This year I served on a new committee focusing on energy and technology, which was created by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson. There was previously no single committee responsible for state IT projects and telecommunications was a commerce function. The committee has jurisdiction over both the Public Utilities Commission (formerly the Public Service Board),the Department of Public Service, energy, IT projects, and telecommunications. I was also appointed to the House Ethics Panel.
Highlights from 2017 bills:
Telemarketers legislation: After hearing from many constituents about fraudulent calls, Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion and I introduced mirror bills in the House and Senate and with support from the Vermont Attorney General’s office, this bill passed. S.72 an act relating to requiring telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification information and established a data broker working group. Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of dealing with what at best are nuisance calls and at worst criminal fraud activity. Enforcement will present its own challenges.
The Attorney General’s office maintains a consumer assistance line to resolve problems you may be having with a business and to also report suspected scams. I’d strongly encourage residents to call and sign up for their scam alert system (800) 649-2424 (toll-free in Vermont) or (802) 656-3183. Please consider checking out the “Stopping Scams” page at https://www.uvm.edu/consumer to better understand the tactics being used and how to protect yourself and your family.
Rural Economic Development Infrastructure districts: Working with the Rural Economic Development Working Group, Rep. Chip Conquest and I introduced legislation to form REDI districts . These special municipal districts can finance, own, and maintain infrastructure that provides economic development opportunities in rural and under-resourced areas of the state, in designated areas within one or more municipalities.
Highlights from the Energy and Technology Committee:
• Our committee recommended House agreement of an executive order establishing the Agency of Digital Services. The executive order elevated the chief information officer to a cabinet level post charging the Agency of Digital Services to join IT personnel, software, and hardware across state government to achieve the overall objective of improving the coordination and effectiveness of providing services to the public.
• Reauthorizing Act 248A: Act 248A provides an ease in permitting for telecommunications facilities. In addition, we passed legislation providing authorization for the Department of Public Service to issue administrative citations for alleged violations of statutes and approvals related to in-state energy and telecommunications facilities.
• Energy Storage Bill: The House passed legislation I sponsored which requests a report from the Department of Public Service relating to fostering energy storage on the Vermont electric system and authorized the Clean Energy Development Fund to fund energy storage projects that support renewable resources. Given Vermont's abundance of renewable energy, our rural nature, and our Massachusetts neighbors' investments in energy storage, energy storage infrastructure is critically important for electric grid stability, protecting existing rate payers and efficient use of renewable energy.
• Ten-year telecommunications plan: The plan is being rewritten and requires a survey of residents and businesses as part of its development. I successfully advocated for adding specific surveying requests from our health care, education, and public safety sectors. As many in our district know, our challenges with broadband and cell service can become life-threatening when police, rescue or social service personnel are unable to utilize modern communications to assist citizens in need. Representatives from Dover School, Grace Cottage, and Rescue Inc. testified in support of this needed change.
Additional local interest items
Marijuana legalization: Voters in our district have communicated passionately on this issue - both for and against. In the past I have been a no vote on full legalization, and voted no for a home-grow-only proposal at the beginning of this past session. With recreational use being legalized just over the border in Massachusetts, we are going to see an increase in legally acquired marijuana in traffic stops and possibly impaired drivers in our district. For this reason I voted yes for a taxed and regulated recreational market. We can’t ask Vermont law enforcement to deal with stops where drivers who possess legally acquired marijuana, and may be under the influence, are increasingly crossing over the border without increasing funding for them to do so. My sense is that there will be agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana sales and use in Vermont and we may see full legalization in the coming year. It might have been possible to get agreement between the governor (who vetoed a legalization bill, but then provided a means for agreeing) and the Legislature during the June veto session, but that would have required the Legislature to be in session for a week, incurring additional costs .
Education: Between advocating for needed changes to Act 46, continuing to try to illuminate that the funding mechanism is creating inequities in our rural districts, working with Rep. John Gannon and others to try and secure Act 46 benefits for Twin Valley and other districts that merged prior to Act 46, and advocating for a statewide employee health benefit, no issue consumed more of my time this year then education. I’ll be writing more about education and what I see on the horizon for impacts in southern Vermont before the next session.
State budget: The final budget passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the governor this year did not raise taxes or fees. Given the federal budget uncertainties, this was especially good news. The Legislature invested $8.3 million in Vermont’s mental health care system, $2.5 million in child care services for working families, and $3 million to the Vermont State College system. Some programs of value to rural Vermont were prioritized including working lands, Farm-to-School programs, and the logging industry. There was no additional funding for telecommunications infrastructure build out.
Ethics: Though I noted my appointment to the House Ethics Panel, there is no state Ethics Commission for all of state government. Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an Ethics Commission, which can be an important factor in government accountability. Vermont’s first ethics law, S.8, establishes an independent state ethics commission which prohibits legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office, imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting, and requires financial disclosures for legislative and statewide candidates and executive officers. It requires the creation of a state code of ethics and each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees.
Coming up in the next session:
• A payroll tax increase on every Vermont employee passed the House year. The tax will pay for a new paid family leave program. Employees who currently received paid family leave are not exempted. I expect there will be a big push to pass this in the Senate next year.
• Push for a $15 minimum wage continues. Some Burlington area lawmakers, surrounded by national chain establishments, have explained they see this push as adding revenue to Vermont. Wages are rising which likely relates to Vermont's continued shortage of workers, as employers have to pay more to get qualified staff. It's my hope that we will spend equal or more energy trying to bring in new workers as we will spend trying to raise the minimum wage.
Be assured that I'm carefully monitoring the EB-5 Regional Center conversations and have been maintaining communications with federal and state officials and Mount Snow on both federal and state support for the local projects.
As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions. I plan to hold several public forums later this fall and hope you will consider coming out and sharing your thoughts. Please don't hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or firstname.lastname@example.org.