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Final Legislative Update of the 2024 Session! (with Rep. Arsenault)





Note: This final update was published in the Williston Observer as a two-part series.



Article #1


Around 2:15 am on Saturday, May 11 the Vermont House of Representatives adjourned for the 2024 session, which also concluded the biennium. We are grateful to the Williston community for trusting us to represent you in Montpelier. We appreciate this opportunity to share some of the important work of this session. Of course, there is much more nuance than we can fit in this column and we are always happy to answer questions and talk further. 


The Budget


The most essential and challenging work of government is how we invest our public dollars. Our budget was only 0.46% greater than the governor’s proposed budget, in part because we invested about $17 million in flood and disaster relief for hard hit communities across the state. In H.883, we targeted our available dollars at the priorities we heard about over and over: housing, climate resilience, health care, and public safety. Our Appropriations Committees had to make tough choices to put our limited dollars where they can make the biggest difference.

 

The legislature passed a balanced budget, despite double-digit health care increases. Just before we wrote this, we were notified that Vermont health insurance companies are again requesting double-digit increases in health insurance premiums. Health care costs are driving out-of-control growth in every budget, from a family’s budget to school district budgets to the state budget. We’ll focus more on our efforts to address skyrocketing healthcare costs in our article next week but this is work that will take many years (and much of it should be done federally). 


Protecting Vermonters: Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform 


Retail theft was a focus for much of the session. The House Judiciary Committee heard from numerous retail shop owners and employees that the brazenness with which a small group of offenders repeatedly steal items from their stores was partly due to the fact that there is little to no accountability for these thefts. H.534 addresses this concern with harsher penalties for repeat offenses of retail theft. We also know that the larger issue is the current court backlog. 


Despite naming public safety as a top priority, the governor’s recommended budget did not sufficiently fund key elements of our criminal justice system. The House advocated fiercely for proper funding of the Vermont Judiciary, the Office of the Defender General, the Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs, as well as the Center for Crime Victim Services. All of these vital entities contribute to the criminal justice process and must be fully-funded in order to reduce the court backlog.


With the backlog and accountability in mind, the legislature also passed H.645, a bill that creates a path to accountability through community justice centers (overseen by the Attorney General’s Office) before alleged offenders enter the criminal justice system. Called “pre-charge diversion,” this approach could lead to a reduction in the court backlog and, importantly, a higher sense of justice or closure for victims of crimes. 


We also passed S.58, which accomplishes a number of public safety-related changes. First, it delays the implementation of Vermont‘s Raise the Age initiative. This was a request from the Governor’s administration, as the Department for Children and Families (DCF) testified that they lack the workforce, IT infrastructure, and physical infrastructure (a secure juvenile facility) to properly implement the next phase of Raise the Age (to include 19-year-olds in the category of juvenile offenders). 


There is still a strong desire and commitment at DCF to implement this change, but they want to be sure they can do so responsibly, in a way that best serves the children in their care, as well as DCF employees. S.58 requires DCF to submit bi-monthly reports on their progress through April 1, 2025. 


Other provisions in the bill include the addition of xylazine to the list of regulated drugs and the creation of a felony charge for selling xylazine. In addition, the bill eliminates the so-called ostrich defense (or willful blindness), which has allowed drug dealers to escape accountability by arguing that they did not know that the drugs they were selling contained fentanyl. 


Vermont Ghost Gun Act


At the intersection of drug laws and public safety, you will often find guns. The legislature acknowledged that intersection by passing S.209, the Vermont Ghost Gun Act. 


Vermont law enforcement officers have noted an increase in untraceable firearms – ghost guns – being used in the commission of various crimes, but mainly related to the drug trade. S.209 prohibits possession, sale, or transfer of firearms without a serial number. These guns can be assembled from parts (often sold in a kit) or printed using a 3D printer. Additionally troubling is the fact that folks can possess such a gun without undergoing a background check. Under S.209, a person can still make a firearm on their own, but must bring it to a Federal Firearms Licensee (FFL) to be serialized. They would then undergo a background check before the gun is returned to them.  

This bill also includes an important provision that bans firearms at polling places during elections and early voting. The Constitutionality of this law is well-established and the current political climate warrants increased protections of poll workers, candidates, and voters to ensure free and fair elections.


Tackling Domestic and Sexual Violence


Data from December 2023 showed that 40% of all calls to law enforcement for a violent crime involved domestic violence. The legislature passed H.27, which adds “coercive controlling behavior” to the definition of abuse in the civil statute, making it something for which survivors may request a relief from abuse order – commonly referred to as an “RFA.”


Before H.27 became law (it was signed by the Governor this month), Vermont statute required that seekers of relief from abuse orders be physically harmed or in fear of imminent physical harm. With H.27, there is now a clearer pathway out of an abusive situation before physical violence occurs.


We also passed H.173, which is an act relating to prohibiting manipulating a child for the purpose of sexual contact. While you may think that this behavior is already prohibited, the House Judiciary Committee learned that a few changes to existing laws could strengthen the prosecution’s case when dealing with instances of what some call “grooming.”  


The changes to statute contained within this bill arose from the diligent work of the Committee for Protecting Students from Sexual Exploitation. That group – created by Act 5 of 2018 – was charged with exploring how the behaviors we’ve described as “manipulating” could be made unlawful in schools. H.173 provides a useful tool for law enforcement and prosecutors to investigate and stop these abusive behaviors.


Protecting Vermonters Online


The legislature also focused on digital safety through the passage of H.121, one of the strongest data privacy laws in the country. 


Every day we disclose, intentionally or not, a tremendous amount of personal information. Social media platforms, search engines, cell phones, health trackers, stores (both online and brick-and-mortar), and other data brokers are collecting not just our names, addresses, and Social Security numbers, but also our shopping habits, blood pressure, gait and sleep quality, fingerprints, our travel routes, who our friends are and their interests, and so much more. This personal and biometric data belongs to us, yet it is harvested, packaged, and sold by (and sometimes stolen from) these data brokers without our knowledge or permission.

 

In the absence of federal action on this issue, 14 states have passed legislation to protect consumer privacy, our personal identification, and our children’s data. Building on the work done in states across the country, our bill is right-sized for Vermont businesses, and aligns with other states in our region. 


Of further importance is the fact H.121 contains explicit additional protections for our kids. Another bill, S.289 (also called Vermont Kids Code), was added to our data privacy bill and stipulates that any app or platform likely to be accessed by children owes a “minimum duty of care” to any child user of the product. This bill requires putting the health, safety, and well-being of kids before the profits of the company or product, and the products must not be designed to encourage excessive or compulsive use. 


These protections are vital, as we know that the dramatic decrease in youth mental health is tied directly to the rise of smartphones and use of social media. There is much work yet to be done on this front, but H.121 represents a significant first step. 


Many of these bills still await the Governor’s signature before their positive impacts can be felt by Vermonters. The legislature is prepared to return for a veto session in mid-June, if needed, to complete this important work. 


Despite bigger challenges and high levels of political tension this session, it’s truly remarkable to be part of a process where so many people care so much about the future of their communities and the future of our state. The people we encounter in the legislative process – fellow legislators, state government employees, advocates, State House staff, legislative counsel, and so many more – are incredibly thoughtful and hardworking. 


Next week, we will focus on the interrelated issues of housing, Act 250 reform, healthcare, and education (including education finance). 


Rep. Erin Brady (Vice Chair, Education Committee)

Rep. Angela Arsenault (Judiciary Committee)



Article #2


We sincerely appreciate those who joined us at the library last Wednesday evening for another community conversation. Hosting these open dialogues over the last two years has been a bright spot for both of us. We have gotten to know members of our community and are grateful that so many in Williston care deeply about our collective future and devote themselves to a range of town positions, boards, and volunteer organizations. 


Last week we wrote about significant legislation that passed this session to protect Vermonters, including several public safety bills, an important financial investment in our court system so that justice is served in a more timely manner, and robust data privacy legislation to protect Vermonters online, especially kids. 


Also receiving a great deal of attention this session were the interrelated and complex challenges of housing, healthcare access, and funding for our education system. 


Housing Impacts All Aspects of Our Economy 


The housing crisis is a national problem that is garnering long overdue attention and analysis. Housing affordability is understandably a top priority for Vermonters. With high costs of labor and materials and a shrinking workforce, the cost of building has increased dramatically, to the point where a builder cannot build an “affordable” $300,000 house. Truly affordable housing often requires governmental financial investment to reduce the price so that our nurses, mental health workers, teachers, tradespeople, and others of average income can afford the rental or purchase price. From March 2020 through June 2023, Vermont has invested over $1 billion — mostly federal stimulus funding — into the housing sector and supports for unhoused Vermonters. We’re making progress, but the work is challenging and costly.


We supported the House position that made more significant housing investments by raising income taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters (those with incomes over $500,000) and increased real estate transaction taxes on houses with a purchase price over $750,000. The Governor opposed those revenues and the Senate proposed a much smaller investment. 


In the final compromise (contained within two bills – the budget and H.687), there is almost $80 million for the development of permanently affordable housing, new construction for the “missing middle,” rehabilitation of blighted properties, and updates for manufactured housing. There is also a continued funding commitment to emergency shelter and services for unhoused Vermonters. We are especially excited about the new incentives to build housing for people with disabilities and are inspired by the devoted parent-advocates in Williston who have worked for years to make this possible.  


Furthermore, the work we accomplished this year to revise our statewide land use law, Act 250 — to allow more and faster homebuilding in specific areas — is another critical part of addressing the complex housing crisis. Since 1970, Act 250 has preserved Vermont's rural character, supporting compact development in downtowns and village centers while protecting forests and open lands. With limited housing supply and increasing threats from climate change, H.687 sets out strategies to make it easier to build in the right places and better protect natural resources. 


The bill incorporates broad areas of agreement between environmentalists, developers, regional planners, and others on changes to Act 250, including a switch to a new location-based permitting process and improved board governance. Towns will work with their regional planning commissions on a future land use map to identify areas for growth and conservation. In the Senate, many housing provisions were added to the bill including several temporary housing exemptions to enable denser housing in the near term. 


We appreciate the ongoing feedback and input we received from Williston’s Planning and Zoning Office that helped us understand the impact of policies on Williston and protect the opportunities we have here for smart growth and economic development. 


Climate Resiliency Is Critical to Our Future 


In the wake of the devastating floods last summer that caused over $1 billion in damage and disrupted so many lives, Vermonters have been grappling with the long-term effects of the floods and more frequent extreme weather events. The complex climate change work we all face is not just about reducing emissions and repairing harm; it’s also about making our communities more climate-resilient and better prepared for a rapidly changing future. 


We passed critical bills to address the climate crisis, including S.213, which would establish a new state permitting system for building in river corridors, H.289, a bill that would update the state’s renewable energy standard by requiring utilities to make a quicker transition to renewable energy (this has already been vetoed by Governor Scott). 


We also passed S.259, the Climate Superfund Act, which would require the largest carbon polluters (those responsible for more than one billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions) to help cover the cost of adaptation, recovery, and resilience, necessitated by the harm they’ve caused. Vermont’s treasurer and Agency of Natural Resources would work together to identify the overall costs, then essentially bill the fossil fuel companies for a portion of that total. This fund follows the existing “polluter pays” model, which has withstood legal challenges for many years. 


Healthcare is Essential and Rising Healthcare Costs Impact all Vermonters 


With double-digit increases in health care rates every year, out-of-control health care costs are squeezing every budget – from your family budget to school budgets and our state budget. The legislature continued to tackle healthcare costs but we still have a long way to go. Like housing, healthcare affordability is a complex challenge that intersects with federal policy. 


For several years, the Governor has recommended state mental health budgets that don’t keep pace with inflation. When those costs fall back on school districts, you pay even higher property taxes locally. So, the legislature’s budget provides a 3% increase in rates to the State’s designated mental health agencies. We also gave the Green Mountain Care Board resources to tackle and regulate prescription drug prices (S.98) and we strengthened oversight of pharmacy benefit managers (H.233). We provided critical resources to local Emergency Medical Service providers (H.622), and we ensured reimbursement parity to telemedicine, which should help seniors check in with a health care provider without needing to drive (H.861). 


Vermont is experiencing a severe shortage of healthcare providers, and those dedicated professionals spend around 25% of their working time dealing with insurance companies that too often second-guess their medical expertise. To that end, we passed  H.766 to eliminate the time-consuming practice known as “prior authorization” for all of our primary care providers: these are the physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners that we meet at local offices, clinics, and community health centers. Primary care provides the most preventative and least costly form of care in our healthcare system. 


Too many low-income aging Vermonters face a benefits cliff when they reach the age of 65. In transitioning from Medicaid to Medicare, these folks see a sudden jump in costs due to premiums and copays for services and prescription drugs. Now that the Governor has approved the state budget, nearly 10,000 eligible Vermonters can expect to keep $2,096 in their pockets per person, or $4,192 for married couples, per year, beginning on January 1, 2026. 


Increasing eligibility for the Medicare Savings Program (MSP) allows this benefit to reach older Vermonters with incomes up to $29,367 or $39,858 for married couples. With an investment of $4.7 million state dollars, this proposal will also draw down significant federal support, resulting in nearly $50 million of benefits for Vermonters and the providers who care for them. The MSP provides a crucial lifeline for older adults and people living with disabilities, allowing them to afford health care and keep more of their hard-earned Social Security income to spend on basic needs like housing, food, and medicine. Vermont’s Office of the Healthcare Advocate is an important and free resource for anyone with questions or experiencing challenges navigating Medicaid or Medicare. 


Transforming Our Public Education System and Funding to Support All Students 


We are at an inflection point in education for a variety of complex reasons and if you follow education news nationally, you know our challenges are not unique. Several Vermont communities struggled to pass school budgets this year (some are still trying), and it was difficult to see our incredible CVSD teachers and staff feel that so acutely this year. This cycle is hard on morale and culture in schools and is exacerbated in the age of social-media and other online forums. Many voters want to “send Montpelier a message.” We are listening. 

This challenging budget year created a sense of urgency around establishing a modern vision for public education in Vermont. We know that at least $50 million in increased education spending in Vermont this year is direct mental health services provided to students in schools. Schools are the provider of last resort, tasked with handling multi-generational poverty, pandemic learning loss, and the impact of social media that we are just beginning to understand. 

The House Education Committee heard extensive testimony from over 100 witnesses this session, including school board members, teachers, principals, superintendents, Agency of Education officials, legislators from both sides of the aisle and all corners of the state, the Chamber of Commerce, national education research experts, and education leaders in other states. The Committee also collaborated with the Ways and Means Committee as the legislature wrestles with how to fund and deliver a high quality education

The result was the Commission on the Future of Public Education – an integral part of this year’s Yield Bill, which sets the property tax rates. This Commission is charged with examining Vermont’s public school system: the structure, cost drivers, the size of the system, and the services provided in schools. After robust engagement with the education field as well as the public, the Commission will make recommendations about how Vermont can deliver and fund a high quality education for all Vermont students in our rapidly changing world.

Vermont’s education funding formula is unique and complex and derives from a landmark legal case, the 1997 Brigham decision that found that our state constitution requires “substantially equal educational opportunity to all students,” regardless of where they live. Each school district’s education spending is determined at a local level but our resources are pooled in a statewide education fund and taxes must be levied in order to raise the funds for all approved school budgets across the state. Our system is over 200 years in the making, so coherent change will take time. We are deeply committed to transforming Vermont’s education system into a right-sized, strong public education system that supports all students and uses our precious statewide resources sustainably and efficiently.


In the immediate term, the legislature passed H.871 as a next step towards restarting Vermont’s state-level school construction program. Deferred facilities costs were another factor in rising school budgets this year, yet we have had a moratorium on state aid for school construction since 2007. The bill will help create a new program that incentivizes projects that address cost drivers in education such as number of schools, energy/heating costs, and replacing school buildings at the end of their lifespan.  


The legislature also passed H.630 which allows school districts to establish Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) to collaborate on common needs such as specialized student services, joint supply procurement, professional development, or regional busing contracts. BOCES are common around the country and could help provide some highly specialized services closer to home and at lower costs to school districts. 


We are very encouraged to see that Act 76, landmark childcare legislation we passed last session, is already already helping child care programs stabilize and expand, new programs open, educator wages increase, and parents’ costs decrease — and this is just the beginning. With another major child care tuition assistance eligibility expansion coming in October, thousands of additional Vermont children and their families may qualify for lower child care costs by the end of 2024.


We are honored to represent Williston and strive to be accessible and responsive. Please reach out anytime with your questions, concerns, or ideas. 


Rep. Erin Brady (Vice Chair, Education Committee)

Rep. Angela Arsenault (Judiciary Committee)

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