March 3, 2018 Town Meeting Report:  

EDUCATION FINANCING REFORM:  The legislature continues to look for ways to reform the education financing system in order to:

  • make it easier to understand and administer
  • lower property taxes
  • finance education based on the ability to pay not on property value.
  • restrain spending on education

The current system of calculating the Homestead Education Tax is very confusing, the result of years of adjustments to make the property tax system to make it fair and equitable.  The income sensitivity provision that is built into the system nearly makes it a flat tax, so that homeowners pay about 3% of their income (including municipal portion).  It is not a perfect system.  But it does provide tax relief for nearly 70% of Vermont’s primary residents. 

The House Ways & Means Committee is making a concerted effort to address the issues of the system.  The proposal they rolled out two weeks ago is being significantly revised because of the testimony they received.

The new bill raised taxes on homes in high per pupil spending school districts.  That means Woodstock, Reading and Plymouth would be hit with tax increases for many, many residents.  That system is being reworked and is in flux as the ink dries on this paper.  Stay tuned for details.  

Gun Violence Prevention:  The foiled plot at Fair Haven on February 14th of this year gave existing gun safety legislation more importance and influenced Governor Scott’s support for that legislation.  Legislation to create an Extreme Risk Protection Order (S.221) has strong support in both chambers, though the final bill will be different than was passed on 3/1/18 by the Senate. Bills that are in various stages of discussion include:

  • ·         bans on “bump stocks”
  • ·         raising to 21 the age to purchase firearms
  • ·         establishing a Gun Violence Restraining Order
  • ·         expanding universal background checks to private sales
  • ·         limiting magazine capacities

No one piece of legislation is going to ensure freedom from incidents of gun violence.  While Vermont has a low rate of gun related violence, the event at Fair Haven certainly showed that we are not immune.  The legislature is working hard to find the right balance between the rights of responsible gun owners with the safety and well being of everyone in the state. 

Clean Water Initiatives:  The Department of Environmental Conservation has identified more than 5,000 projects across the state to improve the quality of the State’s waters.  In 2017 more than $2 million was spent in Windsor County on various clean water initiatives.   Still needed is a permanent funding source for the estimated costs of cleaning up the state’s waters, estimated at $120 million for 20 years.  Several proposals have been made, including a per parcel fee or room rental surcharge, none of which have received support in the legislature.  And as of yet, the proposal to create a single Clean Water Authority has not received support in the Senate.  Instead, the many different programs fall into many different agencies (transportation, agriculture, agency of natural resources, institutions, etc…).    

Farm Related businesses: The House passed legislation this month (H.663) that will make it easier for farmers to add agriculture-related accessory businesses to their operations including (1) “farm stands” that store, prepare, process or sell products, as long as 50% of total annual sales are from qualifying products produced on the farm, and  (2) educational, recreational or social events that feature agricultural practices or qualifying products. 

Workforce Development:  The legislature and executive branch agree that the shortage of workers in Vermont to fill existing and anticipated job openings is the most pressing economic development issue in the state.  A workforce development bill requires various state agencies (ACCD, AOE, DOL, SWDB) to develop the right strategies to develop the workforce in Vermont as well as recruit workers from outside the state. 

Data Broker Regulation:  The House passed a bill to regulate companies that buy and sell the personal information of Vermont residents, to make it FREE to place and lift security freezes with consumer credit bureaus, make it illegal hack/steal personally identifiable information or to use that information to commit unlawful acts (i.e. stalking). 

Special Education Re-Work: The House is considering a bill to give school districts more flexibility in how funds for special education can be spent.  Currently, the delivery of services are strictly regulated and restrict sensible allocation of resources (instruction, space, etc…).  This new approach, affected through block grants to school districts, promises to obtain better outcomes and save money. 

Equal Pay:   H.294 prohibits employers from requiring a prospective employee’s current or former earnings in order to reduce the likelihood of inequal pay according to gender or other elements.  Currently, women in Vermont earn 16% less than their male counterparts, fueled in part by this practice.

Campaign Finance Law for Social Media Advertising:   H.828 expands campaign finance law to include electronic, digital and social media political advertising.   In 2016, online political advertising was estimated to be $1.41 billion and not governed by campaign finance laws in terms of identifying the sponsor of that advertisement. 

Voter Checklist Protection:  H. 624 expressly prohibits public agencies from knowingly disclosing any information pertaining to a voter that is maintained in the statewide voter checklist to any foreign government or federal agency or commission. 

Health Insurance Premiums:  In October of 2017, the federal government cut off federal funding for health insurance Cost Sharing Reductions (CSRs), used to reduce premiums for families making less than 250% of the Federal Poverty Level (about $62,000 for a family of 4). In ’17 approximately 14,000 Vermonters benefitted from the CSR subsidy.  The House created a work around that is used in many states already, as well as loosening restrictions on Short-Term Limited Duration Plans and Association Health plans.  

Expanded Definition of Parentage:  H.764 recognizes current parenting arrangements that are created today, including through in vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers, donors and individuals who act in the role of a parent.  The bill requires that courts make decisions on parenting based on the best interests of the child. 

Protecting Children and Families:  H.603 equates human trafficking with sexual assault in terms of victims rights, and provides that a person’s parental rights can be terminated if the person committed a sexual assault that resulted in the conception of the child.

Relief From Abuse Orders:  H.836 ensures a secure, safe way for a victim to obtain a relief from abuse order even when courts are closed by enabling the electronic submission of complaints and to swear or affirm an affidavit over the telephone.

Testimony and Hearsay of Children: H.727 relieves children from having to testify in court against an alleged abuser, often a caretaker or a parent. Instead, statements may be taken by a hearing officer who would need to determine if the content and circumstances of the information demonstrate the child information and to be trustworthy and reliable. 

Stormwater permits:  H. 576 allows the Agency of Natural Resources to use offsets and impact fees in all Vermont waters, not just Lake Champlain,  and lowers the permit trigger from one acre to 1/2 acre when a new project or redevelopment needs a stormwater permit.

Saliva Testing:  H.237 established saliva testing as a means to test impaired drivers for the presence of seven different drug types, including THC, cocaine and others. Saliva tests can be administered road-side by a trained police officer, and by an approved medical professional once “at the station” and used as evidence.

Family Leave Insurance:  Enhances Vermont’s existing Parental and Family Leave Act.  Extends financial benefits to an employee following the birth or adoption of a child or care of an ailing family member.   Amounts to 6 weeks of paid leave at 80%, capped at twice the liveable wage ($1,042 per week).  The benefit is funded by a payroll tax of .141% of an employee’s gross income.