September 20, 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.