Notes from Seat 26: Final 2022 Legislative Update!
Updated: May 18, 2022
That’s a wrap! The Legislature has now adjourned for the year, which also marks the end of the biennium and the end of my first term as a legislator. Let me start by thanking the voters of Williston for trusting me to represent you in Montpelier.
The work I am most proud of helping lead: Universal School Meals
With federal pandemic support for universal free school meals ending this year, I felt strongly Vermont should continue offering free breakfast and lunch to all students. Without universal meals, only those students from families with the lowest incomes qualified for free breakfast and lunch at school and those federal thresholds are very low. Across all income levels, children are attuned to distinctions between themselves and other students. Many families are reluctant to complete the form or struggle with its complexity. When meals are not universally free for all students, the students who qualify often skip the meal to avoid any sense of labeling, particularly as they get older.
I took a leadership role -- along with a coalition of my colleagues including the retiring Senator Chris Pearson -- to successfully fight to provide every student access to free breakfast and lunch next year. We succeeded in large part thanks to Williston’s own Anore Horton, who leads Hunger Free Vermont. Her organization built a grassroots campaign that made sure my fellow legislators understood the importance of universal school meals.
I liken universal school meals to the curb cuts on sidewalks. These curb cuts are required to make sidewalks accessible to those with disabilities. However, everyone benefits from them, whether you’re pushing a stroller, wheeling a grocery cart, or simply avoiding a trip hazard. Universal meals benefit students who may come to school hungry for many reasons beyond economic need including family stress, parents working multiple jobs, or high school students often starting very early in the morning.Vermont schools offering universal meals before the pandemic offer promising examples of healthier learning environments and better outcomes. Vermont has a reputation for providing high quality school meals sourced from local farms. A UVM study indicated that school meal programs support a vibrant agricultural economy with every $1 spent on local food in schools generating $1.60 in the Vermont economy.
The work of I am most proud of supporting: Child Tax Credit, Higher Education investments & Pension Reform
In my campaign two years ago, I pledged to be a strong advocate for children and families. Vermont has long overlooked the “bookends” of our education system: early childcare and college. Research shows that every dollar invested in birth to five yields a three dollar return. Perhaps the single most important bill this session was the creation of a Vermont Child Tax Credit. It will give $1,000 per year to parents and guardians for every qualifying child five years of age or younger, based on family income. (The bill, H. 510, also increases the Child and Dependent Care Credit, increases our Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit, creates a deduction for all interest paid on student loans, increases income thresholds for existing Social Security benefits exclusion by $5,000, and creates new exclusions for $10,000 of retirement income from military service. Ways and Means Chair Ancel called it “the most significant tax relief package we’ve been able to offer Vermonters” in her long tenure.)
On the other “bookend” of our educational system, I know all too well how difficult it is for graduating high school seniors to access and afford post-secondary education and training. I strongly supported an historic investment in higher education, particularly in the Vermont State College (VSC) system, which was on the brink of collapse. The VSC offers a unique and tremendously important level of access and affordability to Vermont students, a third of whom are first-generation students. I will continue to advocate for more support for the VSC as it becomes the first truly hybrid statewide university system and continues to play an important role in our state's workforce development challenges.
I was proud to support a bipartisan, multiple year long process to shore up the state and teacher pension programs. The State of Vermont will contribute $200 million in one-time surplus revenues. Meanwhile, teachers and state employees will increase and restructure their contributions — higher-income workers will pay a higher percentage of their income — and accept a small adjustment to cost-of-living increases. These changes will eliminate $2 billion of unfunded liability and ensure retirement security and healthcare certainty for retired teachers and state employees for years to come. I was surprised the Governor vetoed the effort. But I was pleased to support a successful unanimous veto override in which every Democrat, Republican, Progressive and Independent in the Legislature backed the deal.
The work we must continue: Childcare, Workforce, Climate & Housing; Prop 5
We made historic investments this session, thanks to federal pandemic relief funds as well as better than expected state revenues. These investments will help fuel a recovery for all of Vermont. But much work remains. We have a severe shortage of high quality childcare in Vermont and yet early childhood professionals are underpaid and undervalued. While we made large investments in workforce development, we need to do more to retain our graduates and help them reach their full potential.
Like many states across the country, Vermont is facing a housing crisis. While the Legislature passed S. 226 to invest $22 million to expand access to safe and affordable housing in all 14 counties, our housing challenges are complex and will persist. Our annual transportation bill included important investments in climate solutions but it was deeply disappointing that the Legislature was unable to override the Governor’s veto of a Clean Heat Standard. As individuals and as a state, we need to do far more to address climate change and help Vermonters adapt.
Finally, Vermonters have a unique responsibility in the upcoming election that is all the more consequential given the draft Supreme Court decision that was recently leaked: the final decision on Proposal 5, the Reproductive Freedom Amendment. I believe that reproductive health care decisions are deeply personal and should be made between a patient and their health care provider. There was overwhelming tri-partisan support of Proposal 5 in both the House and Senate in 2019. Constitutional amendments are the ultimate expression of our democracy and I was honored to vote to advance Proposal 5 to Vermont voters. Learn more about Prop 5
Governance is often reduced to a cynical caricature that is far from the largely bipartisan process I have witnessed this year. From veteran legislators to state employees to advocates to students to policy experts, the people that are a part of the legislative process give me sincere hope for our future. Government is us. It is the people we elect (at all levels) to make decisions on our behalf as best they can. Thank you, Williston!
For much more detail, please read my complete report on the legislative session, to be published soon or contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org
VPR: The Vermont Legislature Has Adjourned