By Rep. Mike Yantachka
As the 2017 legislative session ended shortly before midnight on Thursday, May 18, it was with a lot of pride and a lot of disappointment. The reason for the disappointment was because we would have to go back to Montpelier on June 21 for a veto session because Governor Scott declared that he will veto both the budget (H.518) and the education bill (H.509) because of the teachers’ health insurance issue. I’ve written extensively in the last few weeks about the standoff on this issue, so if the reader wants a recap of the last day as well as a timeline of what passed as negotiations, I refer you to my website/blog at www.MikeYantachka.com. What I will do instead here is write about some highlights of the session.
Ironically, the budget passed by the legislature on the last day achieved all the targets set by the Governor in his budget address in January. The budget does not depend on any new taxes or fees, and held to a 0.7% increase in state funds and a 1.3% increase in total funds, which include federal money. This is well below the revenue growth projections of 3.5% and reflects the steps taken in prior years to close the budget gap. While this budget originally passed both the House and Senate with only one dissenting vote, 48 House Republicans voted against it in support of the Governor’s objections on final passage.
For several years, Vermont has been given a grade of “F” for lack of ethical accountability in all three branches of government from The Center for Public Integrity. This year, the House and Senate finally passed an ethics bill that requires disclosure of candidates’ and legislators’ income sources and prohibits legislators from becoming a paid lobbyist for one year after leaving office. Candidates for statewide office will have to disclose their individual income tax form 1040 with their confidential information redacted. These offices include the Governor, Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, Auditor, and Attorney General. Candidates for the House and Senate will have to list each source of their income that exceeds $5000, but not income totals.
The legislature also passed significant legislation supporting civil and individual rights. Senate bill S.29 prohibits the creation of a registry based on personal characteristics and gives the Governor alone, in consultation with the Vermont Attorney General, authorization over agreements in which state and local law enforcement can assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement. Another bill, S.96, provides that journalists cannot be held in contempt for not disclosing their confidential sources. In House bill H.25, not yet passed by the Senate, sexual assault survivors are guaranteed the right to a forensic medical exam, and that the “rape kit” be sent to a lab within 72 hours, and to be notified of a DNA match, or when the kit is scheduled for destruction. Since identity theft has proliferated, the legislature passed H.111 to modernize Vermont’s system of issuing birth and death certificates. Requests for a certificate will be restricted to the person and close relatives, and a statewide registration system will be created as a central repository in the Secretary of State’s office, which will enable a request for a certificate to be filed at any town clerk’s office.
The legislature also helped working families. Low-income working Vermonters eligible for food assistance and Reach Up cash assistance will be able to save up to $9,000 for retirement or their children’s education without being penalized. This will help them earn more without being discouraged by loss of benefits. Pregnant employees also benefit from a bill (H.136) that requires employers to offer accommodations that allow the employee to continue working with a minimum of discomfort. According to AARP, there are around 100,000 Vermonters who do not have access to employer-sponsored retirement plans. Part of the economic development bill (S.135) establishes the Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan, which will be available on a voluntary basis to employers with 50 or fewer employees who do not offer a retirement plan, and to self-employed persons. Employees will automatically be enrolled, but can opt out if they do not want to participate.
I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). You can find this article and past articles at my website: www.MikeYantachka.com.