April 23, 2017

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Brief 2016 Legislative Session Recap

A Sampling of Tim’s 2016 Legislative Efforts

As is always the case, no bill becomes a law because of one legislator – it’s always the work of many. So references to my sponsorship or authorship of bills should not be read to suggest others weren’t key to their passage.

PUBLIC HEALTH

* Addressing Vermont’s Opiate Epidemic

There is no silver bullet to make Vermont’s opiate crisis go away. But we can take steps to make our communities healthier and safer. I was one of two lead sponsors of

S.243 which included a range of strategies to address this epidemic. Rules for prescribers, education for practitioners, and additional treatment resources are some of the measures included in the new law. This builds on my earlier work in this area which can be found here. Link to VT Digger story

HEALTH CARE POLICY ISSUES

* Prescription Drug Price Transparency

Martin Shkreli, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, made national headlines when his company increased the price of an important and existing AIDS drug by a whopping 5000%. While that situation garnered much attention, another 20 name brand drugs have seen prices quadruple in the last two years, while another 60 have at least doubled!

These massive spikes hurt patients, and they are also a huge strain on the state budget. For instance, last year the State spent $12M providing a Hepatitis C medicine to 100 or so Medicaid patients. This reflected a more than 25% jump in one year! Existing program, same number of patients, jacked up price.

To help address this, we passed a law this year requiring the manufacturers of drugs which have seen price hikes of more than 50% in the previous year to explain the increase in detail to the Attorney General’s office. While the companies like to tout their research and development costs as a reason, too often the price hikes are related to nothing more than marketing and profits. It is our belief that other states will follow suit by requiring this price transparency, and that drug companies will be hesitant to jack up their prices once people can see where the money is going.

I served on the conference committee that fine-tuned this provision with local legislators Michael Sirotkin, Chris Pearson, and Bill Lippert. Link to Stat News story

* Preserving Independent Medical Practices

I am very troubled by the slow disappearance of independent medical practices throughout the state. These practices have longstanding relationships with thousands of patients and frequently offer more individualized care. One of the reasons these practices are shutting down is the low rates paid to them by insurers. So last year I passed language requiring that all medical providers be reimbursed at the same level regardless of where they practice. This year, we updated the “parity” law in Act 143 to end the payment of exorbitant “facility” fees by Medicaid to some hospitals, which have added tremendous cost to this taxpayer funded program. Link to Valley News story

* Improving Reproductive Health Options and Family Planning 

This year we passed a new requirement that health insurers provide access to long acting contraceptive options for men and women. This is an important family planning advance. My committee also added a provision allowing a pregnant woman to enroll in a health plan even if it’s outside the normal open enrollment period. We need to provide timely care to people at this vulnerable stage, and I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t already allowed. While I am proud of this law’s passage in VT, it is unfortunate that many other states are moving in the opposite direction. Link to Burlington Free Press story

RIGHT TO PRIVACY

* Respecting Private Lives in a Digital Era

Privacy used to be a concern primarily for celebrities. Now everyday Americans can find little refuge from the private companies and government agencies who keep track of our every move and transaction. Companies like Google inspect our every keyboard stroke while we’re on-line; telecom providers like AT&T give our e-mails and texts to the National Security Agency; and local law enforcement use cruiser-mounted cameras to track our movement on the roadways. Technological innovation has moved too quickly for the public to preserve privacy on terms we choose. Public safety and efficient commerce require some sacrifices, but the people should set the terms of those trade-offs.

A Republican colleague and I introduced S.155 (which became Act 169), a bill addressing four privacy-related topics – the use of license plate-reading cameras by police departments, the use of law enforcement drones, inappropriate access or disclosure of a person’s medical records, and the release of private commercial information to government agencies. We believe the law changes accomplished two objectives. First, the package of reforms modernize the balance between law enforcement needs and personal privacy. And second, the bill triggered a discussion on how technology’s rapid advance needs to be harnessed to meet community needs and desires. Link to Seven Days story

HOUSING ISSUES

* Making the Dream of Homeownership a Reality

From the first day I entered the Senate I recounted to my colleagues the plight of many of my friends who were in their 20s or early 30s. They’d graduate from college, land a first job, so their oats for a while, then realize they want to plant roots and buy a home only o realize they couldn’t afford it in Chittenden County. And it’s become a big problem for employers who struggle to retain and recruit quality employees. So last year and this year we created a downpayment assistance program through the Vermont Housing Finance Agency that assists income eligible first-time home buyers. It’s already helped 115 people buy a home, with another 115 expected this year, and another 115 next year.

* Promoting Accessible Housing

In the Senate I chair the Finance Committee which has “jurisdiction” over a wide range of issues. This year we passed a provision, now in Act 115, that requires sellers of residential properties to confirm that the home can be easily adaptable for a person needing accessibility modifications. As our population ages we need our residential infrastructure to be ready for changing needs and physical abilities.

TAX POLICY

* Refining VT’s 20th Century Tax Code to Reflect the 21st Century Economy

Vermont’s tax code was written in the 20th century, and didn’t anticipate the shift to internet-based commerce. And we’re facing the consequences. Each year, for instance, Vermont loses about $50M in sales tax revenue because on-line sellers like Amazon refuse to collect the sales tax that is owed and Vermonters don’t pay the amount due on the Use Tax line of their tax forms. This number grows every year, straining the state budget. Unfortunately, we’re dependent upon Congress to solve this problem!

This year we were able to make progress in one regard, though. We have directed the Tax Department to work with Air BnB to have them collect and remit rooms tax to the state. This is another instance in which an existing tax is owed, but compliance has been paltry. Air BnB has stepped up and said they will work with Vermont to pay the amounts owed, and will bring in approximately $1M in revenue. This will also create fairness for our bed and breakfasts who have been collecting this tax on their room rentals all along.

JUDICIARY ISSUES

* Protecting Victims of Stalking

This year the Judiciary Committee helped write and pass an update to the state’s anti-stalking laws. Developed in partnership with organizations who work with victims, the law creates more modern standards for when stalking is determined to be occurring. I was very moved by the many people who contacted me to tell me about an experience either they or someone close to them had experienced with stalking and how it completely ruins the quality of a person’s life. Hopefully this year’s changes make stalking prosecutions more successful.

* Strengthening VT’s Response to Animal Cruelty Cases

One of my personal passions is protecting animals from abuse and neglect. Throughout the state dedicated volunteers join law enforcement and local humane society officials to step in when these horrifying cases emerge, securing the animals and rehabilitating them. However, the response to these cases differs significantly from region to region. This year in Act 155 we created an animal cruelty advisory board within the Department of Public Safety to develop uniform investigation procedures and to propose other strategies for ensuring that animal abuse and neglect cases get the same serious treatment regardless of where they occur.

* Creating a Pathway for Restoring Driving Privileges for Thousands of Vermonters

I was as alarmed as anyone by Department of Motor Vehicles estimates suggesting that literally thousands of Vermonters were driving with suspended drivers’ licenses on Vermont’s roadways at any given time. Digging deeper into this, we learned that many of these drivers posed no safety risk, but were unable to legally drive because of unpaid fines that, once interest and penalties were considered, grew ever harder to pay. A significant problem this prevents is that these individuals are driving without insurance, which puts all drivers at risk in case of an accident. We passed Act 147 this year to create a path to restore legal driving privileges for many Vermonters whose inability to pay the old fines was the one thing holding them back. This should make our roads safer for all commuters, and increase the ability of these restored drivers to get to and from work.

* Standardizing Use of Body Cameras

Across the country police departments have been utilizing body cameras to document the interaction between police and citizens. Here in Vermont more and more departments now have these cameras. Now that the tool is proliferating it’s important to have standard policies for their use. For instance, when should officers be required to turn on his body camera? When may he turn it off? Which portions of the videos are public records, and what must be redacted? I  co-sponsored a new law directing the Criminal Justice Training Council to develop a model policy that within a year will be the default policy for every police department in Vermont. This will create greater accountability and transparency in difficult policing situations, benefitting all parties. Link to WCAX story

* Criminal Justice Reform for Young Offenders

My dad worked in juvenile probation for more than forty years. All my life he’s shared stories about young people who committed crimes. Most had made a mistake, sometimes a big mistake, but my dad would rarely call a young person walking in the courthouse the first time a criminal. He’d say they were young people at a crossroads – one road leading down a path of recidivism and trouble, the other to restoration and a law-abiding future. He truly believed most kids fell into the latter group.

That’s why I was glad to be able to help write this year’s Act 153 that makes the default venue for youthful offenders aged 16 and 17 juvenile court rather than adult criminal court as is currently the case. This is important for three reasons. First, juvenile court offers more restorative and rehabilitative options than adult court. Second, it reduces the chances a young person will become lumped together with more hardened adult criminals. Third, records in juvenile court are sealed and will not stick with the person for the rest of his or her life, dogging the person in future job searches.

State prosecutors will still have the discretion to move the most serious cases to adult court to ensure public safety and administer proper justice to the most dangerous young offenders.

Ten years from now, because of this law, hundreds of Vermonters will have been treated like the still-developing kids they are, and will have been given the chance to turn down the better road when they make that first mistake.

ENERGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY

* Modernizing the Weatherization Program

The cheapest form of heat and electricity is the heat and electricity we avoid using in the first place – in other words, efficiency. The state has a longstanding weatherization program which improves the building envelope of lower-income households to reduce their energy bills. The program has been funded by a very small charge based upon the sales price of heating oil and propane. The problem with this funding structure is that when prices are low, the program receives fewer dollars. This is good for customers, but means that when prices go back up we’ve had fewer dollars to make more homes more efficient, putting upward pressure on the public programs that keep low-income households’ homes warm in the winter.

So this year we switched the weatherization charge to a “unit” charge based upon gallons consumed. This is a more stable variable than price, meaning the weatherization program will have predictable funding year to year, allowing the contractors who do the weatherizing to get the work done more rationally. This is good for the environment, good for low-income households, and good for taxpayers.

* Protecting Healthy Forests

Healthy forests are critical for wildlife habitat, protecting water supplies, absorbing carbon, and for just making Vermont Vermont. Forest property owners play a vital role nurturing this natural resource, utilizing forest management plans to responsibly harvest trees. Unfortunately, there are some bad actors out there who make their way onto other people’s property and illegally cut down the most lucrative lumber without regard for what it means to forest health. In Senate Judiciary, we made this “timber trespassing” a specific crime to address the complex issues surrounding tree harvesting which often occurs waaaaay out in the woods. This illegal behavior can undo decades of sound land stewardship.

UTILITY AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS POLICY

* Ensuring Effective Regulation of VT Utilities

The Senate Finance Committee which I chair has jurisdiction over utility and telecommunications regulations. Together we passed a bill including provisions meant to address several emergent issues, such as:

  1. Now that cell service is near ubiquitous in Chittenden County, many constituents asked me to look into permitting rules for cell towers to make sure we aren’t overbuilding towers. In response we passed new statute that gives municipalities more say in cell tower siting, and stresses locating antennas on existing towers wherever possible.
  1. Weeks before the Legislature adjourned for the year, we learned that TransCanada was selling the dams it owns along the Connecticut River. Senators Lyons and Sirotkin and I crafted language establishing a work group to investigate if and how the state of Vermont should react to this news, and providing them the resources to perform due diligence on a number of potential outcomes including partnering with a private entity, establishing preferential power purchasing agreements, and doing nothing. The future of the dams has significant implications for the price of power here in Vermont.
  1. Vermont’s Department of Public Service is tasked with representing the public in utility cases before the Public Service Board. Their job is to negotiate with our monopoly utilities for the lowest possible customer costs while meeting the state’s energy goals. To ensure that our current system is producing the best results possible, this year we directed the Attorney General’s Office to conduct something like a performance audit of DPS, evaluating their work on a couple large rate cases. Their work will either confirm that our current regulatory structure is optimal, or will suggest possible improvements. One side note: It is important to remember that monopoly utilities are required by law to charge rates reflecting their actual costs plus a reasonable return. When rates come down, it is usually because the costs of business have come down. And the final rate is usually lower than what the utilities ask for – that is due to DPS digging into the costs and pushing the rates down.
  1. Before phasing out their operations, the quasi-public Vermont Telecommunications Authority awarded a roughly $2M contract to VTel allowing them to purchase equipment to be used for delivering high quality telecom services to poorly served Vermonters. I was, to put it mildly, not happy to learn that the equipment is sitting in a warehouse, unused, serving no one. So we’ve given VTel a period of time to put this equipment to meaningful use, otherwise they’re getting a bill from the state that will make us whole for the money they received. Link to VT Digger story

EFFECTIVE GOVERNMENT

* Cleaning up the EB-5 Program

The state’s Agency of Commerce has, at times, contradictory responsibilities. At the same time they are supposed to be protecting the state’s reputation as a safe place to invest and do business they are also acting as promotional agent for some business entities. Needless to say, these contradictory roles collided badly in the case of EB-5 in the Northeast Kingdom. In fact, at the very same time the Agency was aware of irregularities in the northeast projects, they were heralding the program while new investors were coming on board. The EB-5 program doesn’t merely need reform at the federal level (it is a federal program) but also here in Vermont where the state has elected to create an EB-5 office within the Agency of Commerce. If our state agency is going to grant what amounts to a “seal of approval” it is has to be worth it’s weight in gold. The Senate Finance Committee passed language in Act 149 creating a formal regulatory process for state involvement in EB-5 moving forward that will provide more monitoring, oversight, and transparency. We can’t undo the damage that’s already been done, but we can chart a new, clean path moving forward.

ONE THAT GOT AWAY

* Reforming the Chittenden Senate District

Good thing I have a lot of energy, because representing a huge Senate district like Chittenden County is not easy. It is the only Senate district with more than three senators in the entire country! It is my view that the district must be broken up into two or three smaller districts. Vermont legislators have no staff, and receive no budget for outreach or communications. So it is a disservice to the voters to have senators who are stretched way too thin to provide the Vermont-style representation they deserve. In the meantime, I will continue to do my best to communicate regularly with people throughout the county. You can read my proposal to break up the Chittenden Senate district into two or three more manageable pieces here.

Utah Shows the Way on Hospital Costs

Last month I spoke with a woman with a movie star name and rock star performance. Dr. Vivian Lee is the CEO of University of Utah Health Care, and her accomplishments in Utah should serve as a model for Vermont.

When Dr. Lee became the CEO of her hospital, she pulled her executive team together and asked a basic question: do we know what it actually costs to provide services? This simple question, which would be completely unnecessary in any other industry, elicited shrugs and shakes of the head from her staff. The “sticker price” for medical procedures in Utah, like here in Vermont, bore little to no relationship to the actual costs incurred by the hospital to perform them.

Dr. Lee articulated a simple directive to her staff: determine the true costs of everything we do. Rolling up their sleeves in what she described as “the Utah way,” her staff sifted through the swamp of medical costs and emerged five months later with the true expenditures for every procedure and treatment at the University of Utah medical center.

Was it worth it? Boy was it! Armed with the true costs, physicians and departments throughout the hospital were, for the first time, able to see who the high spenders were and why. Actual expenditures were matched up to patient outcomes, reforming the way many physicians treated their patients, improving public health while saving money.

Importantly, Dr. Lee’s work was motivated by pressures just like those we’re experiencing in Vermont. Limited Medicaid funding, coupled with a move away from “fee-for-service,” required transparent cost data in order to smartly manage her hospital budget moving forward.

Here in Vermont, we are rightly moving forward with payment reforms that will move us away from fee-for-service. But unless we know the true costs throughout the system, our hospital leaders will be flying blindly as they make decisions on where and how to restrain spending. It is my goal in the coming year to make sure that payment reform and transparent pricing work in tandem to lower costs for Vermonters. Perhaps in just this one instance, as goes Utah, so should go Vermont!

To learn more, read this New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/08/health/what-are-a-hospitals-costs-utah-system-is-trying-to-learn.html?_r=0

I hope you have a safe and happy holiday season.

Tim Chairs VT Senate Finance Committee as it reviews telecommunications bill

Brief 2015 Session Recap

A Sampling of Tim’s 2015 Legislative Efforts

As is always the case, no bill becomes a law because of one legislator – it’s always the work of many. So references to my sponsorship or authorship of bills should not be read to suggest others weren’t key to their passage.

HEALTH CARE POLICY ISSUES

Preserving Independent Medical Practices

If you’re like me, you’re worried about the slow disappearance of independent physician practices in Vermont. Independent practices provide alternatives to hospital-owned practices, and often deliver services at lower prices. Not to mention the important doctor-patient relationships which have developed over many years that are jeopardized when a practice gets purchased by a hospital and loses its autonomy.

One of the primary reasons independent practices are becoming an endangered species is because health insurers frequently pay far less to an independent physician than they pay to, say, a Fletcher Allen-owned physician for the exact same service. There is no good justification for this practice.

I authored language, which passed in S.139, to require that all insurers move toward parity when paying doctors for their services, with the Green Mountain Care Board overseeing this movement toward fairness. Hopefully it’s not too late. For more on the issue, click here.

Utilizing Technology to Improve Access to Health Services

Language I co-authored in S.139, which passed, allows the state’s Medicaid program to reimburse primary care providers who practice telemedicine. Telemedicine is the use of live, interactive video for a patient to consult with a health care provider. This will be most helpful to seniors with transportation challenges, and Vermonters living in very rural areas. Importantly, this should also reduce costs since Medicaid will not need to pay transportation-related expenses for the patients.

Responsible Alternatives to VT Health Connect

As the Governor’s deadline for a functional Vermont Health Connect nears, I joined Senator Jane Kitchel and Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott on a trip to Rhode Island to investigate the possibility of partnering with other states to reduce the operating costs, while improving the quality, of Vermont’s exchange. These promising conversations, which now include the Administration, have the potential to save taxpayers millions in the coming years. More info can be found here.

Saving Vermont Seniors’ Money 

Many Vermont patients’ eyes will glaze over when a health care official tells them they’re either “admitted” or “under observation” at a hospital. However, this technical-sounding distinction can be the difference between thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses for Vermont seniors, and impacts the Medicare benefits the individual is entitled to. I introduced S.5, which passed as a provision of S.139, to require Vermont’s hospitals to notify Medicare patients, in plain English, whether they have been admitted or are under observation so they can avoid getting slammed with huge (and avoidable) bills.

RIGHT TO PRIVACY

Respecting Private Lives in a Digital Era

In this age of Facebook and Twitter, the boundaries between public and private lives can be hard to discern. But I strongly believe, and I know many constituents do as well, that Vermonters should have a right to expect their private life to be just that – private. This is no easy concept to preserve in the face of rapid technological change. S.18 is a comprehensive bill addressing Vermonters’ right to privacy. A scaled-back version of the bill passed which extends the limitations on the use of data collected by law enforcement from Automated License Plate Readers. These readers, usually affixed to police cruisers, are able to generate massive amounts of data about our whereabouts. The bill that passed strikes a balance between legitimate law enforcement needs and our right to not be under surveillance by our government when we have not committed a crime. This fall, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the remaining elements of the bill: the use of commercial and law enforcement drones; protection of personal medical records; and the use of personal information by corporations. Stay tuned for details about these hearings.Click here to read a Burlington Free Press article about the bill.

BUDGET ISSUES

Restructuring Government

S.33 and S.96 are complementary pieces of legislation I introduced aimed at restructuring two entities of state government to be more efficient and effective. Both were absorbed into H.117. The effect of the two bills is to phase out the obsolete operations of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, and to reduce costs at the administrative level of the E-911 Board. The combined effect of these two changes will be to save approximately $750,000/year for taxpayers.

Getting a Handle on IT Spending

If you aren’t aware of the struggles of Vermont Health Connect, you’ve been in hiding. This $100M+ tech project has been painful for state government, and, more importantly, painful for the Vermonters who need to use the site for their health care needs. But you may not know that this is just one of several substantial IT projects on the horizon for the state. Spending on IT is nearing $100M/year across state government, and unlike paving roads or administering heating assistance programs, few legislators truly understand the nature of the spending on these projects. Which is a serious problem.

In order to get IT spending under control, I joined two other Senators in introducing S.129, which was included in the budget bill. It creates an annual IT budget that will be presented to the Legislature and the public. We simply cannot afford to overspend on IT, and we need greater expertise when evaluating and authorizing new IT initiatives.

Recouping Funds from Fraudsters

Senator Dick Sears and I introduced S.140, which allows the State to receive a greater share of any compensation when someone is found to have defrauded the federal government. An example of this would be if a medical provider was falsifying Medicaid claims to receive payments for services not actually rendered. The measure, which passed and has been signed into law, will bring a few hundred thousands of dollars to the state treasury annually.

TAX POLICY

A Transparent, Fair, and Effective Tax Code

Last year I introduced S.221, which became Act 200. The law established a clear legislative purpose for every special provision in the tax code. When we allow a taxpayer or class of taxpayers to receive a credit, exemption, or deduction, we should at least know why we’re doing it and have an explanation for it. This year’s S.41 was the logical follow up. The bill creates a process to measure the effectiveness of each specialty tax provision in the Vermont tax code so we can determine whether it is achieving its intended purpose. These so-called “tax expenditures” total nearly $1 billion so the state has a lot riding on this evaluation. Click here for a good VPR piece on the subject.  For a complete list of Vermont’s Tax Expenditures (and the associated costs), click here.

JUDICIARY ISSUES

Supporting Victims

When a Vermonter is the victim of a sexual assault and seeks law enforcement assistance and/or medical attention, a special team of nurses evaluate the person to ensure that any evidence is preserved and properly catalogued. S.60 addresses an ancillary issue to these terrible situations – the matter of who pays for the special examination. The legislation, which passed, makes sure that the victim is not burdened by out-of-pocket expenses, and that the costs are shared by the health insurer and the state’s victim services fund.

Rooting Out Animal Cruelty, and Making Communities Whole from Crime

I introduced S.102, which passed, to address two issues: to provide law enforcement with the tools needed to prevent organized animal fighting; and to be able to seize certain assets of people participating in animal fighting rings or high level drug trading. The forfeiture of assets related to these crimes will serve as an anvil of sorts in terms of deterring repeat offenses. VT Digger wrote a piece about the bill while it was winding through the legislative process.

CLEAN ENERGY POLICY

Protecting Ratepayers, Promoting Clean Energy

Last year the Finance Committee, which I chair, directed the Department of Public Service to develop a Vermont Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to protect ratepayers while eliminating the “double-counting” of renewable energy credits (RECs) that has been going on for years (which allows other states to move more slowly toward renewables). This is particularly timely because if Vermont didn’t act, other states that buy Vermont utilities’ RECs would stop doing so, causing a significant jump in Vermonters’ electric bills. H.40 was the response to that directive and it establishes the energy “playing field” for the next decade.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

Increasing Access to Capital for Start-Ups

Six years ago, when I served on the Economic Development Committee, we created the Vermont Technology Loan Program, administered by the Vermont Economic Development Authority. This lending program provides much needed capital to start-up and early-stage businesses that cannot easily access conventional bank loans. This year, we updated the law to allow more generous loan amounts, reflecting increased cost pressures facing new businesses.

 

 

 

 

 

Tim’s Work to Further Economic Development

Chittenden County has a vibrant economy. Owing to the heroic efforts of local businesses small, medium, and large, we weathered the Great Recession and continue to be a place where innovation and initiative are rewarded. We need to continue to build on the solid economic foundation that is in place. That success requires an appreciation of the role government can play in support of private sector activity. It also requires a deep understanding of economic development in Chittenden County itself. (See below to learn more about my private sector economic development experience.)

PUBLIC SECTOR EFFORTS IN SUPPORT OF LOCAL BUSINESSES

Though I no longer serve on the Senate’s Economic Development Committee, I continue to advance legislation that supports a strong economy. These are some highlights from the 2014 session.

  • 10% for Vermont Economic Development – Co-authored language, which became law in Act 199, that allows the State Treasurer to transfer up to 10% of the state’s cash balance to VEDA to deploy as economic development assistance in the form of low cost financing to Vermont businesses. While this can boost our economy, it also gives the State more control over its investments.
  • Legacy Insurance – Vermont’s Next Economic Development Niche? – Vermont is the nation’s leading home to captive insurance companies. Every year, representatives from Vermont-domiciled captives come from all over the country to herald Vermont’s approach to captives. Dedicated and knowledgeable state staff, plus strict regulatory rules that inspire confidence in the market, have made Vermont the gold standard in the industry. This year the Senate Finance Committee, which I chair, passed the Legacy Insurance Management Act, with the hopes that we may foster a similar niche industry in the state. Legacy insurance means closed blocks of insurance policies, or groups of policies that are no longer being sold but still need to be managed because the policyholders are entitled to benefits. Once again relying on strict regulatory rules, the new law has tremendous upside for the state’s economy and coffers.
  • Downtown and Village Tax Credits – Co-authored the annual tax bill that included a significant expansion of the Downtown and Village Credit program which provides incentives for the renovation of historic downtown buildings that have seen better days. These awards are granted from the largest communities to the smallest villages.
  • Economic Development Districts – Authored and was lead sponsor on S.37, which became law as Act 80, which resolved historical issues with Tax Increment Financing Districts and allowed economic development activities to proceed in Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski, Milton, and other Vermont municipalities.
  • Beer and Wine Tastings – Introduced S .181, which became law as Act 202, which makes it legal for bars and restaurants to serve sampler flites of beer, wine and distilled beverages. Yes, this was actually illegal before!
 From 2009 – 2012, I served on the Economic Development Committee including a term as Vice-Chair. Participating in economic development policymaking for the entire state has broadened my understanding of how the public and private sectors can partner together while ensuring that economic development balances economic, social, and environmental concerns. Working with Senate and House colleagues, I’ve been fortunate to help create and enact a number of important economic development initiatives. They include:
  • Seed Capital Fund – makes state equity investments in growth stage businesses
  • VEDA Tech Loan Fund – provides loans to tech-related businesses that have trouble attracting conventional bank financing
  • Vermont Jobs Funds – capitalized this VEDA program to allow more lending during recession
  • Supported investments in Microbusiness Development for early-stage small businesses
  • Farm to Plate Program – Helped secure initial funding for this statewide agriculture enterprise planning
  • Benefit Corporations – this new type of Vermont corporation permits a business to factor considerations other than merely profit in its business decisions
  • Downtown and Village Credit Program – successfully increased this important downtown development resource which has been used by Burlington businesses
  • Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund – Served as a Senate negotiator to find balanced solution to state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund insolvency
  • Burlington Aviation Tech Center – Helped secure funds to support this training facility which has a 100% job placement history
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Hiring Incentive Program – this hiring incentive program will stimulate hiring in these fields
  • Long-term Unemployed Hiring Incentive Program – this program aims to bring long-term unemployed Vermonters back into the workforce
  • State Purchasing Initiative – Wrote language to increase State of Vermont purchases from in-state businesses
  • Dept. of Labor Self-Employment Initiative – this innovative program allows unemployed Vermonters to enroll in approved business start-up programs in lieu of the traditional job search while collecting UI benefits

Each of these initiatives has benefited Chittenden County and the state’s economy.

A CAREER IN ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

I’ve been grateful to work at South Burlington’s Cathedral Square for more than seven years. Cathedral Square is Vermont’s primary developer, owner, and manager of affordable senior housing. Most of our work has been in Chittenden County. Working with my colleagues, I created or renovated 396 affordable senior housing apartments. The combined budgets of this work totals more than $30 million, funded by private and public sources. At a time when our economy badly needed a boost, I was proud to secure competitive and scarce funds to put hundreds of people to work and meet the obvious housing needs of our community’s seniors. In Burlington, I led the “green retrofit” of Cathedral Square Senior Living, also known as Three Cathedral Square. The energy-based improvements are saving tens of thousands annually in reduced gas and electric use. In addition, we successfully installed a 153 panel, 36 kw rooftop photovoltaic system. Also in Burlington, we worked with New North End community members to develop a plan to create a mixed income, multi age neighborhood behind the former DMV on North Avenue. CSC’s 69 total apartments have the double value of creating safe, affordable homes for New North End seniors while freeing up some homes for potential first-time homebuyers. I also worked on development projects in Essex, South Burlington, St. Albans, and Shelburne.

A Sampling of Tim’s 2013-2014 Legislative Efforts

In the Senate I serve as Chair of the Finance Committee, and also as a member of the Judiciary Committee. All major tax, insurance, banking, and utility matters come before the Finance Committee, while Judiciary addresses the criminal justice system and crime prevention. But my interests run far and wide, and so I am active beyond the scope of these two committees. Below is a sampling of work I had a hand in this past session. As is always the case, no bill becomes a law because of one legislator – it is always the work of many. So references to my sponsorship or authorship of bills should not be read to suggest others weren’t key to the success of the measures.

JUDICIAL AND CRIME PREVENTION ISSUES

* Pre-Trial Risk Assessments

I co-sponsored S.295 with Sally Fox and others that established the framework for Act 195. This bill establishes a statewide framework for screening entrants into the criminal justice system to see if there are instances when substance abuse treatment may be more appropriate than incarceration for certain crimes. Before this bill, Windsor and Chittenden Counties had innovative programs in this spirit. Now their good example is enshrined statewide.

* Protecting a Woman’s Right to Choose

Throughout the country legislators in recent years have been reducing women’s legal rights to make their own reproductive choices. Vermont is an exception to that trend. While Vermont rests on the Roe v Wade decision to enshrine the right to choose, our statutes have long included provisions that make the performance of an abortion a criminal act. Trumped by federal law for now, those criminal sanctions would be in effect if the current US Supreme Court overturns Roe v Wade. I introduced S.315, a bill that would remove the outdated criminal sanctions for abortions. In the end, the bill passed in a slightly different form as S.317, which was signed by the Governor in March.

* Innocence Protection

I introduced S.184, to require that Vermont law enforcement agencies follow best practices when it comes to eyewitness identification and custodial interrogations. These innocence protection measures, which became law in Act 193, reduce the likelihood a Vermonter will go to prison for a crime he or she did not commit. This news story provides more background on the issue.

http://digital.vpr.net/post/innocents-jailed-bills-aim-reduce-errors-police-line-ups

* License Plate Reader Use by Law Enforcement – Protecting Privacy

In 2013 I learned that several dozen law enforcement agencies in Vermont were using Automated License Plate Reader devices. The Legislature had no idea, and from the notes and calls I received from constituents, neither did most Vermonters. Most troubling was that the images detailing our whereabouts were being stored in one master database for many years whether we’d done anything wrong or not.

To address this civil liberties issue, I introduced S.18. The bill, which passed both the House and the Senate and became law as Act 69, sets new parameters on the use of ALPRs, creates a protocol for access to the database, and restricts the amount of time that law enforcement may retain information on people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing. As technology continues to advance, we’ll struggle more and more to protect individual privacy, but we must do so lest there be no difference between public and private lives.

* Gun Storage in Domestic Violence Cases

I introduced a provision in S.277 that would establish a process by which law enforcement agencies can remove and store certain firearms and weapons from defendants in abuse cases. The provision was added to the Fee Bill and became law in Act 191.

* Prosecuting Cases of Animal Abuse or Neglect

Introduced S.237, which became law as Act 201, that makes it easier to prosecute cases of animal abuse and neglect. The law also expedites the court cases so the caregivers to the animals can more quickly recover expenses and, if appropriate, adopt out the animals.

* Protecting Victims of Sexual Assault

I introduced S.49, which became law through the House version of the bill as Act 197, which closes an unintended gap in the law that would allow perpetrators of sexual assault to seek custody of a child parented through the assault. This is a complicated area of law, despite the apparent obviousness of the policy we’ve enacted. I have no hesitation to slam the door shut on the perpetrator in clear assault and rape cases.

REDUCING INCOME INEQUALITY

* Minimum Wage

Co-Sponsored the Senate bill to increase the minimum wage. The bill that passed didn’t increase the wage as much as I’d have liked it to, but it is still an important step to increasing the take-home pay of lower-wage workers.

* Equal Pay for Women

Co-sponsored the Senate version of what became Act 31, which strengthens statutes requiring that women receive equal pay for work equal to their male co-workers.

IMPROVING PUBLIC HEALTH

* Overdose Death Prevention

Each of the past two years legislation has passed to help tackle the state’s opiate problem. In 2013, working with Senator Dick Sears, a provision we proposed in S.60, was modified and included in Act 75 which allows medical and substance abuse professionals to prescribe opioid antagonists. These nasal sprays have the nearly instantaneous effect of reversing an overdose from heroin or other opiates. The provision is already credited with saving lives throughout the state.

* Good Samaritans

The House version of S.70, which I introduced with Senator Dick Sears of Bennington, became law as Act 71 and allows someone to call 911 in the case of a drug overdose without fear of being arrested when law enforcement arrives. We need people to seek help for their drug problems, and, in this case, to seek help for others in crisis moments.

* Concussion Training

I was one of three sponsors who introduced S.4, which became law as Act 68, which establishes protocols for handling head injuries and collisions in school sports. As someone who has participated in so-called collision sports all my life, I know how serious concussions are, and we need a consistent approach to them throughout the state.

* Flame Retardants

Co-sponsored a bill, which became law as Act 85, to ban certain chemicals used as flame retardants from household products. These chemicals can be carcinogenic, which is especially threatening to firemen and firewomen when they enter emergency situations.

* Telemedicine and Telemonitoring

Co-sponsored S.88 and S.234, one of which created a pilot program for the use of telemedicine (when a medical professional is consulted remotely through interactive video) and the other authorized telemonitoring (permitting certain health professionals like Visiting Nurses to perform certain activities like blood pressure monitoring through technology). Each of these initiatives will help pave the way for the increased use of technology to drive down health spending for certain appropriate services. They became law as Act 40 and Act 153.

INVESTING IN ENERGY EFFICIENCY AND SOLAR

* Increased Investment in Residential Efficiency and Weatherization

Along with members of the Senate Finance Committee, worked with the State Treasurer to establish a $6.5M financing tool for middle-income homeowners to make home energy improvements. These homeowners are not eligible for typical subsidized programs, so we developed this concept to help make upfront capital improvements financially viable by providing cheap financing. The provision may be found in Act 87.

* Net Metering Expansion

Throughout Vermont, homeowners and businesses have been installing modestly-sized solar systems and connecting them to the electric grid under Vermont’s net metering system. This clean energy replaces dirty power that Vermont’s utilities would have to purchase from the electric market. Though still a small percentage of all electricity consumed in Vermont, these small solar installs have also fueled a new industry of solar technicians. In order to further encourage this distributed clean generation, we passed a net-metering law that expands the amount of net-metering within each electric utility’s service area and allows several large municipal projects to be undertaken on capped landfills to make better use of that land. You can read Act 99 here.

A FAIRER TAX CODE

* Transparency in the Tax Code

I introduced S.221, which became law as Act 200, which established a clear legislative purpose for every special provision in the tax code. When we allow a taxpayer or class of taxpayers to receive a credit, exemption, or deduction, we should at least know why we’re doing and have an explanation for it.

* Employer Assessment

Passed a provision in the annual tax bill that will require employers to make a payment to the state anytime one of their employees receives health care under Vermont’s Medicaid program. It is not fair when all other businesses and taxpayers have to pick up the health care costs for low-wage employees of very large, interstate companies. This provision makes some strides in restoring fairness to the equation.

CONSUMER PROTECTION

* Pension Lending S.223

In recent years, you may have noticed the occasional internet advertisement offering loans against people’s pensions. This is a worrisome area of lending. A pension is earned over an entire working life. Borrowing from poorly understood, often-unregulated lenders could lead to the destruction of the pension. Working with Senator Kevin Mullin from Rutland, we passed a new law requiring that any entity engaging in pension lending be licensed by Vermont and subject to its stringent lending regulations. This first-of-its-kind legislation puts scurrilous lenders on notice that they will not be able to prey upon individuals who may be under financial stress or confused. You can see a press release from the Governor’s office when the bill was signed into law here: http://governor.vermont.gov/newsroom-pension-lending-bill-mature-workers-release

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

* 10% for Vermont Economic Development

Co-authored language, which became law in Act 199, that allows the State Treasurer to transfer up to 10% of the state’s cash balance to VEDA to deploy as economic development assistance in the form of low cost financing to Vermont businesses. While this can boost our economy, it also gives the State more control over its investments.

* Legacy Insurance – Vermont’s Next Economic Development Niche?

Vermont is the nation’s leading home to captive insurance companies. Every year, representatives from Vermont-domiciled captives come from all over the country to herald Vermont’s approach to captives. Dedicated and knowledgeable state staff, plus strict regulatory rules that inspire confidence in the market, have made Vermont the gold standard in the industry. This year the Senate Finance Committee, which I chair, passed the Legacy Insurance Management Act, with the hopes that we may foster a similar niche industry in the state. Legacy insurance means closed blocks of insurance policies, or groups of policies that are no longer being sold but still need to be managed because the policyholders are entitled to benefits. Once again relying on strict regulatory rules, the new law has tremendous upside for the state’s economy and coffers. You can read the law here.

* Downtown and Village Tax Credits

Co-authored the annual tax bill that included a significant expansion of the Downtown and Village Credit program which provides incentives for the renovation of historic downtown buildings that have seen better days. These awards are granted from the largest communities to the smallest villages.

* Economic Development Districts

Authored and was lead sponsor on S.37, which became law as Act 80, which resolved historical issues with Tax Increment Financing Districts and allowed economic development activities to proceed in Burlington, South Burlington, Winooski, Milton, and other Vermont municipalities.

* Beer and Wine Tastings

Introduced S .181, which became law as Act 202, which makes it legal for bars and restaurants to serve sampler flites of beer, wine and distilled beverages. Yes, this was actually illegal before!

Advanced License Plate Readers Legislation Passes

On my way home from a work meeting in September I caught a radio program featuring the police chief in Brookline, Ma. and a staff attorney for the Massachusetts affiliate of the ACLU. They were discussing law enforcement’s use of advanced license plate readers (ALPRs) in Massachusetts. It was clear from the beginning that the readers have great potential to aid law enforcement, but that they also have the potential to threaten individual privacy. These vehicle-mounted cameras are able to capture video images of hundreds of license plates an hour and match the plate numbers against law enforcement records.

A Vermont State Police cruiser outfitted with three license plate readers

After doing some research, I learned that several dozen law enforcement agencies in Vermont were using these devices. The Legislature had no idea, and from the notes and calls I received from constituents, neither did most Vermonters. Most troubling was that the images detailing our whereabouts were being stored in one master database for many years whether we’d done anything wrong or not.

To address this civil liberties issue, I introduced S.18. The bill, which passed both the House and the Senate, sets new parameters on the use of ALPRs, creates a protocol for access to the database, and restricts the amount of time that law enforcement may retain information on people who are not suspected of any wrongdoing.

As technology continues to advance, we’ll struggle more and more to protect individual privacy, but we must do so lest there be no difference between public and private lives.

I want to thank Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Allen Gilbert of the ACLU-VT for their work striking a healthy balance between legitimate law enforcement needs and privacy.

Legislative Tidbits – Brief Snapshots of 2012’s Under-the-Radar Laws

Legislative Tidbit #1: Politicians like to talk about creating jobs, but if many of the programs they support were so successful every state would implement them, and go all in when they do. Fortunately there are a few program that do work to stimulate economic activity in less affluent areas. The New Markets Tax Credit program has led to some important economic development projects in St. J, Rutland, and Lamoille County. In Vermont, these credits are utilized by a subsidiary of Housing Vermont. Nancy Owens, Ken Sassarossi and their colleagues have done a great job deploying capital to lower-income communities. This year the Senate Finance Committee worked with Housing Vermont to simplify the administration of the credits in Vermont and increase the dollars available for additional projects.

Legislative Tidbit #2: The legislation I am most proud of this year is the so-called mobile home bill. Among other important initiatives, the bill creates a special lending product for financing mobile homeownership at better rates. Many Vermonters living in mobile homes pay exorbitant interest rates because they do not own the land under their homes. Emily Higgins and her team at Champlain Housing Trust will be coordinating all the HomeOwnership Centers in Vermont to make mobile home ownership more financially feasible for the thousands of residents who make manufactured housing their homes.

Legislative Tidbit #3: At work last summer we installed a 30kw PV solar array on the roof of our building in South Burlington. Standing among the 120 or so panels in their racks, I noted that typical rooftop HVAC equipment stood nearly twice as tall as the solar equipment. Which got me thinking, if state policy is encouraging solar on residential and commercial buildings, why would we allow local zoning in Vermont’s 200+ municipalities to potentially prohibit panels on flat roofs, where they’re more or less invisible to anyone but the birds. I successfully offered an amendment to the energy bill to remove flat-roof solar arrays from the jurisdiction of zoning. This should speed up installs, save a bit of money, and create a standard approach from town to town.

Legislative Tidbit #4: Though a number of other good labor-management initiatives failed to win support from Legislative leadership, we were able to pass one seemingly modest proposal that will benefit many lower wage employees. Currently many non-teachers working for Vermont school districts are paid hourly (and in some cases on salary) but unlike teachers do not have the option of having their annual pay spread out over the course of 12 months. This causes serious family budgeting problems for many school employees. Allowing them to have their pay spread over 12 months, instead of just the 9 month school year, will act like a savings account for those who choose this “even pay” approach. It won’t make the forward-thinking legislation Hall of Fame, but this is a practical, helpful new law.

Legislative Tidbit #5: Across the country, more and more employers are using credit checks as a consideration when making hiring decisions. While this seems reasonable on its surface, there are problems with credit checks as a basis for a new hire. First off, there is no sound evidence that credit checks tell us anything worthwhile about how an employee will perform. Bernie Madoff probably had great credit. Looking back, would that have been a predictor of anything? Many hard-working lower income people have lousy credit, but show up every day as loyal and productive employees. Should we deny them the chance to improve their finances based upon a score from the discredited ratings agencies? A new “credit check” law that my committee helped develop tries to strike the right balance. In instances where the employee will handle confidential financial information, a credit check may be used during the hiring process with disclosure to the applicant and at no cost to him/her. Otherwise, they cannot be the basis for hiring or firing.

Legislative Tidbit #6: Next time you pay your cell phone or land line bill, take a look on the bill for the Vermont Universal Service Charge. This charge helps pay for the E-911 program throughout the state. But as the communications industry has changed the means of funding E-911 have not. It used to be everyone had a land line, and everyone paid, more or less, equally into the fund. Now, Vermonters with land lines and cell phones pay this charge, but users of prepaid cell phones and internet phone services do not. Prepaid cell phones now account by some estimates for more than 25% of all cell phone activity in Vermont. So the consequences are obvious – those of us with typical cell phone plans and land lines are footing the entire bill for E-911, while the prepaid and internet phone users enjoy the benefits of 911 response coordination without chipping in to pay for it. A study committee we created in the Senate Finance Committee directs the Department of Public Service to present proposed legislation to address this inequity.

Legislative Tidbit #7: It strikes many of us as absurd that hemp production is illegal in the U.S. Absurd, and then strange that hemp products can be purchased so long as they were made outside the United States. Go figure. The Senate Economic Development committee added a provision to a tobacco bill that we hope will prepare Vermont for the day when the federal government comes to their sense on hemp. Years ago the Legislature passed a bill that said the state could create rules for hemp production in Vermont once the federal government legalized production. Our provision this year sets the Agency of Agriculture to the task of developing rules now, so we can help push the feds toward the right decision and so Vermont will be ready to enjoy this new market the moment it is opened up.

Legislative Tidbit #8: I recently returned from a week in northern Michigan where, like Vermont, they have a vibrant young winemaking culture. Visiting the vineyards and tasting rooms there made me all the happier that working with the Vermont Grape and Wine Council we made a few changes to Vermont law to benefit vineyards and consumer alike. One of them undoes what I call the “penalty box” provision of existing law. Currently, if a vineyard wants to offer tastings in a tasting room, patrons must be enclosed in a small cordoned off area. Very inviting indeed! We removed that restriction, so the thousands of people who visit Vermont tasting rooms won’t feel like they’ve misbehaved when they sample Vermont ag products.

Legislative Tidbit #9: As Vermont wines improve, and production increases, Vermont vineyards are in a better position to compete with out-of-state vineyards. In recognition of this evolution, the Senate Economic Development committee which I vice-chair increased the amount of wine a Vermont or out-of-state vineyard can ship to Vermont stores and restaurants and bars. This change reflects a good partnership between the State and our Vermont vintners.

Legislative Tidbit #10: We can all debate the aesthetic merits of tans earned at the tanning salon. There’s no debate however that too much time spent at the tanning salon isn’t good for your health. While adults should be allowed to choose to take the risks associated with tanning beds, kids shouldn’t. This year we passed a bill prohibiting tanning salons from serving anyone under the age of 18. A little time outdoors may do these kids some good anyhow!

Legislative Tidbit #11: You live at the end of a half mile dirt private road with that passes ten other homes. In the spring, you and seven other homeowners jointly contract with a local contractor to do some road and culvert repairs. The other three homeowners won’t pay any share of the costs, let alone a fair share. What can you do about it? Until this year you could try the art of persuasion but not much else. I helped work on a bill that passed that states clearly in law that every beneficiary of the road maintenance is responsible for a proportionate share of the costs.

Legislative Tidbit #12: There’s nothing pleasant about a business shutting down and leaving the employees out of work. And while it conjures up thoughts of unemployment lines, there’s also the issue of wages due for work performed prior to the shutting down of the workplace. In the Senate Economic Development committee we wrote a bill that allows employees to file a lien against the business for unpaid wages so their difficult financial situation isn’t made still more stressed.

Legislative Tidbit #13:  For years, the State of Vermont has granted a modest property tax break for disabled veterans of the U.S. armed forces. It is a small way of rewarding the service and, in these cases, the physical sacrifice these men and women have made. This year we corrected an oversight in the law. Before now, the tax break only applied to those injured in a declared conflict overseas. Disabling injuries, though, occur in training and in regular duty. By extending the tax benefit to all veterans disabled in the line of service we honor their service without prejudice.

Legislative Tidbit #14: Let’s face it – middle and high school kids aren’t always nice to each other. It’s a fact of life. But we each have a sense of when gentle teasing crosses the line and it becomes abusive. Unfortunately each school district and school administrator has its/her own subjective line in the sand. As technology makes bullying and harassment in schools more “viral,” we need a statewide standard for when schools need to step in to help a bullied kid. We enacted such a common definition this year. It won’t stop kids from being treated unkindly, but it sends the clear message of when enough’s enough.

Legislative Tidbit #15: It may seem strange to pass a law to prohibit something in Vermont that isn’t currently happening. But sometimes it’s the safest play. This year we expressly prohibited hydraulic fracking anywhere in Vermont. This method of extracting oil and gas by channeling through rock layers is being practiced in other states, raising risks of groundwater and air contamination. Rather than allow an energy company to seek approval in a the-law-is-silent environment, it makes sense to stack the decks against this risky, fossil-fuel feeding practice before it takes hold.

Legislative Tidbit #16: In the old days, if you called to report a hiker missing, the call was answered by a state trooper who lived and worked near you and who knew the local terrain. After the emergency response system was centralized, the coordination of search and rescue calls is now led out of the Northeast Kingdom, regardless of where the emergency is in Vermont. The State Police should be commended for their willingness to open up the current system to scrutiny in order to determine if Vermont should re-localize the coordination of search and rescue operations. A study committee made up of professional and volunteer land and water rescue crews will report back to the Legislature in January with their recommended system.

Legislative Tidbit #17: Many Chittenden County towns have stepped up to proactively support the creation of perpetually affordable housing in their communities. Unfortunately some towns in Vermont have not been quite so inclusive. In some cases, local development board members have openly spoken of not wanting “those people,” or low income housing, in their towns. The Senate Housing committee this year put an end to that type of discriminatory treatment. Local officials are now prohibited in Vermont from denying a development permit application on the grounds that the facility will serve low and moderate income Vermonters. No Vermont town should be able to, nor will they now be allowed to, practice snob zoning.

Legislative Tidbit #18: Vermont has a rich hunting tradition, and most Vermont hunters are conscientious and safe in the woods. But there are exceptions to the rule, and that can’t be tolerated. This year the Legislature made Vermont a member of the Interstate Wildlife Violator Compact, which prohibits a person who has lost his license to hunt or fish in one member state from hunting or fishing in any other member state. Hopefully this will make people think twice before violating the well-established, time-proven sportsmen’s codes.

Legislative Tidbit #19: One of the most memorable things about going to school as a kid was the smells. Strong, chemically cleaners were used everywhere, leaving a nasty odor in the gym, cafeteria, and classrooms. Given the amount of time Vermont kids spend in schools, we decided to free them from the experience so many of us went through. Schools are now required to use “green” cleaning products that are low/no VOC. Parents and their kids can breathe a little easier now.

2012 Senate in Photos

2016 Senate Work

Year in Photos

Bernie Praise

Every day I walk into the State House I’m grateful that voters have entrusted me to serve as their Senator. And I appreciate every day what an amazing experience it is.

Along the way I like to photo the Senate in action to provide visual reminders of the session. The following is a mini 2012 Senate Year in Photos. I hope this provides some sense of what goes on in Vermont’s “citizen” legislature.

Opening Day, and Week One

The first day of each year in the Legislature is a bit like the first day of school. You reconnect, after an eight month separation, with people with whom you spent four intense months during the previous session.

Senator Dick McCormack, from Bethel, is a folk singer whose performing took him from New York City in the 60s to Madeline Kunin campaign concerts in the 80s. He frequently signs off at the end of the day by declaring “Elvis has left the building.” Here he is arriving for day one. Dick is a good friend and has been great to work with on  a number of issues like protecting resources for the disabled and consumer protection.

 

I feel really lucky that I get to serve at the same time as one of my best friends, Chris Pearson, a Representative who lives on Brookes Ave in Burlington. Chris serves on the House Health Care Committee which took the first stab at the health care reform legislation that’s been the subject of so many television and radio ads. Before carpooling back home after week one, Chris is showing off a photo of the new addition to his family. Taking time from family and normal worklives is a challenge that particularly affects younger legislators.

 

Week Two, Things Start Getting Serious

The Legislature meets Tuesday through Friday from January through the beginning of May. As a result, businesses and other organizations that want to meet with Legislators usually schedule events on Mondays. This makes  it hard for those of us who hold down regular jobs during the session (I only attend events held before  or after normal work hours for instance). In this shot, Governor Shumlin is laying out his priorities for the session at a breakfast held by the Lake Champlain Chamber of  Commerce in South Burlington. Unlike the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which I find one of the most backward interest groups in the country, the Lake Champlain Chamber does a good job reflecting the various perspectives of their member businesses. I don’t always agree with their policies, but I often do.  I also applaud them for their pro-active advocacy of marriage equality back in 2009. These events offer an opportunity to connect  with constituents in a focused setting, whether it’s a business, a school district, or a non-profit service provider.

Much of the first two weeks is spent being updated on the progress of laws we passed the previous year. In this photo, Senators Dick McCormack and Randy Brock review materials in the Senate Finance Committee. I am a member of this committee, which has responsibility for taxes, utilities, health insurance, banking, and other issues. Dick and Randy have fairly opposite politics, but, as is the case with most Legislators in Vermont, they work civilly with one another.

 

Legislators in some states have private offices and a number of staff. Not so in Vermont. We find refuge wherever possible when we need quiet or privacy. One nice feature of the no-office culture of the Legislature is that you’re constantly passing by House and Senate members and various officials. Between the Cedar Creek Room and the cafeteria I spotted Secretary of State Jim Condos (I won a seat to the Senate the year he left) and Senator Vince Illuzzi from Derby.

 

Senator Mark MacDonald from Williamstown is a throw back in many ways. He’s one of the few experts in education finance in Vermont, and has reliably fought to preserve an ability-to-pay approach to funding state services generally. Mark served in the House before the Senate. I owe him a tremendous amount of thanks for spending time with me my first two years in the Senate explaining the nuances of tax policy. Every new member of the Senate quickly finds out how many issues they know little about. The tutoring of new members crosses party lines, and is a tribute to the institution.

 

Late January

From January to May, the State House becomes home to many administration officials as well as legislators. In this shot, three Health Department officials are in the cafeteria trying to figure out their new tech gadgets. With technology playing a greater role in state government, I’ve noticed more scenes like this – furrowed brows, puzzled looks.

 

In 2013 health care reform will be the signature issue of the session. Claire Ayer from Addison County is the Chair of the Senate Health and Welfare committee, and is a former nurse. After a long day of testimony she catches up with old colleague Doug Racine who is now the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services. I am indebted to Doug for teaching me the ropes in the Senate my first term when we sat side-by-side on the Senate floor. He was a great pick by Governor Shumlin for the post.

 

 

 

In my family of six, we were all big gesticulators. Mark MacDonald and I were clearly cut from the same cloth. Here we’re discussing the impact of health care exchanges on Vermont businesses in an early briefing.

 

The first month of the session flies by. On the last day of January I took this morning shot of Roman Kokadyniak, the staff assistant for the Senate Economic Development Committee which I Vice-Chair. Roman is one of the unsung staff who makes the session run smoothly. We handle a ton of paperwork over the course of four months, and Roman and his colleagues make it make sense. Like any “workplace,” staff like Roman contribute to the feel of each committee.

Later that morning while visiting with Senators Sara Kittell from Fairfield and Jeanette White from Putney, former Senator Hull Maynard from Rutland County paid a visit. Hull retired mid-way through my first term and I hadn’t seen him since. An inn-owner with his wife, Hull was once the Overseer of the Poor in his town, a position that was prevalent in Vermont communities in the old days.

February

The issues start to heat up when February comes. The updates are over, it’s time to get down to lawmaking. In this photo, members of the Senate and House Health Committees hold a joint hearing on the major health care reform bill. Joint hearings, often held at night, give the public an opportunity to participate while bills are being drafted and before it’s too late. On the Senate Economic Development Committee we try to hold committee meetings around the state to bring the legislature to the people, but it’s hard to pull that together logistically. Nighttime meetings are the next best thing.

During the session, those of us who are involved in most of the big issues struggle to find time to get everything done. Even the carpool is a time to have phone conferences. Here, Chris Pearson participates in a 7.30 a.m. conference call on health care reform. If you’re worried about our safety, don’t worry, we were in the backseat!

In mid-February, a few of us on the Senate Economic Development Committee wanted to better understand the implications of the then-proposed merger of CVPS and Green Mountain Power, particularly as it affected VELCO, the state’s transmission line network. We held hearings on the issue, which drew standing room only crowds. The very act of holding hearings drew criticism from groups like the Vermont Business Roundtable. On the contrary, I think when we’re talking about 75% of the state’s electric customers and the $1.3B assets of VELCO, we should be criticized if we DID NOT hold hearings. In this photo, Peter Galbraith, the former Ambassador and current Senator from Townshend, is reviewing public service board documents with a backdrop or reporters, lobbyists, and administration officials.

After some jockeying on the Senate floor, the merger issue moved to the Senate Finance Committee, of which I’m also a member. With the issue also came the reporters, the lobbyists, and the utility executives.

This was taken just before we started a Reapportionment Committee meeting. The map on the wall was what the House proposed for a new House district in Southern Vermont. Each color represents a different town. By car itwould have taken nearly an hour and a half to drive the district end to end. We opposed the district, and in the end something more reasonable was worked out. Unfortunately, good policy didn’t always prevail during redistricting. Chittenden County’s growth relative to the state offers two choices – lose towns to other Senate districts, or add another Chittenden Senator. Needless to say, other Senators did not relish the chance to give up their seat to we Chittenden voters, so they removed Huntington and Buel’s Gore from our district.

March

With the Town Meeting Break, March feels a little disjointed in the Capitol. Most of the big issues (health care, the budget, and taxes for example) start in the House before coming to the Senate so the Senate heats up in late March.

In this shot, new Rep. Jean O’Sullivan, with whom I served on the Burlington City Council in 2005, discusses what the House Housing and General Affairs Committee was working on. Jean was appointed to fill the remainder of Mark Larson’s term in a New North End house district. Mark left to become the commissioner of the Department of Vermont Health Access – no easy job. Jean’s job is tough also – entering mid-stride and trying to make a contribution. Jean’s been around legislative work for years so hit the ground running.

 

As March progressed some of the hot button issues started to emerge. I took this photo when Finance Committee members met with the Senate President John Campbell in his office to discuss the so-called cloud tax. The issue is whether software utilized in the cloud should be subject to tax the way a CD-ROM with Microsoft Office would be. I believed the best course of action was to call a timeout on the issue while we tried to better understand the implications of charging this tax both to businesses and consumers. To paraphrase my argument to committee members: “You look to me as the young guy for answers on tech issues, and what I can tell you is I’m totally confused by this issue.” In the end, we put a moratorium on the tax for a year and will return next year with a long-term approach.

April/May

April marks the most critical month in the Senate. We spend the most time on the floor debating the bills, and the so-called money bills all receive final action at the end of the month (the House sends them over to us in April).

While it’s a busy time, we still need to take breaks for sanity. Here a few Senators speak to the final group of legislative pages. Pages join us in three batches over the course of the session and help the flow of activity by acting as messengers. One page said in his blog: “Legislators seem to sit around a lot.” Very true.

My favorite shot of the session. Here are some Senators looking at language I wrote to make it state policy that anytime electrical ratepayers bail out a utility they get paid back the money. Inspired by the GMP/CVPS merger, it would have applied in any utility setting whether there was a merger or not. The language passed the Senate 27-3 but did not win support in the House.

As the session moves toward adjournment, Senators still in the mix on conference committees pull late nights. Taken at 10 pm, these colleagues are hashing out the final details of the Working Landscapes Bill. Harold Giard from Addison County is on the left. He’s not running again. I found Harold to have a huge heart and always spoke and voted his conscience. Ginny Lyons from Williston is on the right. Her knowledge of environmental issues is a huge asset when the Senate takes up agricultural issues.

 

In the waning days, there’s a lot of down time between floor sessions. In this photo, Anthony Pollina from Middlesex, and Joe Benning from Caledonia County read up on bills that we’ll be acting on in a couple hours. Anthony and Joe were both new this term and were strong advocates for their values, even if usually on the opposite end of the spectrum.

In order to more informally discuss big, complicated bills like the tax bill we often “caucus” in a large meeting downstairs from the Senate chambers. Here, Dick Mazza from Colchester, Jane Kitchel from Danville, and Bob Hartwell from Dorset follow along a presentation from Ann Cummings, my Senate Finance Committee chair.Another favorite, this was taken a few hours before the gavel fell on the session. Bill Lofy is Governor Shumlin’s chief-of-staff. Bill is great to work with – levelheaded, bright, and, like his boss, appreciative that every day is an opportunity for new allies. I took this from the Senate Chamber looking out on the Capitol steps.

 

 

 

 

Adjournment

I enjoyed assembling this group of photos, and hope it helps illustrate the human side of what goes on in the State House for four months each year. I focused more on the people than the policies. The policy reflections will keep coming in separate posts. Thanks for giving me the chance to represent you and have these experiences to share.

Exemptions to Vermont Open Records Law

On August 15th, the Burlington Free Press ran an editorial that supported my call for the passage of a bill that removes as many exemptions to the current Vermont open records law as possible.

From the Free Press: “…there is much more to this story than the shortfalls of the criminal justice system, as the Senate candidates will tell you.  For this reason, Sen. Tim Ashe in his response to our question, was less than supportive of selective judicial reform by the governor when action has already been commenced by the Legislature on the other compelling issue of the day – dealing with hundreds of exemptions to the open records law.
Ashe wrote in the Free Press, the Legislature rather “should act on the recommendations of the Public Records Study Committee. This bi-partisan committee reviewed the first batch of the state’s 239 (yes, 239!) exemptions to the public records laws.” He said the committee suggested “the complete elimination of many” exemptions…

Read the entire Burlington Free Press editorial piece here.

Below is my full response to the Burlington Free Press regarding this issue:

Like many Vermonters, I’m disturbed by allegations that a State Trooper falsified timesheets to pad overtime pay. If true, laws were broken and there must be consequences. I also join all Vermonters in being saddened by the tragic events involving the Curriers in Essex. In that case, the battle to make some investigation documents public raised important legal and policy questions. That said, to respond to these two high profile events by focusing the state’s transparency efforts on the judiciary and law enforcement would be short-term political pandering and miss the point.

Transparency is not some box that’s simply checked off on a checklist after enacting a law with some provisions affecting the judiciary, law enforcement, or any other area of state government. It’s a concept that reflects the constant, evolving effort to balance the right of the public to know how their government is serving them with other interests like privacy and public safety. It also reflects the affirmative efforts of government to present information in a manner that is accessible to the public.

Rather than focus on one policy area what should the Legislature do in 2013 to improve the transparency of Vermont state government? Three things.

First, it should act on the recommendations of the Public Records Study Committee. This bi-partisan committee reviewed the first batch of the state’s 239 (yes, 239!) exemptions to the public records law, suggesting the retention of some, the amendment of others, and the complete elimination of many. Their thoughtful work can be found at www.leg.state.vt.us/workgroups/PubRec/ as can a complete list of all the exemptions with the historical justifications for them.

Second, given limited time and resources, the Legislature must commit itself to evaluating the areas of state government most critical to the public, and honestly and plainly communicating what they find. Take, for example, broadband and cell coverage. We all know the Governor has promised 100% coverage by the end of 2013. The Vermont Telecommunications Authority has been handed many millions of dollars to fill the gaps in coverage by subsidizing the private sector to fill them. Are they doing a good job? Have they spent our money wisely to ensure the greatest number of people get coverage?

Maybe, but the public doesn’t know. No newspaper has provided in-depth coverage in the past year. No legislative committee spent more than fleeting time evaluating their performance this year. The State Auditor didn’t conduct a performance audit of their work.

All the VTA’s documents are public, their meetings open, their conduct honest. Yet it can hardly be called transparent if no one knows anything about their work.

Finally, the Legislature shouldn’t pass any transparency-related bills as an overreaction to any single incident, Exemptions to Vermont Open Records Law nor merely at the insistence of any media outlet. Doing so may compromise individual privacy, agency investigations, etc.

In the past few years, in the pages of this newspaper, there have been calls for opening up the personnel files of some public sector employees for public viewing. In instances when unlawful activities have occurred, this may be appropriate. However, the broad-brush advocacy of some would, in effect, make every public employee’s personnel file a public document. That would inappropriately reveal personal health and family information.

This paper has also sought to make public records in active criminal investigations. In the worst case, a completely open records policy would result in fewer convictions and compromise public safety. Any changes in this area of law require careful consideration.

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