Notes from Seat 146: March 2023 (mid-session) Legislative Update
We have now passed the “crossover” deadline in Montpelier, when bills have to pass out of at least one committee in order to have a chance at becoming law before we adjourn in May. This confluence of the calendar and circumstances led to marathon work and floor debate last week that advanced several bills I support, including many that Willistonians weighed in on with me and my colleagues in Montpelier. (We are now wrapping up a second marathon week as I post this.)
Paid family and medical leave: I was pleased to support H. 66, a bill that would provide wage replacement for Vermonters that need to take off from work for family and medical reasons such as illness, the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. The U.S. is the only wealthy country without a national paid leave program, and the benefits of these programs are well established. The bill would provide Vermonters with up to 12 weeks of paid leave with 90% pay and job protections in place to ensure employees can return to work. Employers and employees would share the insurance premium costs to provide paid leave benefits equally through small payroll contributions, ensuring a valuable benefit at a low predictable cost to employers. I was most struck by a statement by Rep. Jubilee McGill (D-Bridport) given during debate of the bill, who shared her own struggle with dangerous postpartum depression. She delivered a powerful statement, late at night, all while holding her infant daughter: “I will be voting yes on this bill because I know deeply the indisputable effect it has on the health and outcomes of infants and their parents,” she said.
Universal School Meals: I have been a passionate advocate for universal school meals since I took office in 2021 and authored the bill passed by the House last week that makes the program permanent. The pandemic put extraordinary strain on our schools that continues to this day. One unexpected “bright spot” has been that free breakfast and lunch has been available to all students for three years now. This has been critical for reducing hunger and accelerated a much needed culture change -- one that stigmatized students who participated in the program before the pandemic. Students may come to school hungry for many reasons beyond economic need including family stress, parents working multiple jobs and high school students often starting very early in the morning. Universal school meals offer many benefits, including more predictability for schools in meal planning and purchasing, reducing stigma and distinctions among students and increased opportunities for partnerships with local farms. When I met with WCS students last fall I surveyed them as to whether Universal Meals should continue and was proud to share some of their positive feedback in my floor speech.
Suicide Prevention: While there is a lot of policy work in Montpelier, some of it is truly life and death. Before we started debate on a significant suicide prevention bill, H. 230, I introduced the incredibly courageous Emily Hackett-Fiske of Williston to the entire House of Representatives. Having lost her son, Ryan, at just 12 years old, she provided important testimony to the Health Care committee as they developed the bill. In 2021, 142 Vermonters died by suicide and 83 of those were by firearm. H.230 would require gun owners to securely store firearms locked and separate from ammunition and would also allow family or household members, who are most likely to see the first signs that a loved one is in crisis, to petition a court directly for an Extreme Risk Protection Order. It would also create a 72-hour waiting period on firearm transfers before a person can take possession of a firearm. One of the most effective ways to save the life of a person in crisis is to put time and space between that person and a firearm; safe storage ensures that critical life saving time and space, particularly for children.
Update from my committee: As Vice Chair of the House Committee on Education, I’ve been able to help craft some legislation this year around teacher recruitment, school construction funding, and the complexities of public education dollars to fund private schools. A bill I helped craft to create incentives for future teachers and support for our existing teacher workforce is now part of a larger workforce bill that will come before the full House soon. I am committed to the incremental work we must do for many years to come to support, grow and diversify our teacher workforce.
Two other major education bills from our committee will be considered by the House this week. Our school construction bill (H. 486 - read my floor statement here) will finally move our state forward in creating a coherent, statewide school facilities plan and funding mechanism in conjunction with the State Treasurer. Currently, the state has a moratorium on providing state funding to school construction. This bill would create a new funding mechanism that would help schools like the Allen Brook School make improvements based on strategic statewide priorities. And the committee has spent a great deal of time responding to a Supreme Court case that requires Vermont to re-evaluate our town tuitioning system that sends public education dollars to approved independent schools. This bill (H. 483 - read my floor statement here) addresses discrimination in enrollment, limits enrollment to out of state schools to within 25 miles of the Vermont border, says that public tuition dollars cannot be used to offset private pay tuitioning students, and puts a moratorium on new independent schools receiving public education dollars. We have taken extensive testimony and I expect this complex issue will remain a central part of our committee’s work this biennium. I will continue to be an unwavering advocate for public schools that serve all students and are critical to our democracy.
Last month, Rep. Angela Arsenault and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with over twenty Williston voters at the Dorothy Alling Memorial Library. We could have talked for hours about all the issues raised (ARPA funding, preventative healthcare, restorative justice, universal meals in schools, anti-tobacco measures, mentoring, climate change, youth mental health, childcare, housing, affordability and the complex challenges for families supporting adults with developmental disabilities…and more!). We look forward to hosting another community conversation in mid-April and will post details on FPF when the date and location is confirmed.
I am honored to represent Williston and I strive to be accessible and responsive. Please email me at email@example.com with your questions, concerns or ideas anytime.
(I am so appreciative of my family's support and patience for many long days and late nights during the past two weeks of "crossover." Ted brought the boys to Montpelier for a quick visit to see where I work when I can't make it home for bedtime.)