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Family leave, aid-in-dying and 4 other things to know about Vermont's Legislature this week

A spilt image, one of the red chairs in the Vermont House chamber, the other of the green carpeted Senate chamber.
Elodie Reed

Vermont politicians are in the heart of the legislative session and dealing with complex issues such as property tax affordability, investments in fossil fuel companies, and medical aid-in-dying.

Here are six items the Legislature has been considering this week.

Divesting the state pension fund from fossil fuels

Lawmakers are considering legislation that would force the state to divest its $5.6 billion pension fund from fossil fuel companies.

Opponents, including climate activists, say the state has a moral and financial obligation to prevent state funds from supporting companies that produce and distribute the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Some investment experts say the move could lower returns for a fund that supports current and future retirees.

Tom Golonka, chair of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission, told lawmakers on Thursday afternoon that the legislation could hurt the annual rate of returns on pension investments because most of the pension fund is invested in low-cost index funds of which the state has no direct control.

“I think you really need to exclude index funds from the mix, because I think it would put Vermont as a significant disadvantage in investing if we weren’t able to access traditional indexing products,” he said.

Eric Henry, chief investment officer at the Vermont Pension Investment Commission, told lawmakers it’s unlikely that divestment would have its intended effect.

“Empirical studies have continued to show that divesting of these companies simply does not work,” he said. “It does not change their behavior, it does not change their behavior, it does not reduce carbon emissions, it does not improve investment performance.”

Henry says the state wields more power over fossil fuel companies through proxy votes as shareholders.

Advocates say the symbolism associated with divestment is a powerful tool.

In 2021, Maine's Legislature became the first in the country to require its pension fund to divest from fossil fuels.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Medical aid-in-dying expansion moves forward

The Vermont House on Friday approved legislation that eliminates the residency requirement for Vermont's medical-aid-in-dying law.

The bill, H. 190, would allow anyone over the age of 18, who is terminally ill, to be prescribed medication under the state’s medical aid in dying law.

The law was first implemented 10 years ago and it establishes a series of mandatory procedures for a physician to prescribe life ending drugs to a terminally ill patient.

Vermont is among 10 states with this type of law, and since 2013, roughly 175 people have requested these services.

More fromBrave Little State: The complexities of medical aid in dying in Vermont

Essex Rep. Rey Garafano is the lead sponsor of the bill. She said it’s common for people to travel around the country for specific health care services – and she says this program is no different from those.

"Knowing that medical care is available regardless of one's zip code is an essential tenet of public health,” she said. “Currently end of life care is the only health care in Vermont that requires that the patient be a resident of Vermont.”

A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate and supporters hope it passes in the coming weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

A scene from Main Street in Stowe back in October 2012.
Ken Wiedemann
A scene from Main Street in Stowe back in October 2012.

Town officials ask for property tax breaks

Lawmakers on Tuesday heard testimony from town officials who are asking for property tax relief for low-to-middle income Vermonters.

As house values soar, municipal officials say a growing number of middle-class residents are having trouble paying their property taxes and being taxed out of their homes.

That's despite a provision in the state's property tax code – the income sensitivity provision – that limits how much people have to pay in taxes every year. It only applies to the first $400,000 of a home’s value.

Stowe Selectboard member Billy Adam told lawmakers that the average home price in his town is now more than $700,000. Some longtime residents, he said, have been forced to sell their homes because they couldn’t afford their property tax bills.

“We here in Stowe are getting swallowed up with people looking to invest and move to Vermont that are willing to pay high prices for properties,” he said.

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns is asking lawmakers to help by increasing the home value cap in the property tax code.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Business community expresses concerns over paid family leave proposal

Both chambers of the Vermont Legislature have introduced bills that would create a paid family and medical leave program for virtually all workers in the state.

The House paid leave bill, H.66, cleared its first hurdle Thursday in a 9-3 party line vote in the House Committee on General and Housing. It’s now headed for review by tax and budget committees.

The legislation would allow virtually all workers in the state to take up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a newborn, recover from an illness or care for an ailing family member.

Members of the business community expressed their concerns about the proposal.

Megan Sullivan, with the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, told lawmakers Thursday that many businesses, especially smaller ones, will have trouble finding substitute workers when employees take leave, and the payroll tax that would be used to fund the benefit would be difficult to absorb.

“A payroll tax to employers on top of the considerable cost involved in the loss of an employee for 12 weeks would be an economically difficult imposition on many Vermont employers,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers who favor the bills say the payroll tax would cost, on average, $200 per worker per year and the benefit will lure more workers into Vermont.

Previous coverage from Vermont Public: Gov. Scott unveils voluntary paid family and medical leave program. Advocates say it doesn't go far enough.

- Peter Hirschfeld

VPR/Susan Keese

More money for EMS services proposed

Some Vermont lawmakers want to provide more financial support to emergency medical services, like ambulance services and other first responders in the state.

Craftsbury Rep. Katherine Sims has introduced a bill that would use $20 million in public funding to subsidize the cost of first response services. The bill would also increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for hospital transports and other emergency services.

Sims says ambulance services and EMS agencies have seen an increase in call volume over the past 3 years, but she says reimbursement rates often aren’t enough to cover the cost of providing that care.

“In conversations that I’ve had with EMS providers, they are feeling a strain to be able to provide the service that Vermonters need in a way that’s adequately funded,” she said.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Sunshine comes through a chain link fence surrounding a prison
Toby Talbot
Associated Press File
Northwest State Correctional Facility, shown in a 2008 file photo.

Corrections workers ask for help

In what was sometimes emotional testimony Tuesday, workers at the Vermont Department of Corrections told lawmakers that staffing shortages have pushed Vermont’s prison system to the brink of collapse.

Leona Watt, a senior probation and parole officer, has been with the DOC for 18 years.

“For the first time in my career, I’m really thinking about what am I doing, because my mental health and my physical health has been impacted, especially in the last two years,” she said.

Shane Gerrity, a corrections officer at Northwest State Correctional Facility, told lawmakers he missed his youngest son’s first steps because the severe staffing shortage has meant he has worked longer hours. He said he’s looking for a new job that offers better work-life balance.

Annual staff turnover in the corrections department has hit rates as high as 44% in recent years, officials said.

Union officials say lawmakers and the governor need to raise pay in order to address staffing shortages.

- Peter Hirschfeld

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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