Friday, March 9, 2018

March 9, 2018 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
Rep. Anne Donahue
March 9, 2018

As we return from the town meeting week break, the most important bill of this year will be coming before us. Other subjects may capture bigger short-term headlines, but it is taxes and expenditures that are the largest responsibility of government. Several things are combining to raise the possibility of significant changes in our tax structures this year.
First, there has finally been some momentum on changing how we fund education. Second, the changes in the federal tax code for next year have a big impact on Vermont, because our state taxes are currently directly tied to the federal formula. If nothing was changed, it would mean a $30 million bump in state income tax revenues: in other words, a $30 million tax increase. Third, under Governor Scott’s leadership, we are finally trying to address the inequity of taxing retirees Social Security benefits. Vermont is one of only six states that fully taxes them.
The House Ways and Means Committee has voted out a bill that addresses these things together, which allows for some trade-offs between the lines. Trade-offs meaning, if we stop taxing the first $40,000 (single) or $60,000 (2-income) of Social Security benefits as per the plan, the money has to come from somewhere else. So although the new proposed structure for the Vermont income tax is intended to keep everything as much the same as possible for individuals, not all the money will be returned.
The new system would mean we will no longer be able to file Vermont returns by just transferring numbers from our federal returns. There would be a state personal exemption, standard deduction and charitable deduction, and a new, lower marginal rate. (Don’t forget: lower rates do not automatically mean lower taxes – a lower rate on more taxable income would mean taxes stay the same.)
The education funding proposal would create a new income tax surcharge that would shift about 10 percent of education revenues away from property taxes. The new surcharge on income would be a rate ranging from 0.1 percent on lowest bracket, 0.5 percent for middle brackets, and one percent on highest income brackets. The estimated reduction in the education property tax rate for Berlin (at its $17,465 per pupil cost) would be from $1.78 to $1.65, and for income sensitivity, from 2.94 percent to 2.74 percent. For Northfield ($14,808 per pupil cost) the property tax rate would drop from $1.45 to $1.26, and the income tax rate from 2.45 to 2.09 percent.
This makes a small change in where the taxes would come from – property versus income – so no one should be fooled into thinking that overall taxes are going down just because property taxes dip. In fact, the big concern I’ve heard is that the change could result in an easing of the property tax pressure, resulting in approval of big increases in school budgets. On the flip side, the mechanism would create a more obvious and direct impact on local towns if they are high-spending, instead of those costs being spread across the state. That could make local communities feel more empowered over local budgets. It’s pretty dispiriting under the current system when a community bites the bullet to keep budgets low, only to see taxes still go up because other towns spend more.
The current bill is a big change from what was being discussed just a few weeks ago, which involved a much bigger shift to the income tax and elimination of “income sensitivity” – because the new income tax would have addressed protection of low income homeowners. The revision also means failure of the goal of making the system easier to understand, since much of the structure will remain the same.
All these proposals have a long way to go before becoming law, because once they pass the House, the bill starts anew in the Senate, which may have its own idea about what changes should be made. Stay tuned – and share your input.
Sometimes only the big issues hit the news. For a sense of the backlogs of bills that are on the calendar the day we return (a result of the deadline for bills to be out of House committees if they are to have a chance before the Senate this year), here is just a sampling from the list, from mundane to major.
H. 907 Improving rental housing safety
H. 909 Technical and clarifying changes in transportation-related laws.
H. 910 The Open Meeting Law and the Public Records Act
H. 911 Changes in Vermont’s personal income tax and education financing system
H. 599 Games of chance organized by nonprofit organizations
H. 620 State-owned airports and economic development
H. 707 The prevention of sexual harassment
H. 736 Lead poisoning prevention
H. 766 Creating a homeowner’s rehabilitation tax credit
H. 780 The inspection of amusement rides
H. 802 Rural economic development infrastructure districts
H. 831 Funding for an accelerated weatherization program
H. 854 Promoting television and film production
H. 874 Inmate access to prescription drugs
H. 894 Pensions, retirement, and setting the contribution rates for municipal employees
H. 903 Regenerative farming
Feel free to ask me more if any of these pique your interest.
After this week, the House will begin to focus on what the Senate has sent us, and vice-versa.
Examples of routine House bills that came through the week before the break that were passed on mostly unanimous voice votes were:
H. 684 Office of Professional Responsibility. Annual update of professions regulated by OPR. I heard a lot of concerns about discontinuance of licensing to permit persons to do ear acupuncture for substance use treatment. Because the committee took in depth testimony on both sides, I accepted its judgement and voted in support.
H. 711 Crime Victims Protections. Requires unpaid time off for persons who need to testify as crime victims.
H. 728 Bail Reform. Prohibits money bail for misdemeanors. Bail – even low amounts for small crimes – can mean that poor folks sit in jail waiting for trial, which those who can afford it, get out. That’s not exactly justice.
H. 901. Health Information Technology. A bill passed by my committee setting strict standards for the Vermont Information Technology Leaders (a public-private partnership in charge of Vermont’s health information exchange) to get its act together or face defunding next year. VITL has been flying under the radar for years, getting state funds and not showing good results.
H. 378. Creation of an Artificial Intelligence Committee. Do we need to regulate this newly emerging technology? Maybe not – but we better find out.
H. 615. Prohibiting use of drones near correctional facilities. Now, that was a no-brainer!
H. 726. Creating a voluntary pollinator-friendly solar-generator standard. An effort to prevent false claims that a solar site is being managed to provide greater benefits to pollinators and shrub-dependent birds.
H. 614. Sale and use of fireworks. Prohibits use between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., except for New Year’s and the Fourth of July.
The contentious bills of last week:
H. 237. Saliva Testing. A roadside test is now available that shows whether one of seven drugs (including legal ones) are in your system, but without any indication of whether they are at a level that can impair driving. Yet, allowing this test could result in an officer deciding to hold you, or release you, on what is essentially invalid evidence. Even an amendment that required that testing devices meet the same standards as breath testing devices failed. There was extensive debate over two days on this bill. I voted no; it passed easily. I think the legitimate anxiety about increased driving with marijuana-impairment after legalization on July 1 drove this bill forward. It’s a valid concern but a bad way to address it.
H. 675. Conditions of Release. This small, non-controversial bill clarified the right of judges to order defendants to not possess weapons when released pending a trial on criminal charges.  Because any bill can become a “vehicle” for other topics as long as they are germane to the underlying bill, it turned into the most controversial bill since the marijuana debate in January.
The Senate had just passed its “Extreme Risk Protection” bill on a 30-0 vote, creating an avenue for immediate judicial orders to take away a person’s weapons in cases where a crime had not occurred, but there was evidence of significant danger to a person (suicide) or to others (homicide.) The Senate had taken weeks of testimony to strike a balance between safety and defendant rights, but the House Judiciary Committee had just passed a bill based on two days of rushed process that changed that balance, setting a lower standard for taking guns away, and allowing it for a year instead of 60 days.
House Judiciary had added its own domestic violence bill, which had passed the House last year but was sitting in the Senate because it had become unnecessary – the Extreme Risk bill covered those circumstances, and many more. I had voted against the House bill last year because of constitutional problems.
The Senate bill could have gone straight to the governor the Friday before town meeting if it had passed the House. Any changes meant a long delay with conference committees between the two bodies. I tried to get the Senate bill in front of the House through amending H. 675 to incorporate what the Senate had passed. The House leadership then called a two-hour break to propose an amendment that matched the bill that House Judiciary had passed.
Since the Speaker has discretion over which amendment to take up first, she chose the House Judiciary version of the Extreme Risk bill. After extended debate, it passed, 93-46. The domestic violence portion, which had been changed to allow judicial review in one day, passed 112 to 28, with my support, since the due process issue had been corrected. After that, the handwriting was on the wall. My deferred amendment gained some crossover votes from those who had voted for the House version to match the Senate bill, but failed, 85-53.
There will be much more to come on gun safety initiatives in the weeks to come, and many long conference committee hours before we have final House and Senate votes. Unfortunately, most of the remaining proposals are “feel good” reactions that actually address nothing about the true safety issues.
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at Thank you for the honor of representing you. My blog of legislative updates can be found at

Saturday, February 24, 2018

February 24, 2018 Legislative Update

I don’t think anyone can walk away from the events of the past week without recognizing the deeply felt need to respond constructively to the levels of violence in our country – and not just related to schools. 
We need to be coming together as a community to truly consider the many complex issues that contribute, not to just react in narrow ways that are specific to the most recent horrors.
What do I mean by reacting in a narrow way?
The proposal to limit gun sales to those 21 years or older is getting center stage right now because the Florida shooting was by a 19-year-old.
Does it make sense as a broader public policy? It certainly might. But it needs to be considered on its own merits, not based on reaction to a single specific circumstance.
I am committed to listening to the proposals that come before us in the Vermont legislature, and supporting those that offer real solutions.
However, we need to recognize that some proposals only create a false sense of security. I think that many people are very anxious for that perceived security, and mistakenly see every possible restriction as an answer.
We do need to have open conversations that put everything on the table, including looking at whether and where changes in our guns laws can make a difference. One of our obstacles has been the lines drawn in the sand that do not allow for this kind of difficult conversations.
I am equally concerned about pointing to mental health issues, which are frequently an equally misleading path.
I think we immediately try to pathologize unthinkable acts as evidence of mental illness because we can't bear to think such acts could be knowing and deliberate.
The vast majority of people with mental health challenges are not violent, and I fear the "perceived security" issue could lead to denying rights of those folks inappropriately, as well.
Research has shown that the rate of violence is not greater among those with a mental illness compared to those without. The greatest predictor of dangerousness is a history of violence, not a history of mental illness.
I am not a gun owner or a hunter, but I am a person with a history of serious mental illness, so my concern over this response is based on my direct experience.
It sounds so incredibly reasonable to say that we “must keep guns out the hands of the mentally ill.” Who could question that? It is a rallying cry on all sides of the gun issue.
But it begs the question, how do we define, “the mentally ill”? Note that immediately, when we use the term “the mentally ill” we depersonalize such individuals and make them “the other.”
One out of five Americans will experience mental illness at some time in their life. Should we ban gun possession by any and all of them? How do we define “being mentally ill”?
Do we assume no one recovers from a mental illness? (If so, how do they become state legislators?)
Some might suggest that in order to create the widest possible net of safety, anyone being seen for mental health treatment should be included. Mandatory reporting to the federal database by counselors of clients receiving treatment?
Imagine what that would do to the greatest existing obstacle to encouraging people to seek treatment: the stigma and discrimination that exists.
If there is any degree of enhanced risk, it is among those who do not seek treatment – treatment is the last thing we should want to discourage.
Keep in mind that existing law requires that persons who have refused treatment after being determined to have a mental illness that requires hospitalization already must be reported to the federal database.
Vermont does that – as it does for felons and domestic abusers.
To whom would we further extend that net?
Our issues of violence in our society are far more complex than mental illness or gun laws.
I give credit to the governor for the breadth of his statement when he expressed a new willingness to consider gun issues, because that statement went far beyond guns – and beyond mental illness -- to raise such issues as the impact of toxic childhood trauma. 
I wholeheartedly agree that doing nothing because it is a complex problem is not an acceptable response. We address many complex issues by chipping off what we can, when and where we can.
I am only urging that we not jump to what appear to be quick and easy responses solely because they appear to be quick and easy. They rarely are. Our issues stem from far deeper roots.
It was ironic that in the midst of these traumatic events and national discussion, the longest debate in the House last week was a bill to ban coyote hunting competitions that were described by one legislator as the “slaughter of sentient beings.”
I don’t pretend to be an expert on the biological and scientific issues regarding control of predator species and what coyotes do or do not do to weaker species, or whether hunting competitions increase necessary participation in predator control versus being conducted “merely for fun” at the expense of wildlife.
I do think that these are issues that belong in the realm of such experts, and not in the hands of lay legislators who might be basing decisions on emotion or public sentiment rather than science.
Some of those who contacted me said the legislature needed to act because the Fish and Wildlife Board was refusing to act. I made inquiry during the debate on the House floor and learned that was not true.
Rather, it was the Board’s belief that current law did not give it the authority to address questions about hunting contests, even though it has authority for all other rules about hunting.
As a result, I introduced an amendment that would have replaced the proposed legislative ban on coyote hunting competitions with legislation that clarified the Board’s authority to review all such contests (not just coyotes.)
That amendment failed and the bill passed. I guess if the next public outcry is about deer hunting competitions or rabbit hunting contests, we will have to take that on legislatively as well. The coyote issue is now in the hands of the Senate.
Fees are not technically taxes, because they are levied for specific state services that we deem should be paid for directly by the users of the service.
When they apply to a service that virtually everyone uses, however, that distinction gets fuzzy. The whopping cost to register a car is but one example.
Many fees tend to nickel-and-dime us in very small ways, but they can rapidly add up. As someone who is very concerned about our tax burdens, it was a tough vote last week on increasing the Universal Services Fund that appears on our phone bills.
The current fee is two percent of the core services bill. I checked my phone bill: last month the fee was 48 cents. The proposed increase would add one half of one percent for four years… 12 cents per month on my bill.
The increase is for the Connectivity Fund for getting broadband services throughout the state – a goal that has continued to elude us.
Like when we all pitched in to get electric wires strung in rural areas that were not cost effective for the service providers, we need to do this. I voted to increase the fee.
But it does give rise to worries about much more difficult debates that will occur later this session.
We also absolutely need to address our polluted streams and lakes.
Where will that money come from?
Proposals have included items such as a per parcel fee on land, or increases in the property transfer tax. Would it be more honest to impose it as a direct tax increase borne by everyone?
I did vote in support of a bill last week that will require a permit from the Agency of Natural Resources for development of land parcels beginning at a half acre, down from the current one acre, as of 2022. It was passed on a vote of 125-12.
That means an eventual wider imposition of fees, plus costs of development (ergo, of new homes, for business expansion, and even for local towns, when they pave roads.)
In other words, it is another hidden tax. At least this one is targeted directly at the cost of ensuring that new development does not further add to pollution from runoff.
Further money questions over the next several weeks will include whether we should completely reshape how we fund schools by increasing what we pay from income and decreasing what we pay in property taxes, as well as addressing the annual state budget.
Typical of most budgets, the Governor has proposed some new initiatives along with cuts that both offset the new items and keep the budget from rising faster than taxpayer incomes.
Thus far, the target in the House Appropriations Committee has been to maintain the target for preventing any tax increase. It takes advice from the policy committees regarding both cuts and new initiatives.
The very positive proposals in the human services arena for dental intervention for school kids and for home visits for new mothers got the thumbs down in that committee in favor of keeping critical funds for people who have severe needs for attendant care services at home, and for support for individuals with developmental disabilities, along with rejecting other cuts.
In my Health Care Committee, our advice was to support the governor’s proposed small increase for crisis service programs to help abate the ongoing crisis in lack of access to mental health care that has created persistent backlogs – sometimes weeks of waiting – in emergency rooms.
But we recommended rejecting proposed cuts to our critical primary care system which would reduce Medicaid reimbursements, and the proposal to eliminate the small fund for recruitment of more primary care providers to the state.
We also opposed the cut of state support for insurance co-pays for lower income persons who are above the level of eligibility for Medicaid but do not have employer-sponsored health insurance.
Among the initiatives that have run out of time for consideration: the bill I introduced to reform the property tax inequity for towns with state colleges versus those with private colleges.
The chair of the House Ways and Means Committee has told me that this effort, spearheaded through the work of Chris Bradley, will not be addressed this session, as the committee has its hands full with the education tax bill.
The bill has at least raised attention to the issue. Only a fraction of bills introduced each 2-year session make it through both the House and Senate process to reach the Governor.
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at Thank you for the honor of representing you.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

February 10, 2018 Legislative Update

Legislative Update
Rep. Anne Donahue
February 10, 2018

As we near the midsession deadline, issues are heating up around the state house with consideration of two major tax initiatives: reshaping how we pay for education, and revising state income tax rules to prevent the federal changes from becoming a big state income tax increase.
The Senate has also voted on a 6-year staged increase to a $15-per-hour minimum wage, so we will need to be addressing that proposal in the House.
In meantime, we had a major split on a policy bill on the floor, when I led objections to part of a new bill on parentage that would allow a court to order that a DNA sample be taken from a person who is not involved in the court case.
The parentage bill is a worthy and important effort to rewrite old laws to address the realities of the current world, including surrogate births (termed “gestational carriers”), but it also includes a fairly radical provision on genetic testing. In lay language: if your brother is the subject of a lawsuit asserting that he is the biological father of a child, but he has taken off, the court could order that you must provide a DNA sample. (Your DNA could theoretically provide evidence of whether the child had enough common DNA traits to establish that your brother was, or was not, the father.)
If that clause was going to be included in the bill at all, I wanted the actual genetic specimen to be destroyed after the parentage case was concluded. The committee that had passed the bill disagreed, saying there hadn’t been enough testimony to know what the current protocols were for preserving or destroying genetic testing specimens, so there could be unintended consequences. But the committee was willing to go forward with whatever unintended consequences might result from allowing your DNA sample to be taken and to exist – against your will – in some unknown location under unknown protocols!
It is virtually unheard of for an amendment to succeed on the House floor if the committee rejects it. This one came close to a major upset, but failed on a 70 to 73 roll call vote. My efforts did result in some improvements in the bill to require a more protective court process, but the DNA samples themselves will not be destroyed. The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration, and I am hoping this issue will be reconsidered.
Taxes for Education
One thing everyone agrees on: our current property tax system that contributes to paying for schools is far too complex. One only has to look at what often happens in Northfield: the school board holds to a tight budget with small increases, yet the tax rates go up much higher as a result of spending levels in other towns.
And no one has figured out yet how to slow down the increasing per-pupil costs, as we lose student counts yet keep facing budget pressures. The idea of school district consolidations was probably essential for reasons of educational opportunities for students from small districts, but the cost containment results will be fairly small.
The core of the proposal emerging in the House Ways and Means Committee (the committee in charge of taxes) would be a shift to an income tax surcharge for the statewide share of the education fund. The homestead property tax would drop way down, and would reflect the local district’s spending, without any income sensitivity adjustment (the adjustment for income would be covered by the fact that the income tax surcharge would be scaled based on income.)
It would definitely simplify the system. Despite the intent to keep everyone in about the same tax situation that they are in currently, no system change can do that perfectly, so there would be “winners and losers” – individuals who would do better, or worse, than the current structure. The details are not fleshed out enough yet to know who they would be.
But the big question is what the impact would be on spending levels. What it all costs is a bigger issue than how the taxes are collected. Vermont ranks as the top state in New England in state spending as a share of its gross state product (11.7 percent, compared to next-highest Rhode Island at 10.5 percent), primarily driven by K-12 education spending; education spending as a percentage of the budget ranges from 11.2 percent in Massachusetts to 32 percent in Vermont.
There is a fairly prevalent concept that if taxpayers are “insulated” from spending decisions, they are less likely to hold local spending down. If there is little impact on your property tax bill – because it goes into a statewide pool of money – why vote for a lower, local school budget? That operates if you support the assumption that there are many districts where costs could be restrained, but that local school board (supported by the local voters) are choosing to spend excessively.
If the new system meant that local voters kept tighter control, because their vote directly affected their local property tax – which would be set based upon how much was being spent above the statewide level being covered by the statewide income tax -- it might be a big plus.
If it meant that poorer towns tightened their belts more, but wealthier towns felt comfortable with adding extras, there would be a problem with the equal educational opportunities we are expected to be providing. If it meant that everyone was so relieved that their property taxes dropped so much that they felt it was great to be able to add lots more to their local budget … we’d obviously significantly worsen the overall spending problem in the cost of education.
Some of the complexities of the many variables, including the complexities of why costs keep increasing, are the reason the system hasn’t been changed for so long. While there is momentum this year for a change, it won’t be clear for a while yet whether this initiative will move forward and what the final picture will look like.
State Income Tax
More tax complexities: the big changes in federal income taxes, and what your return will look like next year, will change the impact of some of the automatic features of how our state income tax piggybacks on the federal. For many people, it means that some of their reduced federal taxes will get partially eaten up by increased state taxes.
The best guess right now is that it could result in $30 million more in state revenues. We could expand our state budget, maybe even filling in for some cuts in federal spending, without having to vote on a tax increase. What a great idea!
Oops. No, not such a great idea. No taxation without representation, right? An increase in state spending by $30 million means a $30 million tax increase, even if it is thanks to a change in federal tax law, not ours. If we feel we need or want to increase taxes, that should happen up front, in a transparent debate. So the governor has put forward a proposal for changing state tax codes to – as best as possible – keep everything the same for Vermonters in terms of current state taxes.
But it will be a very tricky process, because the federal tax changes will impact individuals in very different ways. As with changing the property tax structure, no one wants to suddenly cause some individuals to pay a lot more and others, a lot less. Getting an even outcome will be a challenge.
$15 Minimum Wage
Speaking of trying to balance impacts: the Senate is moving forward with a proposal to increase the state minimum wage from $10.50 to $15 over the next six years.
There are many aspects that make a strong case for this. I do believe that a full week’s labor should pay enough for a person to live reasonably above the poverty level. At $10.50 an hour, a person is making $21,840 a year, which is just slightly above what the federal government deems as poverty for a 3-person family. Any of us can compare to our own income to consider whether we think this is a “livable” wage – I do not think it is.
Vermont has some good reference tables that include all the additional supports that low income persons receive, and where that places them in comparison to what Vermont deems a “basic needs” budget. That scale estimates that it takes about $70,000 in resources for a single parent, 2-child family. Again – that become a subjective conclusion about defining basic needs.
Economic arguments for increasing the minimum wage include a savings in what the state spends in various subsidies for those with low incomes and increases in income tax revenues, as well as more buying power for families, resulting in strengthening the economy.
The basic needs budget graph shows the value of all subsidies – childcare, healthcare, food stamps, tax credits, etc – to show where that sample 3-member family falls. If there are no wages coming in, the benefits total about $43,000. As earned income increases, those total resources go up. At wages of around $22,00, combined with benefits, the family reaches $62,000 in net resources.
Then comes the cliff: if you earn more, the subsidies drop faster than your wages increase, so at the point of reaching $36,000 in wages, total resources have dropped to about $52,000. Getting ahead is penalized. (If the state were to attempt to level that cliff, it would cost $66 million.) It is not until earning a net salary after taxes of $48,000 that the family gets back to net resources of $62,000. After that, the progress towards the $70,000 is a bit more even (there are some smaller cliffs) until actually arriving there via after-tax income alone.
So here’s the irony for that sample family: if the minimum wage went from $10.50 to $15 an hour, the total family resources could go from $62,000 to around $56,000!
The Senate plan would increase the threshold for the child care subsidy to help offset that effect – at a cost between $4 and $12 million -- but that does reduce the arguments that say the increase would reduce state spending on subsidies, since that’s the largest direct state funding on family supports. And while keeping the child care subsidy in place at higher wage levels would prevent the drop-off, the increased minimum wage would still would not increase that family’s spending power.
Our legislature’s non-partisan fiscal consultant projects several thousand jobs being lost from the economy if the increase went through, from businesses that would have to cut back based on the increase in wages. Its report also estimated that increases in state tax revenues and reduced benefit costs would be “a net fiscal gain to the State of approximately $23 million” [not counting an expanded child care subsidy cost] under the proposal, “balanced against a $69 million net reduction in federal dollars in Vermont’s economy.”
So nothing is ever as simple as it sounds.
All this assorted data plus much more detailed analysis is available on the Joint Fiscal web site,
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at Thank you for the honor of representing you.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

January 26, 2018 Legislative Update

We don’t get the “fake news” that plagues social media, when it comes to our local news outlets, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get our news twisted up. The word-of-mouth floating around about Governor Scott’s proposal for a privately-run prison and mental health facility that adds 925 new beds is a good example.
Virtually every word in the sentence above is inaccurate, but has shown up in someone’s version in describing the plan. My committee heard the full overview directly last week.
-        There is no proposal for a privately-run facility. The suggestion was that it might be constructed through a private company and then rented to the state to avoid having the state carry the $125 million construction price on its books. But it would be run by the state.
-        There is no plan to add 925 beds to our prison capacity. The facility would replace two existing prisons that are more expensive to run and maintain because they are outdated. It would also bring back the prisoners that we currently send to out-of-state prisons.
-        There is no plan to address mental health needs by creating a new “prison and mental health facility” on the same site. The mental health part of the plan is for providing services to inmates in corrections, not for co-mingling prison and mental health needs.
There are many reasons that I’m not sure the plan makes sense, but if I oppose it, I want it to be for the right reasons!
The pros include the fact that I really believe it is wrong for us to send Vermonters to prison in other states – or if we do, that we should be giving those inmates a shortened sentence. It is not equal justice for one person to be send hundreds of miles away, while the other can maintain connections with local family and support systems.
There is also an urgent need to provide mental health care within corrections. We are required to provide appropriate medical care to the people we hold in prison, and many are not receiving it when it comes to mental health.
The cons include the challenges of recruiting enough staff for a large, consolidated prison in a rural, northwest corner of the state. The mental health plans include a 20-bed forensic hospital, which means recruiting psychiatrists and other medical personnel to serve there, an even more difficult task. This is a healthcare specialty that already has shortages, and the state has been unable to fill staff positions at the psychiatric hospital it runs in Berlin. Staff there frequently are forced to work mandatory overtime shifts, creating dangerous conditions.
I’m also very concerned about the way the whole proposal has blended and mixed up what Vermonters need. The proposal arose from a legislative directive to review the state’s needs in a number of different areas. One high priority for our state is, in fact, mental health care – a whole separate subject from corrections. The two subjects are being tied together in a way that feeds on stigma and discrimination against those who have mental health needs.
There are people with mental illnesses that commit crimes. There are men who commit crimes. The vast majority of people with a mental illness do not commit crimes. The vast majority of men do not commit crimes. Let’s not confuse things just because two categories have an overlap.
Anyone following the news in the past year knows that we have a health system crisis in Vermont, resulting in people spending days, and sometimes weeks, waiting in emergency rooms for a hospital bed, because of a lack of access to mental health care.
There are no direct proposals in the new plan that address that lack of access.
The indirect proposal is the suggestion that because there are some current hospital patients who are also within our criminal justice system – those who overlap the two systems – if we open a hospital wing in a prison it will free up some current hospital beds for people who are waiting in emergency rooms.
It’s a hypothesis that some experts are questioning. Many of those waiting, for example, are children; the plan creates no new space for their needs.
Speaking of children: another part of the mega-prison plan is to potentially also have one building on the campus for juvenile offenders. It’s a back-up plan, if we can’t get federal funding to run a new facility that would replace the current one, Woodside, in Essex. That’s a proposal enough to send chills up the spine of any professionals who address the needs of children.
So legislators will need to see a lot more data before coming to any conclusions about whether this plan moves us any closer to solutions – or to decide upon alternatives.
Last week we heard the governor’s annual budget address. I’ve heard enough budget addresses by now to know how much they are all the same: full of ideas that sound great, but impossible to judge until we see the actual numbers.
It is certainly vital to protect against increases in taxes and fees that grow faster than the economy – and our paychecks – and I applaud the governor’s commitment to that. His desire to invest in economic growth is also important if we are going to keep our ship afloat.
But every budget is about where and how priorities are juggled: what moves to the front of the line, and what gets pushed back. That’s what will need legislative scrutiny.
It is hard to figure out how the schools’ budget gap will be filled to prevent a major property tax increase. Last year, in the compromise that ended the stalemate between the governor and the legislature over teachers’ health care, rates were artificially lowered by taking money from savings that would have helped out this year. In that way, the legislature could say it kept tax rates down without giving in to the governor on the health insurance plan.
Now, some people seemed surprised that we have a shortfall. It’s going to bite us this year, and every year, if we can’t figure out how to slow down the growth in costs.
My health care committee held an evening public hearing last week on access to health care, with a particular focus on access to primary care. It was a depressing hearing, since most of the 50 or so citizens who testified are people having real challenges in getting affordable care. Most were pressing for the legislature to go back to work on creating a universal, single (state)-payer health system, or at least to start on that path by creating a universal primary care system.
What people did not seem to realize is that we cannot control a decision like that, unless we want to try to run a system with less than half the money it currently runs on. We live off the federal system and federal money, whether it be through Medicare, Medicaid, or tax benefits. If they don’t give permission, we lose the money.
The so-called “All Payer” model that we are beginning to test in Vermont right now is based on following the structure that the federal system allows for. The federal Medicare system established the “Accountable Care Organization” model that funnels the money to an organization that is in charge of coordinating care with a goal of more efficiency and better outcomes.
Vermont is trying to piggy-back on that, by having the state Medicaid program and private insurance companies use that same organization (“all payers”), hoping for even greater efficiencies and reduced administrative costs, with more time for doctors to care for patients.
Based on the testimony we’ve been hearing in committee, the new approach is still in its infancy, and most Vermonters do not yet have their care being coordinated by “One Care,” the ACO that is in place here. You will know if you are brought under its umbrella through a letter; whether that happens depends on which insurance you have and who your primary care doctor is.
At best, however, all this reorganizing will only make price increases a bit less steep. We still have a health care system that gives great protection to the very poorest, and excellent coverage to those with employers who can afford to offer good benefits. But despite the subsidies for lower income families, health insurance and out-of-pocket costs continue to take a bigger and bigger chunk out of the paychecks of the majority of Vermonters.
When we talk about affordability, it can’t just be about taxes. It has to be about all of our essential needs. We must just keep plugging away at whatever gains we can make.
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at Thank you for the honor of representing you.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 12, 2018 Legislative Update

New year, new legislative session, new email, new address, new phone!
You may note that you are now receiving this from my legislative email, rather than my home account. That’s partly because I’ve changed my primary account – the old “counterp” account is being phased out – so this is the best one to use for legislative business. My new home email is I’ve also moved “downtown,” off Turkey Hill to 633 North Main Street, Northfield; phone number 802-249-4071.

As we begin this new session, please make sure to let me know if you do not want to continue to receive these updates so that I can remove you from this list.

We’ve jumped quickly into business this January. Since it is the midpoint of a biennium, we eliminate the learning curve time for new members, and many bills are still in motion from last year.
So in fairness – contrary to some media reports – the House did not take up the marijuana bill the first week because it was deemed a highest priority bill. It was because it was on our calendar already after having been sent over by the Senate last year. More on that bill, later.
In my Health Care Committee, we are facing a heavy lift with addressing the impacts of a number of federal changes. Some of them are highly technical health insurance provisions, but they could affect our insurance market in some very negative ways.
One of those is the loss of the pass-through subsidy of the purchase price of plans for lower income folks. The money went to insurers to pay the difference of the reduced cost plans they were required to offer.
The money is gone, but the requirement to offer those plans is not. Without the subsidy, the cost to continue to offer them would have to be spread out to other health care insurance plans (the rest of us.)
There is still a different subsidy available, directly to lower income families. If the cost of the insurance premium increases, that subsidy increases. So one solution is for insurers to increase those premiums, which means families get increased subsidies, and end up paying the same.
That’s the easy part. Then it gets complicated.
Raising those premiums would mean that persons who do not get subsidies would be paying a far higher price to buy those same health care exchange plans.
To prevent that impact, we need to allow insurers to offer plans that are almost exactly the same as the ones on the exchange, but at a lower cost, so that the people affected in that way can continue to purchase those plans at their previous, non-subsidized cost, instead of at an inflated cost.
They will need to know to look for those plans directly from insurers, rather than on the health care exchange – a critical point, as otherwise they will get stuck with a very high price tag.
We are rushing that legislation through right now, because the insurance rate-setting process for next fall gets underway in just a few weeks.
The irony of all of this contorted accounting is that the federal government will actually end up sending more money to Vermonters under this system then they would have.
The federal change reduces health care dollars coming to Vermont by about $12 million. Under the revisions, we will be bringing in about $16 million – a gain of about $8 million.
The point of our legislation is solely to protect Vermonters from the federal change, but the effect will be to actually lower costs a bit for some people.
So what happens when the federal government discovers it is losing money through its changes? (Vermont is one of some 37 states who are adopting this fix.)
Everything may change again. It’s a pretty frustrating picture.
One of the most unpopular parts of the Affordable Care Act has been the “individual mandate” that requires everyone to buy a health plan or face a penalty. The recent federal action to eliminate that penalty has been welcomed by many.
One of the most popular parts of the ACA has been the requirement that insurance covers “pre-existing” conditions: just because you already had diabetes when you bought the plan, they can’t deny coverage for the care you need.
What most people don’t recognize is that those two pieces are linked in a critical way.
Homeowners’ insurance wouldn’t sell you a policy if your house was already on fire. If you could wait until then to buy coverage, why would you ever pay for coverage before you needed it, in other words, unless and until your house was on fire?
If we aren’t required to buy health insurance, but when we choose to buy it, any conditions we already have are covered, why not wait and buy insurance only when we “need” it because we develop a serious and costly illness?
Insurance as a concept is premised on everyone paying into the pool of money that is used to cover unpredicted expenses. If pre-existing conditions are covered, and the only people who buy it are those who are already in a need of a lot of care, the “insurance” is going to end up costing as much as the care itself. In other words, the whole concept of insurance falls apart.
That is why Vermont is going to have to take a serious look at whether we need to create a state requirement for coverage – much as Massachusetts had prior to Obamacare – in order to maintain a reasonably stable health insurance market.
A bill to do that will be getting review in my committee in the next several weeks, and will require a lot of consideration.
There may be a good amount of pushback on this. It is our human nature to want it all – in this case, maximum access to the health care we want, without the government forcing us to pay for it.
Part of increasing costs is our increasing use of health care. It costs real money. We do have to pay for what we want.
At the same time as struggling with health care costs, we – the big “we,” as both state and nation – are continuing down the path of legalizing the use of marijuana.
I won’t repeat all the pro and con arguments here, and there are many of them on both sides. I find it hard to object to the concept that adults who are doing things that do not harm anyone else should be allowed to do those things legally.
But we do prohibit a lot of things under that category. Riding a motorcycle without a helmet comes to mind.
The real question is whether there will be an increase over existing harms (the risks to younger folks if they access it more; the risks created on our highways if there is an increase in impaired driving) through legalization, and the extent to which we will work to minimize the increased risks that do occur.
I was disappointed with the very mild compromises that emerged in the final bill that the governor agreed to sign. The bill does include penalties for use of pot in a car (including by non-drivers), which was an amendment I first brought to the House floor last year. The penalties are increased if a child is in the car.
But both last year and this, I also pushed for penalties for using pot in any enclosed space with a child. The negative picture I can’t get out of my mind is of a group of folks at home, enjoying some casual marijuana (OK, fine), in a room in front of their kids (not OK.)
Some news media reported that I offered an amendment to increase penalties for use of marijuana in enclosed spaces when children are present. That is inaccurate. There are no penalties in the bill; my amendment would have created some.
It failed, and I voted against the bill. To me, the sad reflection was those only a handful of those who supported the bill were willing to support my amendment to it.
The member of the House who is also a practicing MD (and who opposed the bill as a whole) was more than just saddened. Rep. George Till said in a written comment on the vote: “this is the low point of my 10 years in the legislature, to see so many people I respect not vote to protect our children.”
Please stay in touch as you hear about issues affecting you and to keep me informed about your views. You can reach me at Thank you for the honor of representing you.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

May 20, 2017 Legislative Update

House members were called in on scattered days for brief spurts of action on the floor over the past two weeks before adjournment, mostly waiting for news that there was actually a budget to be voted on. The rank-and-file were never really privy to the efforts to resolve the teacher’s health insurance negotiation issue, but were on stand-by for whether Education Fund language would, or would not, be added to a bill.
There was so much focus on the $26 million that might be saved in the Education Fund that there was no attention at all to the actual budget. By the time we were hearing the conference committee report at about 11:30 p.m. Thursday, no one asked any questions.
Even I, who has acquired a reputation for being someone who actually reads every bill, did not rise to ask for clarifications on some of the “squishy” numbers that are part of the annual budget-balancing game. We were already two weeks past the targeted adjournment; people were anxious to have it come to an end, and I feared my head being bitten off.
It’s not as if we ever actually build an entire budget. Government lurches forward at an annual cost of (this current year) $5.75 billion, and we battle over the nickels and dimes (or less) that represent the changes from the prior year. In fact, the entire difference in negotiating between the House and Senate version of next year’s $5.82 billion budget was $14.5 million, settled with a reduction of $4.9 million. Literally pennies, within the overall scope.
But it is part of a much big picture of how we juggle money in the budget, not because a specific nickel here or nickel there impacts the budget on its own, but because, as they say, “after a while it adds up to real money.”
So it is with the teacher’s health insurance debate.
The potential $26 million in savings isn’t actually an amount to be worth the level of the fight over it, compared to the size of the Education Fund as a whole. But it is about a trajectory of spending, and about a principle: if there is a sound way to save real money, do we ignore it? Or do we recognize that every penny matters, and pursue it?
One of the “detail” issues on the teacher insurance question – and there are many, beneath the short sound bites -- is how it can be that we have new health plans that save $26 million, yet assure that the recipients get the same coverage than they do now. (Can I buy that plan, please?)
That’s a question I haven’t heard discussed very much, so here’s the basic explanation:
It goes back to the Affordable Care Act, and what was often referred to as the “Cadillac Tax.” When I first found out what that was, I actually though it was one of the few brilliant pieces of the ACA. What it recognized was the well-researched fact that one significant component of our high health care costs in the U.S. is over-utilization: we get care that we don’t need. And if enough of your health care is fully covered by insurance, you are more likely to over-utilize care. It is human nature. We feel we paid for it, so we have a right to use it.
So the ACA put an upper limit on what it called the “actuarial values” – the percentage of the average person’s costs that a plan covers – at 90 percent. Plans at higher values get a heavy tax placed on them, to discourage them. The current teacher’s plans run at about 96 percent.
The “grandfathering” for old Cadillac-level plans is now over, and teachers will be moving to plans that cover less, at a much lower premium price. (That is a fait accompli that has nothing to do with the controversy over who does the negotiating.)  This is a once-only moment in time for this changeover.
The total savings for the new plans across the state will be about $75 million, on an ongoing basis.
If all stays at status quo, each school board will have to figure out how to negotiate what happens to those savings within each district. Increased salaries to offset lower health insurance value? Reduce the local budget (which ends up helping the statewide Ed Fund, perhaps more than the local property taxpayer)? There are many options.
The proposal developed by the School Board Association and then endorsed by the Governor was to take $49 million of the $75 and put it back into teacher’s health care in the form of health savings accounts. That amount gives teachers the same as current levels of coverage, or even slightly better – in terms of co-pays, and so forth – but the education system as a whole saves the remaining $26 million.
How could that be, that $49 million buys a $75 million equivalence in coverage?
That’s the difference, on a very large scale, in the actual utilization rates when the payment is coming from a health savings account (where you keep the leftovers) versus an insurance company pocket.
But none of the numbers compute very well if they are being broken into different plan packages with different percentages of cost-sharing, district-by-district. If left individually negotiated, the odds aren’t good that the optimal savings will occur; they certainly won’t occur evenly across the state; and the savings might be invested in many ways other than reducing property taxes.
The School Boards and Superintendent’s proposal was to move the collective bargaining (move it, not end it) from local districts (local school boards) to a statewide contract, for health insurance purposes only. Other benefits would remain locally negotiated, but there would be a single health care plan that would be equitable across the state.
The need to do it on a statewide basis is where the “everyone wins” fell apart, with the teacher’s union taking the position that negotiating at the state level was taking away collective bargaining rights, because the state is not the direct employer. Collective bargaining, they are saying, is destroyed if it is not a direct employer-employee relationship, regardless of who is paying the bills. (As we are all painfully aware, the creation of a statewide Education Fund turned us into taxpayer-employers acting through the state, instead of acting locally, in collecting the money and paying the bills.)
Herein lies the irony of that position: I’ve been in the legislature long enough to have seen two different initiatives – both successful – to have the state pass a law to allow a union to form, among a group of workers, for the purpose of bargaining with the state-as-funder rather than with their actual employers.
Take the example of child care workers, employed by local daycare centers that receive a significant amount of funding through state subsidies for children attending the centers. They lobbied for and won the right to form a union for collective bargaining with the state for establishing the subsidy rates.
So I can’t buy the concept that having health care negotiated on a state-level basis is hurting the integrity of collective bargaining. We are the employers (represented by our school boards), but we are already, virtually speaking, state-level employers –far more so than the state role with day care workers.
The bottom line is that this is a “draw-a-line-in-the-sand” power struggle between a governor who wants to set a direction about affordability and maximizing savings for taxpayers, versus a union that wants to demonstrate its ability to control legislators votes, and exploiting its own members in the process.
I am opting to stand behind the governor. We’ll find out where it all ends sometime after the veto override vote on June 21.
Thank you for the honor of representing you. Please contact me with your questions and your opinions. You can reach me by message at home at 485-6431 or at this email at

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Legislative Update on the Marijuana Vote

Legislative Update: Bill to Legalize Marijuana
May 12, 2017
 A lot has happened in just the few days since I originally wrote this draft to discuss my “no” vote on the marijuana legalization bill in the House. After the 75-71 vote to pass the bill, it went back to the Senate, which has consistently opposed the House approach. If our session had ended last week, as expected, the issue would have been left there, to be taken up next January.
Instead, the budget stalemate extended our session and we received a counter-proposal from the Senate which accepted our language but delayed implementation by a year (to July 1, 2018) and added a Commission to develop a proposal for January for the Senate’s much broader “tax and regulate” approach. That means that if the Senate can build support, its approach could replace the House’s, for implementation next July.
The House voted to support the Senate’s counter-proposal, so it now goes to the Governor’s desk, where he is mulling on his action. If he decides to veto it (which is not a clear outcome), we will likely be re-voting in June on whether to override the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority. Since the Senate proposal passed the House on a 79-66 vote, that means there would need to be roughly 15 members to change positions, for an override to occur.
My discussion explaining the position I ended up taking remains relevant, so I will pick up here with what I drafted to send out last week:
I could have accepted legalizing adult possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana, if we were aggressive with the stated premise that it would not harm others. My preference was to retain a small civil penalty for both using and growing – simply to avoid a public message of normalizing use of what still is, after all, a federal crime – but that approach was rejected on the first day of debate.
So were the sponsors serious about protecting children and protecting safety on our highways, given that legalization will undoubtedly end up creating some degree of increase in overall use?
I introduced a series of amendments targeting those issues.
First was to have the misdemeanor crime that was created for providing marijuana to minors include use in the presence of minors; in other words, providing it via second-hand smoke. I don’t think it’s OK to make it legal for adults to be using pot with their kids in the room. 
I also wanted to add it as grounds for a child abuse/neglect investigation if a parent provided marijuana to a child under age 16.
In terms of marijuana and driving on our highways: Given that there is no means for an immediate test that demonstrates a blood level for impaired driving, I think there is a need for some extra thresholds of protection .
I proposed three amendments on this issue. First was that allowing active smoking of pot by a passenger while a car is being driven should be banned in the same way as smoking pot by the driver (or drinking by the driver, which is a $500 fine in current law.)
Second was a fine for possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle unless in locked container. It’s a message about having a bright line: marijuana and driving don’t mix; it should not be easily accessible.
Third was allowing active use of marijuana in a car while driving to be used as one element of evidence in an impaired driving prosecution.
Finally, I wanted to see my rights better protected. The legalization for cultivation requires that it be on property that a person is “lawfully in possession” of, or with permission from the person with lawful possession. I proposed that it require written consent.
I also believe that legalization should be restricted to use on one’s own property (or with permission of the owner.) That was my final proposed amendment.
The major “push-back” on my proposals was that they violated the concept that we should treat pot in the same way that we treat tobacco and alcohol, which are seen as being as bad, or worse, than marijuana. To me, that is a bizarre concept. We have two substances that are addictive and harmful, so we should add a third and not add precautions?
There is also voluminous medical evidence of harms that go beyond alcohol or cigarettes, including, for example, the risk of bringing on psychosis.
We have also been working over some time to increase protections to others for tobacco and alcohol use, becoming much more aggressive about second hand smoke and about drunk driving, for example. Those experiences demonstrate how hard it is to push back on something that is already legal. It’s far better to start with more protection – and ease off if demonstrated to be not necessary.
That concept of “equal treatment” also ignores the reality – for better or worse – that marijuana is still illegal under federal law!
The most amazing responses to my proposals came from the Judiciary Committee.  A member of the committee – the committee that considered the bill for months – said that the committee agreed with my concern about protecting children, but needed to look for a better means to achieve it. “We’d like to find a way to do that,” he said. He concluded that, “If we pass the bill, we should come back to these issues”
What? Fix them after passing the bill? That’s totally backwards, and is not the way we deal with any other legislation.
My proposals to add protections for children were both rejected. The proposals for locking up pot when it’s in a motor vehicle, and for smoking in the car being admissible evidence when prosecuting for impaired driving, were rejected. Limiting use to one’s private property was rejected.
A final issue raised by others was the question of whether we had done due diligence on evaluating health impacts. Our MD member of the House strongly opposed the bill, and cited a major review of research by the National Academy of Sciences.
However the bill had never been reviewed by our Health Care Committee. A motion to send it there, also failed.
So I voted “no” on the bill as a whole. The very closeness of the vote – it passed by only four votes, 75-71 – was certainly an indication that I was not the only one with these concerns.
[As an addendum I would note that when the House bill we passed came back from the Senate, it was in its original form, so it did not include the two minor amendments I offered that were endorsed by the full House. Those were to ban driving a car while pot is being smoked by a passenger in the same way as smoking by the driver (or drinking by a driver), and to require that consent to grow pot on someone else’s property be in writing.]