home improvement, making it easier for prosecutors to prove that a contractor has engaged in home improvement fraud.
False Claims Act: The Vermont False Claims Act improves the state’s ability to recover penalties from businesses and others who defraud state government. It helps detect fraud by providing incentives to individuals to bring actions against companies that have made false claims in their dealings with the state. The state stands to collect significant money should the Legislature enact the law.
Our law is modeled after the federal False Claims Act, which has resulted in the recovery by the U.S. of billions of dollars. The federal law is frequently used to address Medicaid fraud, including in Vermont. Because Medicaid is a joint federal and state program, approximately 46% of any recovery in such actions is shared with Vermont. To give states an incentive to enact their own False Claims Act, and thus increase recovery of funds, the U.S. Congress has provided that any state adopting such an act would receive an additional 10% of any Medicaid-related recoveries.
Home Improvement Fraud: To improve consumer protections for homeowners contracting for home improvement services, Act 13 makes it easier for prosecutors to prove that a contractor has engaged in home improvement fraud. It had been nearly impossible to prosecute such fraud because the law had required a showing that a contractor had promised performance that he or she did not intend to perform or knew would not be performed. Proving such intent was an obstacle to enforcing this law. Act 13 instead requires only that the contractor has failed to perform the contract or agreement and has failed to refund any payment made by the owner.
Rent-to-Own Regulations After many years of effort, Vermont has joined 31 other states in regulating the practices of the rent-to-own industry. Stores using this business model advertise no credit checks and “rent” new or used merchandise at a premium to Vermonters with bad or no credit. They set low weekly payments that can stretch out for years before you “own” the item. 75% of their customers never “own” anything, making multiple payments with nothing to show.
Rent-to-Own Stores are now prohibited from advertising “no credit checks” and their prices are capped. They must post all “price” options clearly and conspicuously in their advertising, signage, and rental agreements. The “merchants cost” is the actual cost to the merchant. “Total cost” is the sum of the all payments, charges and fees paid to “own” the merchandise under the agreement. “Cash price” is now capped and determined by multiplying the merchant’s cost by a factor set in law by the type of item. An option to purchase may occur anytime by paying the cash price minus 50% of previous payments made.
To further ensure that consumers are not mislead while contracting with the companies, agreements will include cost disclosures printed and grouped in a specified manner. All warranties repair and maintenance, and service obligations of the parties must be disclosed. Fees and charges will be clearly explained, reinstatement periods will be defined based on weekly or monthly payment plans, and collection practices will be outlined with prohibited acts clearly defined. If an item is used, the number of times it has been “rented” out will be disclosed and late fees are limited to one missed payment. Notice of default is now set at 14 days prior to commencing civil action and a customer’s right to take the unsigned agreement with them to review or to comparison shop has been established.
Rent-to-Own businesses: This business model provides a segment of consumers a path to ownership. Because few agreements result in actual ownership of the merchandise it is incumbent to provide protections from unreasonable interest rates while providing reasonable rates of return for the business.
Financial Literacy: Saving, planning, budgeting, and navigating the financial world are competencies necessary for people’s economic well-being and protection. A Financial Literacy Commission and Fund were created based on the recommendations of the Vermont Financial Literacy Task Force convened by the Center for Financial Literacy at Champlain College in 2014. There is no appropriation to the fund since monies will be raised privately through foundations, grants and other sources. The funds will reside with the State Treasurer for disbursement upon recommendation of the Commission
Internet Protections After several years of debating how to combat the growing number of people harmed by nonconsensual disclosure of sexually explicit images, the Legislature passed a law to make the act unlawful. The crime is misleadingly referred to as “revenge porn” because not all perpetrators are motivated by vengeance. Many act out of a desire for profit, notoriety, or entertainment. Creating explicit images within the context of a private, intimate relationship is an increasingly common practice, but often occurs with the expectation of privacy.
A vengeful ex-partner, hacker, or rapist may upload an explicit image to pornographic websites with the victim’s name, contact information, and links to social media profiles. Some websites charge a fee to have the materials removed. In a matter of days, the image can dominate the first entries of search engine results using the victim’s name and remain quite publicly exhibited to the victim’s family, employers, co-workers, and peers. Victims experience a loss of reputation and opportunity, and are frequently threatened with sexual assault, stalked, harassed, fired from jobs, and forced to change schools. Some victims have committed suicide. Whether images were made with or without a victim’s knowledge — and even if they were “selfies” sent to a lover — the nonconsensual publication of private, sexually explicit material is an act of aggression akin to sexual harassment. Like other forms of abuse, this phenomenon has become another way for someone to exert power and control. This harmful act is not new, but its prevalence and impact have increased in recent years, nationally and in Vermont. Sixteen states have revenge porn laws and bills have been introduced in another 21 this year. Senator Patrick Leahy has been a vocal champion for criminalizing revenge porn in the US Senate.
The “revenge porn” bill creates penalties to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions, ensures that the victims receive remuneration or other remedies, and serves as a deterrent to those who would otherwise consider harming someone in this way. The new law includes a misdemeanor for a less severe offense and a felony for posting an image for financial gain and causing harm. There are exceptions for voluntary exposure in public or commercial settings related to free speech, and for disclosures made in the public interest such as law enforcement, court proceedings, and medical treatment. The bill also creates a private cause of action against a defendant who violates the law and causes the plaintiff emotional distress or economic loss.
Firearm Possession by Felons Act 14 enhances public safety by prohibiting violent felons from owning firearms and requiring state courts to submit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the names of those whom a court has adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness. In addition, it protects individual liberties by establishing a process for individuals who are no longer adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others to regain their rights to purchase and possess firearms. The act both respects the Second Amendment and protects public safety.
Access to Weapons The Legislature approved a bill that places restrictions on the possession or purchase of guns by certain persons. The bill makes it illegal under state law for people convicted of violent felonies to possess a gun. This is already illegal under federal law, and this would make Vermont the final state to adopt a parallel law to allow State’s Attorneys to charge it as a crime. The bill also requires that anyone who has been adjudicated mentally ill be reported to the federal background check database. This should not be confused with just anyone who has sought help for a mental illness. This would only be in cases where someone who has been found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, Incompetent to Stand Trial, or has been adjudicated by a judge to be a danger to themselves or others. Finally, the bill also creates a process by which those who have been adjudicated mentally ill at one point in their life to apply to have their ability to possess a firearm restored.
The issues around mental health were intensely personal and were debated at length. After changes were made to the bill in the House, the Vermont Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs (Vermont Chapter of the NRA) removed their opposition and remained neutral on the legislation.
Transportation Changing our Transportation Habits The Vermont Transportation Board commissioned a study of the Millennial Generation (people aged 22 – 39) and transportation. The results are very encouraging. New drivers licenses, new car registrations and miles driven per person have all been on a decline since 2005 for all ages in the U.S. But the change has been driven by young people. The study of Vermont Millennials finds that our youth are consistent with this trend. Clearly, this is related to the 21% increase in public transit we have seen in the State in the last ten years. This moment in time needs to be exploited for all it is worth. Thanks to the Millennials, it is time to begin a great shift from almost exclusive automobile transportation to mass transit and walkable, bikable communities with infrastructure that encourages these modes, not the present infrastructure that discourages it.
Amtrak Trains, the Ethan Allen Express, and the Vermonter
Ridership numbers on both trains continues to grow. The more fares the trains receive, to lower the State subsidy. It is the State that benefits from increased revenues from fares, not as much, Amtrak. The Vermonter no longer travels through Palmer, MA where it used to have to turn around and add 17 miles to the trip. The new route stops at Northampton and Greenfield, MA, Holyoke will be added soon as well. The only lost stop was Amherst, which is not far from Northampton. There is more track work needed on the new route and until that work is completed the schedule times are the same as they were however, when the work is finished, the new route will shave about 25 minutes off of the schedule. Negotiations continue with Montreal to terminate the train there instead of St. Albans.
Transparency in Road Maintenance The State is responsible for maintaining over 3,200 miles of pavement, 4,000 bridges, advancing hundreds of projects, and fixing thousands of smaller infrastructure projects each year. To learn more about where specific roads (or segments), bridges, or projects are in the queue for attention, visit http://vtrans.vermont.gov/projects.
Ways and Means Paying for Promises We Keep We began the session facing a substantial gap between revenue and appropriations, creating real challenges in sustaining the state’s commitments to Vermonters. After more than a half-dozen years of cautious budgeting, the opportunities to trim redundancy or excess in the state’s budget had largely disappeared. In partnership with members from all parties, we developed the most fiscally conservative revenue package possible so that the most severe and ill-advised budget cuts could be avoided.
The House opted to raise the necessary funds by capping income tax deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction. This only raised taxes on those who itemize deductions and increased the progressively of our income tax and the burden was significantly born by the wealthiest Vermonters. After long negotiations and veiled veto threats by the Governor a compromise was reached. The changes to the income tax still only affect those who itemize their deductions. The changes removed the deductibility of prior years state income taxes and capped other deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction. Medical expenses and charitable contributions are exempted from this cap. This reduced the overall progressively of the tax package. It also established a 3% minimum tax for taxpayers making over $150,000 per year as a percentage of their adjusted gross income. These changes raised a total of $22.9 million dollars. The remainder of the necessary funds were raised by applying the sales tax to soft drinks ($5.1M) and applying a meals tax to purchases from vending machines ($1M) as is done in many other states.
Our revenue package promotes long-term sustainability by making structural changes to the income tax that should result in increasing revenue from the income tax in subsequent years and help minimize subsequent budget gaps.
Current Use Current Use is among the most successful conservation program in Vermont. Over one third of Vermont’s 6 million acres of land is enrolled in our Current Use program. Nearly two-thirds of the acres are forestland while the remaining third is in active agricultural use. These acres represent about 18,000 parcels and 14,500 owners, 75% of who are Vermont residents. Enacted in 1978, this program allows the tax rate for lands in active agriculture and forestry to be calculated on their use value rather than their real estate development value. This has helped Vermont maintain open landscapes and scenic beauty upon which our dairy, forestry, specialty foods, furniture and tourism industries have been built.
Given the current pressure on the property tax, the Legislature acted this year to make sure the program is used for its intended purpose and not abused. We reinstated a meaningful penalty when owners withdraw land for development and adopted measures to forge more consistent methods for assessing conserved land value. In addition, we subjected Current Use owners of agricultural lands that continue to be in violation of agricultural water quality standards to removal from the program. Putting the ‘teeth’ back into the program’s penalties will help rebalance the finances of this program and reduce abuse of Current Use.
Funding Clean Water A key part of ensuring that we meet our water quality improvement goals rests in our commitment to adequately fund these efforts. Approximately $8 million will be raised through a myriad of sources to help assist municipalities in complying with requirements and implementation schedules and support the required staffing to administer and implement technical assistance and enforcement.
The largest revenue source for this effort is a surcharge on the property transfer tax of .20% of the purchase price of the property, raising $6 million each year. The Legislature chose this funding source because it is paid throughout the state, uses an existing tax (the property transfer tax), and therefore doesn’t require any new infrastructure or rules to implement. It is a surcharge and will sunset in a few years. We also raised existing agricultural fees and environmental fees (e.g. potable water, stormwater, and fees for medium and large farms, etc.) to pay for positions in the Agency of Agriculture and Agency of Natural Resources to help farmers and municipalities reduce pollutant runoff. The Legislature rejected a proposal to add a $15 fee to every parcel of land, which would have been collected as an additional property tax.