State House Report: The 2019-2020 Session Begins
January 14, 2019
The Vermont General Assembly convened on January 9th to start the 2019-2020 biennium session. The first few days were taken up mostly with necessary procedural and ceremonial activities. In the House of Representatives, we all took the Oath of Office, we elected Mitzi Johnson to a second term as Speaker, and we received our committee assignments. In a joint House-Senate session, we witnessed the Oath of Office being administered to our Constitutional officers, Treasurer Beth Pierce, Secretary of State Jim Condos, Auditor of Accounts Doug Hoffer and Attorney General T.J. Donovan. Governor Phil Scott was sworn in for his second term as Governor, and we heard his Inaugural Address.
Being in the building further emphasized for me what I already knew, and that is the enormous number of new House members who were elected this past November and in the election two years earlier. Since my previous term in 2015-2016, at least half the Representatives are new to me. I’ve known a few of them from past connections, but mostly, I am working hard to connect names and faces and to remember where people are from. A significant number of veteran House members, including several committee chairs, chose not to run again as well. I am also struck by how many younger House members there are now, people in their twenties and thirties. Although we are living in difficult times in our nation, democracy still works in Vermont, people with different viewpoints and priorities respect and talk to each other, and our Legislature is made up of real people from all kinds of backgrounds and experience, who know and care about their own communities and our State of Vermont.
House Energy and Technology and Committee.
I will be serving on this committee, whose responsibilities include all aspects of energy and utility issues, oversight and legislation regarding telecommunications including telephone, internet and cell service, as well as state government’s information systems. In the last session, committee functions were restructured, and these areas and issues were assigned to one committee, in part to allow greater focus on telecom and internet than in the past. Having been deeply involved in energy issues as a utility general manager, board member, and in policy/management positions in state government, I am committed to energy efficiency first and foremost, to renewable energy development, and to tackling how we use energy for heat and transportation. After many years of deep immersion in these issues, I needed a break, but am ready to get to work in this committee. And I know that telecom and broadband access are big concerns in our communities (including at our house).
This is a big change for me, having served on the Health Care Committee in my previous term. Health care will continue to be a personal focus for me at the State House, as it’s an issue I have cared deeply about for many years, including those two intense years of committee work.
Act 46 Forced Mergers
The four towns in our House district are in three different school districts and each one of those districts is subject to a separate forced merger order from the State Board of Education. The situations, history and issues are completely different in each of those three forced mergers. However, there are significant issues and questions in common. Does Act 46 give the Board more discretion and flexibility to not order a forced merger than the Board says they have? Is the Board overstepping its Constitutional authority? Does Act 46 as passed give the Board authority that should actually rest with the Legislature?
A non-partisan group of House members representing many of the communities across the state affected by forced mergers has been meeting to consider what action the Legislature might take. Options include legislation that would simply allow more time, so that no action occurs before litigation now before the court is resolved. Other options include changes or clarification to Act 46 itself. I will be reviewing bills that are drafted by members of this group to consider how these would affect our communities and their situations, and as of this writing, have signed on as a co-sponsor to three bills that should be introduced in the coming days.
Keeping in Touch
If you would like to receive these reports by email, please let me know. And if you wish to contact me on any legislative matter, my email is email@example.com
Report from the State House, February 4, 2019
As the Legislature starts the second month of the session, the pace begins to quicken. Committees spent the first few weeks in many cases being briefed and getting overviews on the functions of the various agencies and programs of state government and are now spending more time considering proposed bills that have been sent to their committees. A few bills have now been reported out and acted on by the full House.
Act 46 Forced Mergers
This week, the House will be considering and acting on H. 39, a bill which would delay for one year school district mergers that were not approved locally but have instead been ordered by the State Board of Education. Our House district has the distinction of having four towns that are part of three school districts, and each of the three school districts is subject to a different forced merger order. The situations and history are very different in each case. I am part of large tri-partisan group of Representatives representing forced merger districts around the state and have learned how different and unique many of the circumstances are.
I have heard from constituents from each of our towns who support giving forced merger districts more time to get organized and to work through issues that were not addressed by the Board of Education in their specific situations, and to see what the outcomes of the pending lawsuits will be. I have heard from a school board member in one district who would rather not have a further delay at this time, and I have heard from the chair of a school board who is also chair of their supervisory union and a member of the merger transition board, that they desperately need more time to do it right.
I voted for Act 46 in my previous term (2015-2016) because I do believe some consolidation of the numerous school districts in Vermont is for the best. But, I did so after a lot of consideration and with the understanding that the State Board would have the ability to carefully and, on a case-by-case basis, not force mergers when there was good reason not to, or where local districts offered alternatives that met the educational goals of the bill. I would not have voted for the bill without that understanding. So, I am a co-sponsor of H.39 and will be voting in support of a delay. There may also be amendments offered on the House floor. As of this writing, I do not know whether the bill will pass.
Energy and Technology Committee
Our committee has begun examining bills that have been introduced and sent to our committee.
Energy: Climate change is very real and addressing it is a priority for me. Some legislation we are considering would further support energy efficiency and weatherization efforts. Others would restrict the further expansion of natural gas infrastructure into new service territory, as a means of lessening our use of fossil fuels. We have heard a great deal of testimony about the restraints on the high voltage transmission grid, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom, that are restricting and limiting the installation of renewable energy generation, both small scale and larger. We have heard a great deal about “beneficial electrification,” lessening our biggest uses of fossil fuels, for transportation and heat, by moving to electricity (provided of course that the electricity is from renewable and clean sources).
Broadband and cell coverage: Among bills we are looking at are proposals that would support and, in some cases, push providers to get decent broadband services out to the underserved and unserved areas of Vermont, which certainly would include large parts of the four towns in our House district. We have a bill that would take a serious look at whether existing utilities with poles and wires could play a greater role in delivering broadband. We have bills that would require cell service providers to provide greater coverage when seeking approval for siting their facilities. The world of telecommunications, broadband and cell service is a complicated web of different technologies offered by providers that are regulated by Vermont in only limited ways, or not at all, so it’s difficult to simply require full broadband and cell access everywhere. On the other hand, we have also had exciting testimony about what rural communities around the state are doing themselves in partnership with others, by forming Communication Union Districts and in other ways. I expect that we will bring a few bills to the House Floor that will help get broadband to more Vermonters.
On the House floor
At this point, only a few bills have made it out of committee and onto the floor of the House for a vote. As the session continues, we will be spending more time on the floor considering bills from all of our committees. The most significant bill so far, which must be acted on early, was the Budget Adjustment, which makes necessary modifications to the current fiscal year’s budget which ends on June 30. What struck me in our votes thus far was that they were unanimous or close to unanimous. There will be many issues as we go forward where there will be significant differences, sometimes on party lines and sometimes not. In Vermont, legislators still do talk and listen to each other even when there are differences.
Information and contact
The Legislature’s website lists all bills introduced, shows their progress, provides detailed agendas for all House and Senate Committees, as well as testimony and documents submitted to each committee.:
If you have questions, comments or concerns, please contact me by email. During the session, messages can also be sent to me by contacting the Sergeant at Arms office: 802-828-2228.
REPORT FROM THE STATE HOUSE:
TOWN MEETING WEEK
March 5, 2019
Town Meeting Week
The Legislature is not in session during the week of Town Meeting. During the first two months of the session, most of House members’ time is spent in our committee rooms, focused on the subject areas and issues of our respective committees and considering bills we might bring to the floor of the House. At this point, only a modest number of bills have reached the floor for a vote by the full House. When we return next week, the pace changes and we switch gears a bit. More time will be spent in session on the floor, hearing reports and bill recommendations from committees, and voting on bills ranging from the short and simple, to the complex and lengthy, as well as the appropriations and revenue bills.
Energy and Technology Committee
The committee I serve on deals with three major areas:
- Energy, including regulated utilities and delivered fuels, renewable energy development, and climate change. Subject areas we are working on or considering include energy efficiency and expansion of home weatherization programs, “beneficial electrification,” which is the shifting of our biggest sources of carbon emissions that contribute to climate change (transportation and space heating) away from fossil fuels, limiting the expansion of natural gas pipelines into new areas of the state, and regional “cap and trade” programs to reduce greenhouse gases.
- Broadband and telecommunications. Our committee put a lot of time in the first part of the session into supporting the expansion of broadband into underserved and unserved areas of Vermont. Last week, we voted out a comprehensive broadband bill (H.513) to help communities and businesses extend higher speed internet into those areas. Included in the bill are a variety of measures to support this effort, including planning and business plan development grants available to a variety of public, non-profit and private sector entities, a new financing program through the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA), as well as consideration of the role that existing electric utility infrastructure can play in these efforts.
- State government information technology (IT) systems. Our committee has oversight of the Agency of Digital Services, which now manages and coordinates all IT systems used within agencies of state government. We have spent time reviewing issues with our E-911 system, as well as the Agency of Human Services Integrated Eligibility Project, which includes Vermont Health Connect.
Act 46 Forced Mergers
As I have discussed in my previous reports, our House district has the distinction of having four towns in three different school districts, and each of those districts is under a separate forced merger order from the State Board of Education. Each of these three mergers is a different and unique situation, with significant differences in the history and relationships of the affected communities. I was a co-sponsor of H.39, which would create a one-year delay in implementation of most forced mergers across the state. That bill passed the House and is in the Senate. I have heard from many people in all four towns, including school board members, members of supervisory union boards and members of merger transition committees, as well as many concerned residents. While some are of the opinion that it’s time to get the controversies over with, merge and move on, the great majority feel that a one-year delay is warranted. The delay would allow for present court cases to be resolved. Among those supporting a delay are people who are not necessarily opposed to a merger for their districts, but who feel that the very late timing of the Board’s orders is causing impossible pressures and chaotic processes.
Hearing Aids and Health Care Coverage
I am the lead sponsor of H.348, which would require that health insurers cover hearing aids, and that the coverage be no less than the coverage Medicaid provides for these devices. People who use hearing aids including those with “age-related” hearing loss, as well as those with more severe loss often from an early age, depend on them. Assistive devices of various types are covered in many instances, and I don’t understand why hearing aids aren’t. The necessity is obvious, for employment, education and other aspects of a healthy life. There is also a similar bill introduced in the Senate (S.137). If you have an interest in this bill, please contact members of the House Health Care Committee and the Senate Finance Committee to let them know (contact information below).
A Four-Year Term for Governor?
As has been reported in the news, the Vermont Senate may consider beginning the process of amending the Vermont Constitution to create a four-year term for Governor, instead of the present two-year term. This issue has been discussed many times over the years. It has the support of some legislative leaders as well as Governor Scott, but it also has opponents. The process requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate followed by a majority vote in the House. This must then be repeated once more in the following biennium (2-year legislative session), after which it goes to the voters. As someone who worked in state government for ten years some time ago, I can see advantages, and it would also reduce the amount of time, energy, focus and money spent on frequent gubernatorial campaigns. On the other hand, many feel it lessens the role of the voters in Vermont’s democratic process, a concern that I also share to some degree. As I consider this issue (and assuming it goes forward), I would like to hear from voters in the district who have an opinion on this matter. Please email or write (contact information below).
Please contact me with comments, concerns and questions:
Mail: 139 West Hill Rd., Worcester, VT 05682
During the Legislative session, phone messages nay be left with the Sergeant at Arms office at the State House: 802-828-2228
To check on the status of any bill, to see committee agendas and all testimony and materials provided to committees, to see who is on each House or Senate committee, and to find contact information for House and Senate members, visit the General Assembly’s website: https://legislature.vermont.gov/