2017 Session Wrap-Up: Win Some, Lose Some
by Rickey Gard Diamond

So what should Vermont women take away from this year’s state legislative session? First of all that women played key roles, with new leaders like House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero), House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington), and Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint (D-Windham). Female leadership is fairly well represented in the General Assembly, with eight House committees headed by women and five in the Senate. Experienced committee chairs like Sen. Ann Cumming (D-Washington) and Rep. Helen Head (D-South Burlington) set a steady pace this legislative session.

The Wins

The legislature passed a bill (Act 21) newly protecting pregnant workers’ rights, which Gov. Phil Scott signed into law. The act gives pregnant women the same rights and accommodations in the workplace as people with disabilities.

Meanwhile Sen. Jane Kitchell (D-Caledonia) and House Appropriations chair Kitty Toll (D-Caledonia-Washington) crunched and recrunched budget numbers. Their committees rather ingeniously collaborated to shift funds and find efficiencies that promise benefit for a good many women, like higher education funding and increased salaries for mental health care nurses. Their budget increased childcare funding, a measure important both to childcare centers largely owned by women, and important to women workers who need them. It also added money for rural economic development, including for value-added microbusiness of the kind women often start.

Protecting women’s health, the budget redirected some Medicaid hospital funds to primary care providers in rural areas, and found funding for Choices for Care, the state’s effort to keep elders in their homes with services like Meals on Wheels. They even managed to sock a little money away in the rainy day fund to deal with expected cuts in federal funds that we reported last issue. Amazingly, all this was done without adding new taxes or fees, which Scott had warned early on would result in his veto.

One big win: an act relating to domestic and sexual violence was signed into law by the governor. The act, which combines several separate bills that were on the docket this session, establishes a misdemeanor crime of lewd conduct, establishes rights for sexual assault victims, eliminates the six-year statute of limitation for sexual assault, and extends the statute of limitations on sexual exploitation of children to 40 years.

Legislators came out strongly in favor of S.79, which was signed into law by the governor. The bill, which enjoyed widespread support from Republicans, Democrats, and Progressives, was in direct response to President Trump’s anti-Muslim policies, in particular his pledge to create a national Muslim registry. The law, called “an act relating to freedom from compulsory collection of personal information,” prohibits public agencies from collecting information about an individual’s religious beliefs, practices, or affiliation and knowingly disclosing that information to a federal agency or official—among other provisions protecting the rights of individuals from federal interference.

Another win was passage of S.135, which creates a state-administered public retirement program called Green Mountain Secure Retirement. The law sets up an MEP (multiple employer program), which will be available to small businesses and individuals who cannot access a retirement savings plan through their employer. A secure retirement is of particular importance to women who on average earn less and live longer than men. Women 65 and older are 80 percent more likely than men to be living in poverty. They are also more likely to work part-time and thus be ineligible for employer-sponsored retirement plans. This legislation helps bridge that gap.

Family Leave & Other Big Tries

Some important legislative efforts for women fell short this session. In early May, when asked by Vermont Woman what the most important issues for women were this year, Rep. Brian Cina (P-Chittenden 6-4) and Rep. Selena Colburn (D-Chittenden 6-4) both agreed it was the Family Leave Act, which had just passed the House.

But the Senate version sponsored by Sen. Ann Cummings stalled in committee. She’s been sponsoring family leave legislation for nearly 10 years, she told Vermont Woman, and is glad to see a conversation finally taking off.

In a recent interview, Lt. Gov. Mark Zuckerman called the House version disappointing, as its proposed insurance plan would be paid only by workers, not by employers. He added that as an employer himself, he’d help pay for that insurance to gain a benefit from reduced turnover of trained and experienced employees.
A bill that would subsidize childcare for low-income women (H.10) likewise remains in a House committee. It had not been expected to advance much this session.

More women than men work in minimum wage jobs, testified Cary Brown of the Vermont Commission on Women early in the session. In states with higher minimum wages the pay gap between the sexes grows narrower, she said. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski (D-Chittenden 6-3) has spoken of the importance for women of raising the minimum wage. Two bills were introduced, but neither made it to the finish line.

An important piece of legislation for victims of domestic violence made it through the House but stalled in the Senate. The bill would require a law enforcement officer to confiscate a dangerous or deadly weapon from a person who is arrested or cited for domestic assault.

Gov. Scott & the Teacher Health Plan

In the last week of the session, as the legislature got ready to wrap things up, Gov. Scott stepped in with a new item affecting a group of largely female workers—the state’s teachers.

He proposed the state capture a $26 million windfall from a change in teacher’s health care plans through the Affordable Care Act—and newly sought to insert the state into what has traditionally been locally controlled contract negotiations. The final budget passed two weeks after their scheduled adjournment. It included $4 million for higher education and relief for property taxes from that windfall.

But the second governor’s demand, that the state newly be the lone negotiator for a unified health care benefit for all Vermont teachers, was not included. Legislative leaders wanted more time to consider long-term policy effects.

Sen. Kitchel explained the legislative dilemmas over issues, which she considered simplified in the news: “How do you negotiate at the state level? Vermont teachers are represented by multiple unions, not just the NEA. How do you handle an impasse? Which labor laws apply?” She added that in the Northeast Kingdom rural schools often pay lower wages offset by good health care benefits. If benefits are squeezed by the state, will Vermont school districts then see greater pressure on the wage side?

Nevertheless Scott stuck to his veto threat over the budget bill, H.518, and the education property tax bill, H.509 ostensibly because lawmakers did not switch negotiations with teachers from the local to the state level. House Speaker Johnson told VTDigger’s Erin Mansfield, “[T]hat’s not governing. That’s petulance.”

Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield) informed constituents that despite her reputation for reading every bill, she never “asked for clarification of the ‘squishy’ numbers that are part of the annual budget-balancing game … people were anxious to have it come to an end.” She supported Scott’s proposed health care savings plans for teachers, as well as his veto.

“I think everyone started the session thinking it could be a very cordial relationship,” commented Sen. Kitchel. “Historically we have always come to common ground. But even with some of our most senior people involved in talks with the governor—it failed. We left, feeling heavy-hearted and saddened by the whole process,” she said in an interview.

Meanwhile, Scott assured the people of Vermont he would not shut down the government. The session will reconvene June 21.

Whither a State Bank

Efforts to create a panel or commission to study the feasibility of a public or state bank go back to 2012, when key sponsors Sen. Anthony Pollina (D-Washington) and Rep. Suzi Wizowaty (D-Chittenden-6-5) introduced paired Senate and House bills, proposing “an act relating to creating an expert panel on the creation of a state bank.” The bills died in committee.

Undaunted, Pollina switched gears and introduced in 2014 two new Senate bills S.55 and S.204, the latter known as his 10 percent for Vermont Program, which proposed directing 10 percent of the state’s cash on hand to local investments. Senate bill 55 again proposed creating a task force to evaluate the costs and benefits of consolidating the state’s financial functions into one entity.

Detailed written testimony at the time from State Treasurer Beth Pearce looked at the pros and cons of what amounted to a state bank proposal and determined that it was inadvisable. Among various objections, she raised concerns about the state’s bond rating, referring to a study by the Public Resource Advisory Group, the state’s advisory firm, that concluded a state bank would make the state “less credit worthy in the eyes of the rating agencies or investors.” The Treasure’s Office, however, endorsed the 10 percent plan, and to date it has committed $33 million in funds to promote local investment in housing, energy efficiency, renewable energy, reducing student loan debt, and childcare.

Perhaps encouraged by the success of the 10 percent plan, this year Rep. Cina and Sen. Pollina introduced a pair of bills proposing, once again, the creation of a commission on a Vermont state bank. The commission wouldn’t create such a bank, but it could come up with a detailed map for getting to that possibility, along with some tangible blueprints describing different options.

Currently, the state deposits its money in two large commercial banks, TD Bank and People’s United Bank, with an average balance after payments of over $75 million. These banks pay interest on those deposits, but they also charge for their services. But more importantly, as private entities, their profitability, not the state’s, is their primary mission. They have no directive to invest in Vermont and mostly don’t. Some of their investments have troubled environmentally minded Vermonters: TD Bank, for example, invests in the Energy East and Dakota pipelines and owns stock in TransCanada, which wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline.

The proposed public or state bank would not compete with existing Vermont banks, and it would not accept deposits from individuals, organizations, and businesses, only funds from the state and municipal governments. A public bank could set specific financial priorities for safely investing more of that $75 million in Vermont.

Vermont has agencies like VEDA (Vermont Economic Development Authority) and VHFA (Vermont Housing Finance Agency) that invest in Vermont now, but they first borrowed the money from large private banks to do it. Vermont pays Wall Street interest fees for those loans, the way you pay on your credit card. Meanwhile, those agencies do the bank’s traditional work for them, evaluating applications, choosing credit-worthy projects, and taking the risk of extending credit over time.

In an interview with Vermont Woman, Sen. Pollina said he’s heard legislators joking about this, “Hey, aren’t we already acting like bankers?” Yet there is a strong resistance to seriously considering the key difference between a public bank and a public agency or even the treasurer’s office, he said.

This session’s state bank bills met a similar fate to their 2012 and 2014 progenitors, once again being referred to committees, where they have stalled. Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, presented testimony at the Senate Finance committee. Pearce says legislators asked her to draw up a bulleted list giving her assessment of a state bank, which she did, referencing her earlier 2014 testimorny.

Those opposed to a state bank raise concerns about risk. Pieciak noted, as did Pearce in her 2014 testimony, that in the current model, state of Vermont funds are FDIC insured up to $250,000, with remaining funds protected by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, whereas in the state bank model, state funds would be at risk with taxpayers as the guarantors. Pieciak also pointed to North Dakota’s rough transition to state banking, noting that the Bank of North Dakota (BND), founded in 1919, took 26 years to become profitable and currently earns less interest than state agencies would get from a commercial bank. He further notes that BND was initially undercapitalized; the state had to withdraw funds from other state banks, leading in short order to 18 bank failures.

Evidence exists, however, for there being room enough for both private and public banks. North Dakota currently has more banks per capita than any other state. Far from competing with private banks and credit unions, BND often partners with those entities to reduce risks, helping continue the state’s practice of safe banking. Despite her reservations, Pearce herself praised BND in her 2014 testimony, calling it “top notch” and “extremely well managed.”

Could Vermont run a public bank safely in Wall Street’s environment? Maybe, maybe not. But how do we find out if we don’t discuss the details and engage in dialogue?


Legislative Action on the Environment
by K.C. Whiteley

By most accounts, the 2017 legislative session was mainly remarkable for its failure to act on Vermont’s widely shared climate and renewable energy goals. Environmental organizations like the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Sierra Club, and the Vermont Conservation Voters, whose established presence in the State House offers a long-term overview, reported a disappointing session where House and Senate leadership failed to move several common-sense, noncontroversial bills, surprising even veteran lobbyists.

Nonetheless, bills did get passed to combat forest fragmentation and protect appliance efficiency standards and some funds were allocated to help regional planning commissions meet the state’s 90 percent renewables by 2050 goal.

90 by 50 Sidelined by Fuel Dealers

The session kicked off with a turnover in state leadership Vermonters haven’t seen since the 1968 election when Republican Deane Davis succeeded Phil Hoff. Not only did Vermonters elect a Republican governor and a Democratic/Progressive lieutenant governor, but new legislative leaders stepped into leadership roles in both chambers. Add in the customary changes in new department and agency heads that come with a new administration, and you’ve got lots of new partnerships to build and navigate. Several State House veterans chalk up the inertia of what was dubbed a “sleepy session” to the “getting to know you” aspects of these new relationships.

Anticipating federal cuts, there was also a wait-and-see approach that proved disheartening to advocates and activists who viewed this moment as an opportunity for Vermont to move forward on established renewable energy goals and to build forward momentum on a variety of climate-related goals.

Each of the environmental spokespeople in the State House interviewed for this column expressed disappointment at several opportunities and expected wins that were left on the table, including the high-profile failure of two strongly supported House and Senate bills (S.51 and H.316) to codify our clean energy goals—90 by 50—in statute.

The identical bills would have affirmed Vermont’s already established commitment to a renewable energy future, supported regional energy planning work going on statewide, and supported growth of Vermont’s clean energy job sector. Both bills were thoroughly vetted in both chambers and drew support from the Governor’s Office to state agencies, utilities, and business. As VNRC’s Energy Program director Johanna Miller recounts, passage “seemed like a simple housekeeping task,” so certain that environmental organizations didn’t rally their members to contact legislators. When opposition surfaced from the Fuel Dealers Association and the bills were tabled, there was collective surprise.

A small, but regressive, backward step resides in a provision in S.135, the economic development bill that dedicates resources for workforce development for the fuel oil industry. At a time when the growth rate in the clean energy sector is outpacing the traditional fuel oil workforce, the legislature caved to the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association request to train new employees for the fuel oil business.

Miller points out the over 17,000 Vermonters now working in energy efficiency and renewable energy jobs, a growth rate of 20 percent since 2013 and now 6 percent of the state’s total workforce. Miller acknowledges the need and missed opportunity to help Vermont’s network of fuel oil dealers evolve into a broader energy service role that might include installing heat pumps and solar panels and playing a more active role in the state’s transition to cleaner renewable energy.

Carbon Tax & the Paris Accord

On the upside, four bills were introduced to spark discussion about putting a price on carbon pollution and returning the revenues to Vermonters, either by tax cuts or direct dividends. Essentially, the idea is to take concrete action on climate change by putting a price on the fossil fuel pollution we want to reduce and returning that money to Vermonters.

A coalition of environmental organizations, businesses, citizens, and town energy committees called Energy Independent Vermont (EIV) is leading the effort to convince the public and policy leaders that putting a price on pollution in Vermont can help stem the harmful effects of climate change, lower taxes, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and energy bills through investments like home weatherization, and grow the clean energy economy. EIV hopes next year’s session will produce more concrete results.

Lauren Hierl, political director for the Vermont Conservation Voters, believes carbon pricing is “the biggest single policy we could put in place. We could show the economic benefits, how it would help our economy and demonstrate that for other states.” Vermont is not alone in moving in this direction. In the northeast alone, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island have all introduced carbon-pricing bills.

The legislature did pass H. 233, a bill designed to preserve continuous and contiguous tracts of forest, combating forest fragmentation to keep wildlife habitats intact and slow the intrusion of invasive species and other damaging effects of development on the natural landscape.

Also approved is a bill (H.424) to review Act 250, Vermont’s historic land use and development law. The legislature established a study commission to evaluate Act 250’s effectiveness since its passage almost 50 years ago and look for ways to update and address issues and challenges that we face today, recommending changes to the permitting process and, in general, keeping it relevant.

H. 441 protects Vermont from potential repeals from the Trump administration on appliance efficiency standards that save energy and reduce our carbon pollution. VNRC calls it an “important backstop.” The budget also includes a $300,000 allocation to regional planning commissions to support the development of regional energy plans that lay out plans for partnering with state to meet our 90 by 50 renewable goals.

A significant step was taken by Gov. Phil Scott on June 2 when he announced that Vermont would join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states that have committed to upholding the Paris climate agreement in the wake of President Donald Trump pulling out of the international accord. The alliance was formed by the Democratic governors of California, New York, and Washington, shortly after Trump’s announcement on June 1. The alliance now numbers 13 states; among those recently joining are Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia.

K.C. Whiteley is a member of Central Vermont Climate Action and the 350VT board.




Rickey Gard Diamond is senior contributing editor at Vermont Woman. Her book ScrewNomics: How Our Economy Works against Women and What We Can Do to Make Real and Lasting Change is scheduled for release in April 2018 by She Writes Press.