Editorial, Legislative Report

Session Ends with Changes to Public Systems

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by Rep. Katherine Sims, Orleans-4

CRAFTSBURY – We all share a vision of thriving communities made up of thriving individuals. I believe all people are inherently worthy of the same opportunities to thrive, no matter their race, gender, abilities, zip code or bank accounts. It’s that commitment to equity that motivates the work I do as your state representative.

As state legislators, it is our job to represent the interests of Vermonters and shape policies that meet your needs. In times of growing uncertainty and economic disparity, it is our job to ensure equity and stability, now and for our future. It is our job to fund infrastructure and services that support all Vermont’s families, businesses, and communities.

This session we passed a balanced budget for FY24 that makes one-time and ongoing investments in critical infrastructure and services that too many Vermonters have gone without: housing, childcare, healthcare, internet access and climate resilience. With a focus on long-term stability, these investments will have immediate and lasting impacts on day-to-day life in Vermont.

This end-of-session report highlights the real, lasting changes we’re making to our public systems as we make good on our commitment to equity and opportunity for all Vermonters.

The end-of-session report includes housing: S.100 makes new investments in affordable housing and relaxes Act 250 and local development restrictions to encourage housing development, while discouraging sprawl. The bill also includes $300k to help underserved communities identify opportunities for development.
Other session business dealt with childcare. H.217 transforms the childcare system to make childcare more affordable for families, raise rates to provide financial stability for childcare providers, and boost pay for our valued early childhood workforce.

Also changed were universal school meals. H.165 makes funding for universal school meals permanent so all children can be fed at school regardless of circumstance. The program will also increase purchases of local foods and draw down more federal funding to support school meals.

Affordable heat was acted on by the state legislature. S.5, the Affordable Heat Act, directs the Public Utilities Commission to spend the next two years researching and designing a Clean Heat Standard to present to the legislature for review in 2025. This public process will include reports that analyze the cost of the program (including any impact on fuel prices), the estimated savings for Vermonters and much more. In 2025, this information will be presented to the legislature in the form of a new bill for testimony, any necessary revision, and votes in both the House and Senate. If passed by legislature and Governor in 2025, the Clean Heat Standard would begin its gradual roll-out in 2026.

The state legislature considered rural capacity. H.194 includes a budget adjustment of $3 million for a new Rural Infrastructure Assistance Program to help small towns identify priority projects, apply for funding, and then have capacity to manage those projects. The capacity funding is specifically designed to help underserved communities access and allocate federal ARPA funding for projects.
Faced with rising call volumes, staff and volunteer shortages, and reimbursement rates that do not cover the cost of service delivery the legislature considered emergency medical services. The budget included funding to stabilize the EMS system including increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for services, investing $1M in training for EMS personnel, and commissioning a report to provide recommendations for improving our emergency medical system.

Healthcare budgeting now includes $99.7 million to increase rates for primary and specialty care, dental care, home health, nursing homes and residential care, adult day care, substance use and mental health, and ambulance services.

Suicide prevention, H.230 addresses Vermont’s high rate of suicide as a public health crisis by implementing several critical, evidence-based measures to prevent suicide by reducing access to lethal means, including a 72-hour waiting period to purchase a gun and requirement of safe storage of firearms in homes with children.

As the opioid epidemic deepens, nearly every Vermonter is connected to someone who died of an overdose. H.222 focuses on harm reduction and increasing access to life-saving treatment and services like Narcan, outreach workers, drug testing sites and supplies.

The legislature considered reproductive rights. H.89 establishes the highest possible level of legal protection for Vermont-based providers of reproductive and gender-affirming health care and the patients receiving that care. S.37 guarantees that health care providers will not lose their licenses and certifications due to injurious laws in other states. It also requires pregnancy service centers to comply with Vermont’s laws and standards of practice, ensures the supply of medications used in reproductive care, and increases access to contraceptives on Vermont’s college campuses.

Vermont’s existing beverage container redemption program hasn’t been updated since it passed over 50 years ago. H.158 expands the redeemable list to include plastic water bottles, sports drinks, and wine and hard cider bottles and cans. It also creates a producer responsibility organization to create additional, conveniently located redemption centers across the state.

More and more companies are putting up barriers that prevent consumers from fixing the products they own. For Vermont’s loggers and farmers, this means waiting days or even weeks for an authorized technician. H.81, the right to repair bill, requires original equipment manufacturers of agricultural and forestry equipment to make available, on fair and reasonable terms, the parts, tools, manuals, and diagnostic materials needed to fix their products. This bill passed the house and will be taken up by the Senate next year.

Most Vermonters, have inadequate personal retirement savings. This is particularly true for those who are self-employed or who work for small employers that lack access to convenient, automatic retirement savings. S.135 creates a Public Retirement Initiative, VTSaves, to provide employees not currently covered by a workplace retirement plan access to one at no cost to their employers.

[Rep. Katherine Sims, Orleans-4, represents Albany, Craftsbury, Glover and Greensboro]

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