Vermont Session Roundup

Despite the economic downturn, Vermont lawmakers made important gains in several areas, notably in gay marriage, reducing Rx costs, renewable energy, transportation, and an economic stimulus package that utilizes federal stimulus resources.

Budget: In a special session, legislators overrode the governor's veto of the $4.5B budget with a revised version that sought to address some of the governor's concerns.  The bill shores up for at least one year the state's unemployment insurance system, addresses when the Governor must get legislative approval for plans to shrink the state work force, increases funding for the VT Telecommunications Authority and tobacco programs, phases in income tax reductions, restores funding for 300 college scholarships and authorizes two sales tax holidays, and increases cigarette and liquor taxes.

In education, lawmakers shifted some funds from the Education Fund to the General budget and, similarly, responsibility for some programs, like school-based Medicaid programs, from the General Fund to the Education Fund; causing reductions in state aid to education.

In transportation, lawmakers passed an expansive bill to restore the state's aging infrastructure of roads and bridges and to improve rail.  The bill utilizes federal stimulus funds and increases in state fuel taxes to achieve an overall package of $550 million.

Economic Stimulus: As Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility report, lawmakers passed H313 as the state's own version of an economic stimulus bill.  The bill pursues federal stimulus funding (ARRA) and includes many worker-protection provisions.  It directs the state to pursue and coordinate all federal stimulus funding opportunities, requires reporting of jobs likely to benefit women, ensures the state only contracts with firms that comply with state and federal labor laws, requires ARRA-funded projects to comply with prevailing wages, extends unemployment benefits as enabled by the ARRA, directs over $2 million in ARRA to the entrepeneurs' seed capital fund, and several other notable provisions addressing workforce development, economic development planning, and energy efficiency programs.  The bill also includes a popular "farm-to-plate" program to promote local farm products and improve infrastructure needed get to local products to consumers.

Marriage Equality: Vermont became the fourth state to allow gay marriage, and the first state to do so through legislative action.  Vermont preceded similar legislative action in Maine and New Hampshire this year.  As Freeom to Marry noted, the success required a veto override.

Smart Growth: Building on the state's history of smart growth and environmental activism, Smart Growth Vermont and its partner Preservation Trust of Vermont focused their legislative efforts on restoring and maintaining the vitality of existing towns and the long-term utility of the state's agriculatural base.  As Smart Growth reports, there were gains, losses, and work left for next year.  Highlights include:

  • Gains: Lawmakers passed H313 to increase by $100,000 the available annual tax credit for investments in town centers that preserve historic structures and seek to revitalize community centers.  The total annual available credit is $1.7 million.  Meanwhile, alternative transportation advocates beat back a state proposal to block new construction of bike and pedestrian paths and to eliminate a public board that awards funds for pedestrian infrastructure projects.  The program was preserved and, indeed, expanded because of the federal stimulus program.  
  • A Loss: The state's budget deficit led lawmakers to drastically cut funding for the VT Housing and Conservation Board, which is the state's primary source of funding for affordable housing and the conservation of working farms and forests.  Lawmakers did not eliminate the program, however, as the Governor had proposed.
  • Wait till next year: S99 and S64 have both been carried over to next year and both aim to improve state anti-sprawl laws and programs.  S99 focuses on better regulation of strip development and S64 provides greater guidance to the new Growth Center program to ensure approved projects do not support sprawl.

Environment and Renewable Energy: As the Vermont National Resources Council reports, lawmakers passed a far-reaching energy bill to stimulate renewable energy projects.  By passing H446, the Council says Vermont is the first state in the nation to create a state program for the development of small-scale renewable energy products through a standard offer contract.  Broadly, the law uses a "standard offer contract" to guarantee a predictable rate paid by Vermont utilities for renewable energy.  It authorizes municipalities to help property owners finance renewable energy projects through creation of "clean energy assessment districts" and strengthens standards for energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings.  The bill also expands the Clean Energy Development Fund, which supports VT-based renewable electric energy projects and directs federal stimulus money to the Fund.  Other provisions will ease restrictions on residential installation of renewable energy and energy efficiency devices.

Elsewhere, lawmakers passed H447 to enhance wetlands designation and protection.  The new law expedites the process by which wetlands are added to the state's wetlands maps, which will better inform property owners and public officials about the whereabouts of wetlands and better ensure their protection.  It is estimated that up to 30% of important wetlands are not shown on existing maps.

Health Care: A highly notable achievement this year was passage of S48, the nation's strongest measure limiting the drug and medical device industries' marketing influence over physicians.  The new law bans gifts to physicians, including meals and travel, and requires unprecedented transparency and public disclosure of allowable payments/gifts from the industry to providers, such as fees for speaking, consulting, or research.  As we have written, the drug industry spends $7 billion directly influencing the prescribing decisions of physicians through catered lunches, "educational" conferences, and other gifts - driving up health care costs in the process.  

Lawmakers enacted H435 to improve the quality of and expand access to palliative care and pain management services for children and adults.  The law directs the state to consider a Medicaid waiver to improve these services.  In part because of the federal stimulus program, progressives limited cuts to health care and social programs.  For instance, because of stimulus requirements, the Governor withdrew a proposal to increase premiums for the state's kids care program.  But, some pain has been passed down to the state's most vulnerable.  Legislators reduced from 4% to 2% the Governor's proposed provider rate cut for contracted services that will effect providers in several state-support social health and welfare programs, like case managers, sign language interpreters and mental health providers. The state budget also cuts grants to the Dept. of Children and Families up to $425,000.

And, building on PSN's State Legislators for Progressive Health Care Reform campaign, 130 state legislators delivered a letter to Vermont's Congressional delegation and President Obama urging comprehensive health care reform this year that includes the choice of a public health insurance plan.  PSN earlier delivered the letter to lawmakers in Washington DC with over 700 signatures of state legislators from 48 states.

Sexual Crimes:  Lawmakers expanded the sex offender registry from 400 names to 2000 following the rape and murder of a young girl.  The measure includes prevention measures and stricter sentencing and prosecutorial options.

Missed Opportunities: Advocates are gearing up to move paid sick days in 2010.  H382 was introduced this year but did not get out of committee.  The law would allow employees to accrue up to 56 hours of paid sick days for full-time employees.  And, in election related news, lawmakers did not pass bills relating to Instant Runoff Voting, authorization of same-day registration, or moving the primary from September to August.