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2023 Legislative Session Summary: Part One

Hello friends -

The 2023 legislative session officially ended May 12th, 2023 and we will return for a veto session on June 20th. We anticipate the Governor will continue his unprecedented track record by vetoing several bills in the coming days. He already vetoed Burlington's all-resident charter change and the budget. I continue to be concerned that the budget lacks funding for a just and humane transition for Vermonters housed in the current General Assistance Emergency Housing Motel Program (GA Housing Program). As we approach the veto session, I am working with other legislators to use the process available to us, including sustaining a veto of the budget, to propose an alternative budget that supports unhoused Vermonters. There are always a number of big policy items to summarize at the end of the legislative session. Let's dive in!

FY24 STATE BUDGET

GENERAL ASSISTANCE MOTEL VOUCHER PROGRAM Despite efforts from House Progressives and a group of Democrats, nearly 2,000 households will be forced out of housing that is currently provided by the General Assistance Emergency Housing program on May 31st and June 30th. Many of these people are part of our most vulnerable populations — disabled Vermonters, children, and people with serious health conditions. Although the budget includes $60 million dedicated to expanding emergency shelters, converting motels into housing, and building affordable housing, these long-term units are unlikely to be available for another 2 years at the very earliest.

In the House, I worked with several legislators to propose several viable solutions to support unhoused Vermonters. This included an amendment I proposed to modified the eligibility dates of the state's Adverse Weather Program to better align with the coldest days of the year. Unfortunately, the amendment did not gain support. In the final days of the session, the budget conference committee (H.494) allocated an additional $10 million in grant funding to shelters to address the homelessness crisis — however, this funding will be used for short-term responses such as buying tents and other camping equipment. I ultimately voted no on the budget due to the absence of any meaningful policy solutions to the housing humanitarian crisis. We can and must do better. I look forward to working more on this during the veto session.

On the state level, there are still options available to solve the emergency housing crisis. I am working with other legislators to create better short-term solutions than those suggested by the administration’s current plan to provide a total of three last-minute temporary state-wide shelters. I am also working with colleagues to propose a new budget during the June veto session. This proposal will guarantee that no one is evicted from the motel program and disregarded onto the street, that the state adopts eligibility criteria for the program to protect the most vulnerable, and then develops a just transition policy to move current participants out of the program to permanent housing. These solutions will be funded by reallocating significant funding in the capital budget and other flexible funding sources that were reserved for use until 2026 by the Governor. The alternative budget proposal can be considered if enough legislators sustain the expected budget veto. Once the current budget bill is defeated, the legislature can resubmit the budget using alternative proposals to gain enough support from legislators and, hopefully, the Governor. We are prepared to use the process available to legislators to finalize a budget that meets the emergency needs of Vermonters by July 1st. We have already begun collaboration with the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office and Legislative Council to have our proposal fully drafted by June 20th.

WORKFORCE Nearly every sector is struggling with varying degrees of workforce recruitment and retention issues due to chronic low wages, systemic devaluing of certain professions, and a workforce pushed to the brink by unaffordable child care and health care realities. We also face a number of critical occupation shortages in our healthcare, trades, and education sectors. I serve on the committee that oversees workforce development and advocated continuously for a number of critical investments using an equity and economic justice lens:

  1. New loan forgiveness for teachers with one year of loan forgiveness for each year worked in a Vermont public school.

  2. New funding to support retaining educators with marginalized identities with first time funding for affinity groups.

  3. Increased funding for the existing forgivable loan program for nurses established last biennium and a new program to include psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners.

  4. Continued funding for critical occupation scholarships for low income households, including early childhood, clinical mental health, and all levels of nursing and continued funding of the 802 Opportunities grants that offer free CCV tuition to low income households.

  5. Raised rates for health and human services providers, including designated agencies and specialized service agencies (+ 5%), federally qualified health centers (+10%), primary care providers (+10%), home health providers (+15%), dental providers, EMS, recovery centers, nursing homes, elder care, youth service providers, and more.

  6. New regional workforce expansion to support New American labor force and work-based learning and training programs.


OTHER NOTABLE BUDGET ITEMS

EQUITY AND JUSTICE The FY24 budget included funding for the new Truth and Reconciliation Commission (this had not been included in the Governor’s budget), continued funding the Land Access and Opportunity Board, continued funding the Health Equity Advisory Commission, funded a statewide language access plan, creating ongoing environmental justice positions within the Agency of Natural Resources, and creating permanent staffing for the state’s Office of Racial Equity. The budget also includes $1M for refugee resettlement assistance and needs assessments.

HOUSING We initiated significant investments into long-term permanent housing with next year’s budget. This includes $50M to the Vermont Housing Coalition Board for affordable housing development, $10M for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program (VHIP), and additional funding for the Adverse Weather Program/Emergency Housing ($18.9M) and Housing Opportunity (HOP) grants ($2.5M). It is important to note that the short-term emergency housing investments are still significantly inadequate to meet the needs of our state. Review our concerns outlined above for more information.

TRANSPORTATION We have secured $1M for Green Mountain Transit zero-fare bus routes and a transition to a tiered-fare service construct in the future.


LABOR

I sponsored the PRO (Protecting the Right to Organize) Act, (H.219) this session arguably one of the most comprehensive labor bills introduced this biennium. S.102, the Senate companion bill, and H.219 include majority sign-up union elections, expands collective bargaining rights under state law to domestic and agricultural workers, and protects employees from facing disciplinary action for not attending captive audience meetings. The bill originally included a provision to provide good cause termination rights to all workers, but that provision was removed in the Senate. S.102 passed the Senate and will be considered by the House in January. It is poised to be the first major labor rights bill passed by the Vermont legislature in several years.

The historic child care bill landed in H.217 in the final days of the session. The bill increases the state child care subsidy income eligibility levels to include more households. Families with income of less than or equal to 175% of the federal poverty level will be eligible for free childcare. Families with annual incomes up to and including 400% of the federal poverty level will be eligible for subsidies, adjusted for family size. The bill also includes historic investments in the early educator workforce to increase salaries and benefits and makes early education scholarships and loan forgiveness programs established last biennium permanent. I proudly co-sponsored the original House version of this bill and spoke to the importance of the legislation on the House floor.

S.103 expands the state’s equal pay law and addresses workplace discrimination. S.103 passed both chambers, but the bill needs one final vote in the Senate after the House amended the equal pay protection categories to be more inclusive thanks to my advocacy work. I introduced a similar bill (H.116) and had tracked the progress of S.103. The Senate is expected to concur with the House changes during the June veto session. The bill allows workers to bring a discrimination claim under a less onerous harassment definition while also allowing workers with multiple marginalized identities to make one case versus individual harassment claims based on each identity. The bill also protects workers from employer retaliation in settlement agreements by prohibiting an employer from preventing an employee from returning to work for that employer in the future. This practice is also known as "don't darken my door” clauses. Finally, the bill expands the equal pay law to now include gender identity, sexual orientation, race, national origin, and disability status. Vermont’s equal pay law will now become one of the most inclusive in the country.

H.217 evolved into a comprehensive unemployment, workers’ compensation and child care bill at the end of the session. H.217 will require all employers to pay into the unemployment insurance system, including small non-profits currently exempt from the system. The bill also studies the impact of expanding unemployment eligibility for workers due to illness, injury, caring for a family member or experiencing a sudden loss of child care. I proposed these components in H.92 alongside Vermont Legal Aid to create a more just unemployment system to support Vermonters during economic struggle. The bill also requires the Department of Labor initiate more outreach to make sure the existing state unemployment system for domestic and sexual violence is better utilized. My workers’ compensation bill (H.286) components were also folded into this bill, thereby creating a standardized work search requirement process and an increase to the dependent care benefit. This had last increased in 1981.

PAID LEAVE The General Assembly initiated two Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance bills this session — one from the Senate (S.56) and one from the House (H.66). Both chambers moved their versions of paid leave to the other chamber, but neither bill advanced. The Senate bill offers significantly less coverage than the House version of the bill. Progressives look forward to pushing for strong, meaningful paid leave in January.​

H.66, creates a minimum standard for employer protection and guarantees all working Vermonters 12 weeks of leave every 12 months, including military leave time, safe leave for people experiencing intimate partner violence, and bereavement leave. The benefit would comprehensively serve temporary, seasonal, and part-time workers as well as self-employed Vermonters. H.66 secures funding through a 0.58% payroll tax with employees and employers each responsible for half of the contribution. Anyone making less than $25K would be exempt from paying into the program. Employers may supplement this insurance program to further strengthen the leave time policy offered to their employees.

S.56, funds paid family leave with a 0.55% payroll tax for 12 weeks of paid leave for employees to care for themselves or a family member. It does not grant leave for people experiencing intimate partner violence or bereavement leave, nor does it allow workers to each take 12 weeks of leave in the same household.

I co-sponsored and supported H.66, but neither bill passed both chambers. The Senate currently does not have the votes to override Governor Scott’s potential veto, so more organizing is needed before next session to find a successful path forward.

Stay tuned for two more updates to cover the full legislative summary in the coming weeks.

Peace,

Emma Mulvaney-Stanak VT State Representative Chittenden 17 Old North End | New North End, Burlington, VT House Commerce Committee Member (she/her/hers - here's a resource on personal pronouns) Social Media @staterepemma 802-448-0838


Photo: Emma standing with early education staff, parents and kids from Robin's Nest Children's Center (Burlington based center) on the steps of the State House at the Let's Grow Kids rally. April 2023.


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