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. 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.
Below you’ll find highlights of my work from 2013-2014.
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 I introduced S.315, a bill that would remove the outdated criminal sanctions for abortions.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.
* 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.
* 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
* 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!
Tim’s VT State Senate
I’ve been honored to serve Chittenden County as state senator for three terms. Below is a sampling of my legislative achievements thus far in the Vermont Senate. I’ve highlighted issues where my efforts made something happen, not just something I supported or voted for. As anyone who has followed the Legislature knows, nothing gets done without collaboration with others. So nothing below should be construed to suggest I accomplished anything without the support, cooperation, and wisdom of others.
HOUSING FOR AT-RISK TEENS
While much attention is focused on transitional housing for those exiting the corrections system, too little attention has been dedicated to housing designed to keep people from making the types of decisions that land them in jail in the first place. I authored language that directed funds to create single-room occupancy housing for at -risk young people. As a condition of housing, these individuals have to commit to job-, educational-, and life-training. As a reward for completing a comprehensive program, “graduates” receive rental assistance when they move into private rental housing. I’d much rather us invest in people making good choices than in a large corrections budget.
PROTECTING VT’S MOBILE HOME PARKS FROM FUTURE STORMS AND INCREASING RESIDENT OWNERSHIP
In the wake of Tropical Storm Irene, the physical vulnerabilities of many mobile home parks became newly appreciated. Mobile homes bore a disproportionate brunt of Irene’s wrath, particularly in Windsor and Washington Counties. While the immediate response was rightly to get these neighbors back into safe housing, the next order of business was to apply the lessons learned during the storm to prepare Vermont for the future. I co-authored a bill in the Senate that achieves a few things to bolster our mobile home stock. Highlights of the bill include:
* Mapping the state’s mobile home parks so we know where they lie in floodplains and fluvial zones, and identifying nearby parcels that could be used to relocate to safer ground proactively.
* Investing in local expertise to help residents of mobile home parks form resident-owned cooperatives. Three recent mobile home parks have gone co-op, in Milton, Swanton, and Windsor. This is an exciting trend.
* Establishing a low-interest financing program for mobile home purchasers who complete the HomeOwnership Centers’ homebuying program. This will help dramatically lower the costs of housing for many Vermonters.
Was the lead sponsor of legislation in 2009 to ensure that the minimum wage never decreases. Because Vermont’s minimum wage is now tied to CPI, and CPI went down that year, low wage workers in Vermont could have suffered similar to those in Colorado where the minimum wage decreased for the same reason. The language of my bill was passed in the 2009 Jobs Bill, H.313.
HOUSING AND CONSERVATION
On the Senate Institutions Committee, I led the effort to invest $5 million of bonded money in the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s activities. These difficult times are gut check time for our core values as a state. Affordable housing, farm conservation, and working forestry are central Vermont values to me, and I’m grateful the Legislature agreed and made this investment.
Co-sponsored an amendment that passed the Senate that would restrict Vermont households with significant wealth from receiving property tax rebates under income sensitivity. The language, which was unfortunately dropped by the House, would make any household with more than $1 million in net assets (excluding the primary residence) ineligible for any property tax income sensitivity. For thirty years, government has subjected lower and moderate income families to income and asset tests to prevent them from unfairly benefiting from subsidy programs. It is only fair we hold the highest wealth households to the same standard. I also worry that support for income sensitivity itself is undermined when people with tremendous wealth are receiving $8000 property tax discounts.
HEALTH CARE EXPENSES
Over the last couple of years we’ve seen our state employees take a 5% pay cut. We’ve had state employees and state teachers take cuts in their retirement. Executive branch staff making over $60,000 have taken a 5% pay cut. State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs, 5% pay cuts. Legislators, 5% pay cuts. The unemployed will now see between a 5 and 10% benefit cut. Small business owners, involuntary pay cuts. And worst of all, I think, the Vermont median household income, so the typical Vermont family, between 2005 and 2008, saw a 10% reduction in their household income. At the same time, board members of Blue Cross Blue Shield have been earning between $15-45K for service on a quasi-public non-profit board. I offered an amendment that nearly passed the Senate to lower the collective pay of the BCBS-VT Board by 10% to reflect the sacrifice being made throughout government. Though the proposal fell just short of passage, it raised the question of how some Board members could justify receiving up to $45,000/year for serving on a non-profit board while moderate income Vermonters are asked to pay significantly higher Catamount costs.
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.
UNIVERSAL HEALTH INSURANCE
I was a sponsor of S.88, the first in a series of three health care reform bills that laid out the vision for reforming our financially unsustainable health insurance “system” in Vermont. Call it single-payer, multi-payer, or whatever, the important thing is we design a system that covers everyone, saves money, and provides good care.
I was surprised to learn that unemployment insurance beneficiaries, when confirming their ongoing eligibility for benefits, are not required to provide the name and numbers of employers from whom they sought employment. They are merely required to answer “yes” when asked if they are seeking employment as required under law. I offered an amendment, which has now become law, to require that unemployment recipients provide specific information about whom they have contacted in their job search. This will reduce instances of non-compliance and encourage more people to seek legitimate employment opportunities.
I helped secure funding for the Farm-to-Plate program through the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. This initiative is mapping out all agricultural resources in the state, and creating a blueprint for future ag investments. At a cost of just $200,000, this has been an exciting effort that highlights the future of small-scale diversified agriculture. I also co-authored a small grant program called Farm-to-Institutions that used stimulus dollars to make infrastructure grants to groups of farmers so they can aggregate their supply to sell to Vermont institutions like hospitals, colleges, and large businesses.
MOVING FORWARD WITH HEMP
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. On behalf of the Senate Economic Development committee I presented a provision to a tobacco bill that we hope will prepare Vermont for the day when the federal government comes to their senses 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.
Between 10-15% of Vermonters do not have access to broadband, and thousands of others have poor quality service. I co-authored language directing $8 million toward expanding broadband access in 2010. There were some in the Administration and in the Legislature who believe we should give public dollars to private companies and simply hope for the best. Language I wrote ensured the public will retain some of the enduring value in the physical infrastructure, and put in place minimum service standards so businesses aren’t being subsidized to offer substandard service. At my request, the Economic Development Committee set aside $500,000 to upgrade telecom infrastructure in business districts throughout the state. Our business community needs state-of-the-art telecom to be competitive. At present we’re a decade behind.
I successfully worked with colleagues on the Senate Economic Development Committee to twice expand the Downtown and Village Tax Credit program, which allows developers in our downtowns and village centers (exactly where we want development) to draw equity from outside investors in exchange for offering tax credits. Downtowns and village centers are the most expensive places to develop, and in my opinion this program has done more to lower the costs of smart growth development than any other measure.
CLEAN ENERGY ASSESSMENT DISTRICTS
I strongly supported language that authorizes municipalities to create Clean Energy Assessment Districts. Essentially, Chittenden County towns can now choose, or not, to create a special fund to provide town residents long-term financing for energy-based home improvements like solar arrays or weatherization. The banking industry mostly opposed this measure because it offers the promise of lower interest rates and more manageable payback periods than most banks have been willing to offer. I am proud to have been a key supporter of this innovative new option for Vermont towns.
SMALL BUSINESS FAIRNESS
During campaigns throughout the county, small business owners speak to me of the heavy burden they carry in workers compensation costs. As I researched this issue, it became clear that some businesses are misclassifying their employees to dishonestly reduce their workers comp costs. For example, one construction company involved in building the Lowe’s in South Burlington was found to be classifying high-risk steel erectors as laborers to reduce their costs. This results in a cost-shift to the great majority of honest businesses. Along with Senator Illuzzi, I led the effort to pass a bill that will ramp up enforcement of workers comp abuse. Of all the challenges facing Vermont small businesses, subsidizing cheaters should not be one of them.
STATE PARK MODERNIZATION
On the Senate Institutions Committee, I worked with Dick Mazza and Chair Phil Scott to fund a major initiative aimed at rebuilding our state park system. From nearby Mount Philo to Fort Dummer in Brattleboro, our chronically underfunded parks, which are so valuable to Vermonters, will get the investment they need to avoid irreparable decline. The program has put dozens of unemployed Vermonters back to work.
Passed an amendment redirecting existing workforce training dollars to slaughterhouse employees to train them in humane treatment of animals on their way to slaughter. The mistreatment that occurred at Bushways in Grand Isle threatens the Vermont brand, and we need to ensure that workers in this difficult field are highly trained to avoid future violations. The $50,000 in training dollars was used to develop humane treatment plans at seven Vermont slaughterhouses.