The Legislature is headed into its final month of the session with a target adjournment date of May 22. In the past month we have spent a lot more time on the (virtual) floor and have passed many bills although nothing is truly final until it passes both the House and Senate so the next few weeks look to be busy.
In the coming weeks, Willistonians will begin to feel the impacts of the most recent pandemic relief bill passed by the Legislature - H. 315. This will provide timely economic relief to Vermonters by appropriating $97.5 million in federal pandemic funding to support businesses, schools, housing, workforce development, broadband and other critical needs. The Legislature continues to examine the rules related to more than $1 billion in other federal funds that will be appropriated in the coming months to help Vermont recovery.
Much of the work in the past month has demonstrated the difference between politics and governance. Politics offers a clear dichotomy of one position against another. Governance requires compromise and recognizes that issues are far more complicated than they may first appear. Our recent passage of H. 175, “the Bottle Bill,” is a good example. While increasing recycling and reducing litter are clearly positive, policy changes within our recycling system are complex that have impacts on businesses and consumers. After a long debate, I was proud to vote yes on the bottle bill and I applaud my seatmate, Representative Jim McCullough, for his leadership on this bill and his tireless advocacy for environmental protection. This update to Vermont’s 1972 landmark environmental law will expand the redeemable list to include plastic water bottles, wine and hard cider bottles, and containers for all carbonated and non-carbonated beverages (except for dairy products). Plastic water bottles are the second-most littered piece of trash in Vermont, and nationally, 75 percent wind up in landfills. Containers redeemed under the bottle bill are more valuable for recycling because they are cleaner than those that get mixed into our single-stream curbside recycling bins and they are more likely to be remade into new containers. If this bill makes it through the Senate, it will be good news for all of those WCS bottle drives for good causes!
I want to thank the residents of Williston who have reached out to me about another complex issue - pension reform. I will always be a passionate advocate for public schools and I know teachers are stewards of our most valuable resource: our children. Teachers, troopers and state employees are among the front-line heroes of the pandemic and I understand that this is a very difficult time to be talking about pensions. Even though I am a teacher, prior to the past few weeks when I did a lot of intensive learning about our pension system, I did not realize how big the challenge is. Currently, pensions and other retirement benefits now account for 13 percent of every General Fund dollar, over $300 million per year. Last week we passed H. 449 to begin some of this difficult work by restructuring the Vermont Public Investment Commission (VPIC) and creating a Pension Task Force that includes a strong labor voice. The Task Force will begin work over the summer in order to make recommendations so that public employees can rely on a well-funded, solvent and sustainable system in the future.
In my committee, the Education Committee, we are continuing to work on pupil weighting, another complex policy issue. Currently, the state calculates local property taxes based on how much a district spends per pupil, based on a weighted formula that is intended to account for the fact that certain types of students cost more to teach. In 2019, the Legislature received the results of the study it commissioned about the weights. The award-winning study by faculty at the University of Vermont recommended that students living in poverty and English language learners be weighted substantially more heavily than they are now. The study also made recommendations for new weights based on low population density. As we take testimony on the details in the study, we are carefully considering how “pulling one thread” in our complicated education funding system will have impacts on the statewide system and local budgets and tax rates.
Finally, I am excited to give my first floor report of a bill this week. I will be reporting on S. 16, which will create a Task Force on Equitable and Inclusion School Environments. The task force will make recommendations to end exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) for all but the most serious student behavior, compile data regarding school discipline and look at opportunities to expand practices such as restorative practices and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBiS). With the use of exclusionary discipline, children miss valuable education time, parents/caregivers potentially miss work, children receiving school meals might be food insecure during the exclusionary period, and the impacted students lose a sense of belonging to the school community. As a teacher and school board member, I look forward to the passage of this bill.
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions, concerns or ideas anytime.