January 21, 2018

A Brief 2017 Session Recap

Below is my annual Senate recap. As in the past, I emphasize legislation that wasn’t in the spotlight. No law gets passed without the work and insights of many, both in and out of the Legislature. I thank the many community members who contacted me and helped shape the laws you’ll read about below.
Thanks, and stay in touch!
A Sampling of 2017’s Legislative Progress
* Standing Up to President Trump’s Travel Ban
When President Trump proposed his travel ban in January, the Senate took a stand. It immediately began work on legislation to make sure Vermont would not play a role in the creation of a religious database, and to prohibit Vermont law enforcement from becoming round-up police targeting immigrants. I co-authored S.79, which was signed into law as Act 5 in March with strong bipartisan support. While many people were involved in passing this important bill, I want to single out Senator Dick Sears, Rebecca Turner of the Defender General’s Office, and Julio Thompson from the Attorney General’s Office for their work standing up for the Constitutional rights of everyone.

These Burlington High School students, some just weeks from becoming U.S. citizens, attended the Senate session at which we voted 30-0 to support an inclusive Vermont.
* Color-Blind Law Enforcement
Vermont has taken a step forward to ensure Vermont law enforcement is administered fairly, without regard to race. Called “the racial justice bill,” Act 54 creates a dedicated commission to evaluate policing data to assess whether it indicates systemic bias. The law also updates and prioritizes the fair and impartial policing requirements for law enforcement training. It was inspiring to see so many community members from across the state participate in the development of this legislation.

*  Stabilizing the Front Line Workforce

Mental health workers have some of the most important jobs in the state. The work is often dangerous. Yet the pay is little more than minimum wage for many in this field. The Senate budget included a long overdue boost of $8.3 million to shore up staffing at the state’s non-profit mental health agencies by guaranteeing that difficult front-line jobs pay no less than $14 per hour and making salaries more competitive in some specialized positions.
* Improving Crisis Response
In response to a tragic death in Burlington, we established a new commission to evaluate incidents in which law enforcement is called upon to resolve acute mental health episodes. The goal of this commission is to assess incidents that involve both tragic and positive outcomes in order to inform workers who deal with this population and improve outcomes. You can read Act 45 here.
* Clear, Reasonable Standards for Professionals 
The Legislature passed the so-called Duty to Warn bill. It was a response to a recent VT Supreme Court ruling that made mental health professionals more liable for their patients. The legislation struck a good balance between high professional standards and a recognition that a patient’s actions in the community cannot be predicted with certainty. Here is a good Seven Days article explaining the challenge the Supreme Court ruling posed to the profession.
* Timely Counseling For Kids
Vermont joined 34 other states by allowing minors to seek mental health counseling without approval from their parents. It’s important that adolescents can speak with a trained professional if and when they need it. Act 35 acknowledges mental health is no less important than physical health.
Strategic Investments and Good Workplace Measures
The Legislature enacted a number of important economic development bills this year. Some received considerable public attention, such as the $35 million housing bond that will kick-start new housing throughout the state for people of all income levels (Chittenden County Senator Michael Sirotkin was the lead on that). Others generated less fanfare but have the potential to do a lot of good, including:
  • A youth jobs program for Vermont high school students and recent high school graduates who are not pursuing 4-year college degrees. I authored this program, which will provide employable skills to at least 150 young Vermonters.
  • A requirement that employers make reasonable accommodations to allow pregnant women to remain in their workplace (e.g. reducing or eliminating lifting responsibilities). Most employers are sensitive to the needs of their pregnant employees; this bill will protect women in less enlightened work situations.
  • A $200K expansion of the Downtown and Village Tax Credit program which provides incentives to make improvements to existing buildings in our village centers. The dollars fund fire safety, accessibility, and other code improvements which are often cost-prohibitive in older buildings.
Offering a Retirement Savings Option to All
The Senate initiated legislation that creates a statewide voluntary public retirement plan that will allow any Vermonter to improve his or her long-term financial security in a state-run plan. Treasurer Beth Pearce spearheaded this effort which doesn’t put taxpayers at risk, but offers a meaningful savings opportunity at a time when many private sector companies have reduced or eliminated their pension plans. Read more about the initiative here.
That’s me in the foreground reviewing the state budget, while Danville Senator Jane Kitchel chairs. 
Miscellaneous Provisions
The Senate Judiciary Committee took the lead on an omnibus bill addressing a range of criminal justice issues, including:
  • Expanding the state’s electronic monitoring pilot program to reduce the number of offenders and pre-trial detainees in our jails. The aim is to save money while protecting communities and victims of crime.
  • Imposing more stringent penalties for knowingly distributing the opiate fentanyl, which is far more potent than heroin and the cause of many overdose deaths.
  • Encouraging state’s attorneys to prosecute cases of aggravated cruelty to animals. Bunny’s killer got off too easily. Read more here.
* Juvenile Justice Reform
The Committee passed phase two of its juvenile justice reform work. Coupled with last year’s law, Vermont’s approach to young offenders will offer a second chance to hundreds of kids by making juvenile court the default venue for youthful offenders aged 16 and 17. Currently it’s adult criminal court. This is the smart thing to do for a few reasons: first, juvenile court offers more restorative and rehabilitative options than adult court; second, it reduces the chances a young person will serve time with more hardened adult criminals; third, records in juvenile court are sealed and will not dog the person in future job searches. At the same time, we grant prosecutors the flexibility to treat the most serious cases in adult courts.
* Investing in Technology to Promote the Truth
The Judiciary Committee successfully advocated to put money in the budget to purchase body cameras and cruiser cameras for the state police force. It’s evident that the use of cameras benefits the public and law enforcement officials by documenting what occurs during police encounters.
 I try to speak in plain English when explaining what’s going on in state  government. Here I’m talking about Senate priorities with Mike Smith, host  of a radio show on WDEV.
* A Rational Policy on Marijuana
It felt like Groundhog Day all three times the Senate voted this year to join a growing number of states that have decided to treat marijuana in a more rational way. Each time, the bill died either because the House or Representatives didn’t support it or the Governor vetoed it. Legalization of marijuana for personal use is what the public wants. It legalizes what tens of thousand of Vermonters already do and creates a bridge to a regulated seed-to-sale system. Unfortunately, legalization will have to wait another year while the states around us move forward.

 Promoting Transparency and Accountability

Three bills passed this year improve government transparency and accountability:
  • Act 53 makes it easier for Vermonters to interact with the Public Service Board. The PSB is a very comfortable setting for lawyers and industry professionals, but average people frequently come away feeling as if they didn’t “speak the language” and therefore did not get a fair hearing. Citizens deserve meaningful access to even technical regulatory proceedings. Chittenden County Senator Ginny Lyons led this effort.
  • The tables turned this year when journalists came before legislators to advocate for a “media shield” bill. We passed Act 40 to protect journalists from being required by courts to hand over their notes and recordings in all but the most rare cases. We heard troubling testimony from several reporters about how they stopped working on important stories for fear of being subpoenaed. The bill guarantees the public gets comprehensive media coverage which is vital to a healthy democracy. This Seven Days article highlights the importance of the measure.
  • We included a provision in the budget that prevents the Agency of Commerce from recruiting new investors into the EB-5 program. It requires them to come back to the Legislature with a plan to restore the integrity of this program before doing any further marketing and promotion. The Senate has not yet conducted a “what went wrong” analysis, because of the various law enforcement and regulatory investigations already underway. This poorly administered program has done great damage to Vermont’s reputation, and we need to make sure we put systems in place to prevent it from happening again.
  VPR News Editor John Dillon testifies in the Senate Judiciary Committee on the     importance of the “Media Shield” law
*Safeguarding Ethical Integrity 
When I became Pro Tem, I asked the Chair of our Government Operations Committee to get Vermont’s first ethics bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible. Putney Senator Jeanette White did just that. Vermont was an outlier in not having an ethics commission to which citizens could direct complaints about their government officials. We opted to start slowly, see what types of complaints are generated, and then make adjustments accordingly in the next year or two. Chittenden County Senator Chris Pearson was instrumental in passing this bill, which you can read here.
Holding Polluters Accountable and Slowing the Spread of Invasives
The Legislature passed two important environmental protection bills that started in the Senate. The first, Act 55, was written in response to the situation in southwestern Vermont, where the drinking water of hundreds of people was contaminated with PFOA, a chemical linked to serious human health problems. The bill makes companies liable for contaminating public water sources with PFOA. Hopefully the bill will help people suffering from this pollution get justice and provide the resources to deliver reliable, clean water moving forward. Learn more about the bill here.
The carelessness of a small number of boaters is spreading invasive species from one Vermont lake to another. Act 67 creates new protocols to stop this degradation of our waters. Glover Senator John Rodgers spearheaded this effort.
Bill Doyle’s 48-year tenure in the Senate ended in 2016. In January we honored him with a special ceremony. Three of his former Johnson State students serve in the Senate today.
Increased Access to Medical Marijuana
Approximately 3000 Vermonters currently use medical marijuana to treat their health issues. I sponsored Act 65 to expand legal access to the medical marijuana dispensary system. Qualifying conditions now include: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Crohn’s Disease, and Parkinson’s. If medical marijuana eases symptoms for these conditions, then allowing patients to access safe marijuana is the rational and humane thing to do. We also expedited the state approval process for any FDA-approved drug containing cannabidiol, the substance that has been effective in dramatically reducing seizures in kids.
Supporting First Responders with Any Injury
If a firefighter slips and falls at work, he or she is eligible for workers’ compensation. Firefighters came to me in December arguing that a mental injury — say, the result of a particularly gruesome call they responded to — should be treated the same way. First responders are tough and want to be at work. But witnessing trauma takes a toll. The law we passed encourages suffering firefighters, police, and other front-line workers to reach out for help when they need it. Read more about the effort here.
Another Step Forward with Telemedicine
Building on language I passed in 2015, we expanded the use of telemedicine so that all health insurers must reimburse for some medical services delivered that way. Telemedicine is the use of live, interactive video that allows a patient to consult with a health care provider without being physically present. This will be most helpful to seniors with transportation challenges and to Vermonters living in very rural areas. Importantly, it should also reduce costs since Medicaid will not need to pay transportation-related expenses for patients in that program. Chittenden County Senator Debbie Ingram led the effort in her first year in the Legislature. Read this VPR story to learn more about the potential of telemedicine.
Going over budget details with Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel prior to a public caucus in April.
Affordable Child Care and Encouraging Saving
We made two changes this year to help low-income families increase their participation in the workforce. First, the budget included a $2.5 million increase in child care subsidies to support low-income working parents. Child care costs are often the biggest barrier to holding down a job. This funding increase will help families and the child care providers who serve them.
Second, in Act 29 we eliminated a barrier for Vermonters on Reach Up or child care assistance. Under current law those families were discouraged from contributing to college savings accounts for their kids. If they saved, the money was counted against the household when eligibility was determined for these two back-to-work supports. We want families to save, and now we’re letting them do it without unintended consequences.
Efficient Administration and Freedom of Expression
Two years ago the Legislature passed Act 46, a law creating a process for school districts and supervisory unions to unite to form more economical educational systems, to reduce administrative costs, and to increase educational offerings for many students. Two years into this process, it was clear some school districts needed more time or flexibility in order to successfully fulfill the vision of Act 46. So the Education Committee, led by Chittenden County Senator Phil Baruth, wrote Act 49. The bill creates new pathways for districts to comply with the earlier law.
The bill included several other education-related policies, most notably granting “freedom of expression” to student journalists. All over the country, student journalists have been censored by school administrators. While some content can certainly cross the line in an educational setting, other student journalism provides the same important function professional journalism does. Check out this story for a recent example.
* Farm Fresh Foods to School Cafeterias
Another Senate bill that’s been signed into law is S.33. The bill expands Vermont’s successful farm-to-school system, extending the technical and material support to child care centers in addition to schools. As a result, we anticipate that farm fresh food will find its way into another couple dozen school cafeterias.