LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: MARCH 2021
Happy spring and mid legislative session! Crossover is a deadline mid-session when bills must move from committee to the floor of the House (or Senate) and then pass out of the House (or Senate) to the other body to allow time for bills to be considered by both bodies before the end of the session. I always thought crossover involved a couple of days off long hours and a flurry of bills, but, nope. Crossover is actually a busy three week process. I appreciate your patience with the gap between my last update and this one as I catch up.
HOUSE BILLS ON THE MOVE
In March, I led the development of my first piece of successful policy -Section 12 of an omnibus economic development bill (H.159) to support BIPOC business development. Section 12 creates two important state strategies:
Require the state to collect demographic data on businesses owners to enable the state to do targeted outreach to BIPOC business owners and develop responsive state policy and services to assist their needs. Currently the state does not collect race, ethnicity or gender data on business owners.
Offer seed funding for Vermont BIPOC owned business community to convene and identify ways the state can better support their development, growth and success. A 2020 survey to BIPOC businesses reported 62% of those surveyed do not belong to a Vermont business association because these organizations are not inclusive or responsive to their needs. As a result, relying on existing Vermont business organizations to provide technical services and critical information misses many BIPOC owned businesses.
The larger bill appropriates funds to several programs in order to promote economic development, workforce revitalization and access to higher education. Please read a more detailed summary of this H.159 here or watch the full bill report on the House floor here. The house also passed a number of other bills of significance in March. Here are two highlights:
H.171 - A bill to move Vermont towards more affordable and accessible child care. The intention of the bill is to ultimately ensure families spend no more than 10% of their annual household income on child care while also making sure early educators are paid professional wages. In the short term, it expands eligibility for lower income families to access financial aid for child care and increases funding for early childhood educator scholarships and student loan repayment programs. We are well on our way towards better supporting the child care system as a community asset.
H.128 - A bill to limit the use of a victim’s identity as part of a criminal defense, often called the “gay/trans panic defense.” The bill will prevent a defendant from blaming their criminal actions on the perceived or actual sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim. Such a line of defense has been used, especially during sentencing, to downplay the severity of the crime.
Public pensions continue to be the most frequent topic raised by constituents in our district in the last month. Our neighbors are rightfully worried and concerned about the two proposals presented thus far to address the unfunded liability problem within the state employee and teacher pension systems. Many Vermonters participated in public hearings in late March to speak against the significant employee cost, eligibility changes and reduction in pension benefits included in the proposals.
I proudly supported two efforts to offer alternatives to the proposals: (1) I co-sponsored an amendment to H.436 to raise revenue to fund the pensions by creating a 3% surcharge in addition to the current tax on income over $500,000. This proposal would generate $50 million a year. (2) I signed on to a 4-part proposal by the Workers’ Caucus to create a taskforce to review the pension system and develop recommendations, institute an audit of past investments, require annual reporting of fees and investment returns associated with the pension funds, and identify new revenue sources.
Late last week, the House Government Operations Committee indicated it would likely slow down advancing its original proposal and instead create a taskforce to further study the issue for the next legislative session. This is a good step, but we are not out of the woods. We need to respond in a thoughtful way that acknowledges unfunded liabilities within public pensions are not uncommon, nor a problem that requires rushed action. I will continue to encourage my colleagues to include those most impacted by any changes to pensions - workers and retirees - in the process to review the system. I will also only support changes to the system that fully consider all other options before teachers and state workers are asked to pay more and/or receive less in retirement benefits. These workers continue to provide essential work to support our students, communities and state. We cannot break our promise to provide a decent pension in return.
I will be holding a community meeting on pensions on Wednesday, April 7th at 7:30pm to discuss the pension issue further and answer questions. All are welcome. This event requires pre-registration here.
UNEMPLOYMENT - MORE NEWS Many of our neighbors used the unemployment insurance program in 2020 and/or continue to use the program to help make ends meet. Here are a few important updates:
The American Rescue Protection Act (ARPA) and a state companion bill (S.110) extend unemployment benefits through Labor Day of 2021 and protect against a reduction in benefit payments if a Vermonter found temporary lower paying work in the last two quarters of 2020. Benefits are calculated based on last quarter earnings, so S.100 helps by expanding the quarters considered in the calculation to pull in higher earning periods prior to the economic shutdown of March 2020.
S.10 is under consideration in House Commerce soon and proposes freezing the employer rate for contributions to the unemployment trust fund and adding a $50/week dependent benefit for UI claimants with dependents under 18 years old. I believe we must do more to support workers in this bill as most Vermonters earn about $370/week on unemployment and are struggling to make ends meet as the pandemic continues.
I continue to hear from constituents stuck in the unemployment system. If you have had issues with the UI system in the last year and/or are still experiencing issues, please consider filing out this survey. It is a shared effort by a handful of legislators hoping to understand the patterns and areas where the state must do better to support folks using this program. If you would like to share your experience on unemployment in my committee in the coming weeks, please let me know. It is invaluable to hear from real Vermonters who experience the impact of our decisions as policymakers.
Thank you for continuing to reach out and engaging in the legislative process.
Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, State Representative Elect
Chittenden 6-2 (Old North End/New North End)
Social Media @staterepemma
P.S. Here are some useful legislative resources to bookmark:
Picture description: My youngest child at the rally in Montpelier on Saturday to protect public pensions.