The Vermont Legislature has adjourned. It did a LOT of stuff this year
Tense fights over policy and spending bills gave way to emotional affirmations of bipartisan cooperation Thursday evening as Vermont lawmakers closed the books on the 2022 legislative session.
In her final floor speech as Senate President Pro Tem, Becca Balint got tearful when she told colleagues that serving as their leader “has been the greatest honor of my life.”
As national politics roil, Balint said, elected officials in Vermont have “been focused on doing good work for Vermonters.”
“And not letting the horrible divisive politics from outside the chamber interfere with our work,” she said.
The final weeks of the legislative session have included three gubernatorial vetoes and late-session disagreements between Democratic lawmakers and the Republican governor over tax policy, economic development and Act 250 reforms.
In his adjournment speech to lawmakers, Scott said history will soon forget those disputes.
“I know at the end of the session, most of the attention is in the areas of disagreement, but that really overshadows the things we do that have crossed party support," Scott said.
Scott said the legacy of 2022 will be line items in the $8.1 billion budget that represent “historic” investments in broadband, housing, water and sewer projects and climate initiatives.
“I realize this has been an extremely difficult biennium for Vermonters and legislators alike. But it is one where we made truly historic investments in shared priorities,” Scott said. “And while it was far from easy, and we had a few pointed policy debates on some big issues along the way, I’m proud of what we achieved this session, and I hope you are as well.”
Lawmakers have indeed expressed pride in their spending plan.
Earlier this week, House Appropriations Chair Mary Hooper told colleagues that the theme of this year’s budget bill is “investing in the future.”
“In our children, in our communities, in our workforce, I mean, it’s pretty significant — it’s wildly significant — what we’ve been able to do with this,” Hooper said.
Wildly significant, Hooper said, because of the scope and scale of investments in the fiscal year 2023 spending plan.
With more than a half billion dollars in leftover American Rescue Plan Act funds, and massive surpluses in state revenues, lawmakers were able to write line items that would have previously been the stuff of fantasy.
The budget approved by lawmakers Thursday includes:
- $98 million for broadband buildout across the state
- $90 million for affordable housing
- $215 million for climate initiatives, including $80 million for home weatherization alone
- $60 million for the Vermont State Colleges System
- More than $40 million to boost wages for frontline workers at community mental health and home health agencies.
As abortion-rights supporters brace for the overturn of Roe v. Wade, House Speaker Jill Krowinski said one of the most important legislative accomplishments of 2022 won’t come to pass until later this year, when general election voters weigh in on a proposed constitutional amendment that would guarantee “reproductive liberty.”
“If the voters support this in November, Vermont will be the first state in the country to explicitly protect reproductive liberty in its constitution,” Krowinski said. “It’s a critical amendment, and something that I am especially proud of.”
Here's a look at some of the other spending and policy initiatives the Legislature tackled this year.
Research has shown that certain categories of students, such as kids from poverty or children who are learning English, cost more to educate.
But a 2019 study by the University of Vermont and Rutgers University found that Vermont’s education financing system doesn’t account for those financial realities.
Lawmakers responded to those findings this year by passing the biggest changes to Vermont’s education financing system in 25 years. The legislation attempts to boost taxing capacity in districts with high concentrations of higher-needs children by changing the way Vermont counts its students.
A student from poverty, for example, will count as two students. An English language learner, meanwhile, will become the equivalent of 2.5 students. When these new “pupil weights” are inserted into Vermont’s school funding formula, it changes the way the $1.8 billion statewide education fund gets meted out to school districts.
In low-income communities with high percentages of children from poverty, or in places like Winooski with lots of English language learners, the same local tax rate would generate significantly more dollars for local schools.
Districts in more affluent communities, conversely, would need to increase local tax rates in order to maintain the same level of spending.
Though some districts will have to raise tax rates by as much as 25% in order maintain spending levels under the new weighting formula, the proposal enjoyed near-consensus support among education officials across the state.
“And regardless of the impact on people’s individual systems… education leaders across the state are looking and saying, ‘This is a moral issue,’” Springfield School District Superintendent Zach McLaughlin told lawmakers earlier this year.
The new weights will go into effect in the 2024/2025 school year.
Among the more impressive logistical feats of the coronavirus pandemic was the meal-delivery system devised by local school districts to get free breakfast and lunch to the 78,000 Vermont students who could no longer attend school in person.
The enterprise was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which, at the outset of the pandemic, initiated a universal free meals program for all students across the country.
Funding for that universal meals program is set to expire in June.
But a bill approved by the Vermont Legislature appropriates $29 million in state funding to keep the program going for at least another year.
“A kid that’s well fed is better behaved, learns better — just does better all the way through the school system,” said Essex County Sen. Bonny Starr. “And if we can buy them the right books, set up the best library… we can have a good hot lunch program.”
Food security advocates have warned that as many as 40,000 lower-income children could lose access to a critical source of nutrition if universal meals expire.
And a coalition, led by Hunger Free Vermont, will urge lawmakers next year to make universal free meals program permanent.
A study created in the school meals bill will consider the feasibility of longer-term funding mechanisms, including an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
Production of new housing units in Vermont has fallen sharply over the past 30 years. And more than a third of Vermont households now pay more than 30% of their annual income for housing costs — if they’re lucky enough to find something to rent or buy.
According to a housing needs assessment conducted by the Vermont Housing Finance Agency last year, Vermont will need nearly 6,000 more primary residences by 2025 in order to satisfy demand.
Provisions in three bills approved by the Legislature seek to boost construction of those homes and apartment units by pouring $90 million into housing subsidies.
The bulk of the money will go to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, which will use the funds to build housing units for mostly low-income families, including those exiting homelessness.
Lawmakers have allocated another $20 million for what housing experts call the “missing middle” — moderately priced single- and multifamily homes for middle-class Vermonters.
Legislators also appropriated $20 million for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which will be used to subsidize the rehabilitation of old and blighted rental properties.
In order to get that last appropriation past the governor, lawmakers had to abandon a years-long push to establish a statewide registry of all rental units.
The Legislature wanted not only to inventory units in Vermont, but put more money toward inspection and enforcement of rental safety codes.
Gov. Phil Scott said he’d veto the bill if lawmakers didn’t eliminate that rental registry provision, and they acquiesced in the final days of the session.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature formally apologized for its role in the eugenics movement.
Lawmakers have now decided that an admission of guilt would ring hollow if the state doesn’t seek ways to repair the harm Vermont has done.
Legislation approved by the House and Senate creates a three-member Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take a deeper look into how state laws and policies contributed to marginalization of Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and people with disabilities.
“It’s really important to move forward with solid proposals to say, ‘This is the truth, this is what happened, and how can we make some kind of reconciliation and reparation to the people we have affected through our policies?'” said Waterbury Rep. Tom Stevens.
The paid commission members will get a full-time executive director and $3 million in state funding to fulfill their legislative mandate.
The commission will eventually present its findings and recommendations to the Legislature.
While Stevens and other supporters of the bill say it’s likely those recommendations will include financial reparations for members of marginalized groups, they say it’s premature to speculate on what form those payments would take.
Last year, State Treasurer Beth Pearce issued a bleak report with some dire projections for the public pension system. The various funds used to cover the pension and health care costs of current and future retirees, according to Pearce, were on track to be nearly $6 billion short of their obligations by 2038.
Lawmakers, union representatives and a member of the Scott administration spent the summer and fall of 2021 working on a reform package.
And in the first few weeks of the 2022 legislative session, they shook hands on a deal that would see the state use $200 million in public funds to buy down future liabilities. Teachers and state employees, meanwhile, agreed to increases in pension contributions, and modest reductions in benefits for future retirees.
Scott said it wasn’t enough. Without more “structural” changes to the pension system, he said, elected officials would find themselves facing yet another pension crisis in the future. Scott pushed lawmakers to add the option of a 401k-style retirement plan for new state employees. He also wanted a “risk-sharing” provision that would insulate the state from the financial consequences of market downturns in the future.
Lawmakers said those additions would crumble the deal they struck with public workers.
And though Scott vetoed the Legislature’s pension bill, lawmakers in both chamber unanimously overrode it.
This bill creates the first environmental justice policy for the state of Vermont. It was written by a group of community organizers and academics who gathered input from people heavily affected by climate change and pollution in Vermont.
The bill would make it the official policy of Vermont that no community should have more than its fair share of access to environmental benefits — or suffer disproportionate harms — and that every Vermonter should be able to meaningfully participate in decisions about the environment.
It creates an environmental justice mapping tool, funds a civil rights compliance position at the Agency of Natural Resources and creates a paid board of people from environmental justice communities to weigh in on policies at the state.
The bill also calls for regular audits of state environmental spending to create a record of where investments are going and to whom. It also sets a goal to make sure environmental justice communities are getting their share.
Housing: House lawmakers consolidated a smattering of Act 250 reform bills late in the session, with major changes in the final week.
Their goal is to make it easier for more towns to apply for permission to exempt affordable housing projects within their historic downtowns from Act 250 review – provided they prove they’ve adopted strict local zoning and flood hazard bylaws. Gov. Scott has said he wants to see all affordable housing developments in village centers be exempt from Act 250.
Forest Products Industry: Most wood is harvested when the ground is frozen, so that trucks and equipment can move without getting stuck in the mud. That period is shrinking in Vermont due to climate change. This bill allows loggers to make deliveries to wood processors on nights, weekends and holidays for 90 days of the year.
On-farm accessory businesses: Think: wedding barns. The bill calls for a study of how these are being used in Vermont, and whether they should be subject to Act 250 jurisdiction, where traditional farms aren’t.
What got cut out:
House lawmakers wanted to restructure Act 250 governance, by creating a paid environmental review board to decide Act 250 permit appeals. Right now they go to the environmental court. The governor promised to veto this, so lawmakers took it out.
An earlier version of the bill would have required developments subject to Act 250 oversight avoid or mitigate damage to large blocks of intact forest, critical habitat or rare and irreplaceable natural areas. That provision was removed late in the final week.
An earlier version of the bill also included stricter regulations for new roads, which advocates say would have made more subdivisions subject to Act 250 review. This got yanked in the House, after Gov. Scott promised a veto over it.
The labor force in Vermont has shrunk by 26,000 workers since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. And that dwindling count is having a pronounced effect on the Vermont economy: As of December of 2021, employers in the state reported about 28,000 job openings.
Lawmakers have approved appropriations totaling more than $90 million to address workforce and economic development.
Some of that money will go toward scholarship and loan-repayment programs for nurses and other health care workers, a sector that has had a particularly difficult job recruiting and retaining staff.
“We focused on those things we think are going to increase the capacity of nursing programs, to turn out new nurses, and … that address the financial debt that they have from existing student loans to become a nurse, or a physician’s assistant, or a doctor,” said Woodstock Rep. Charlie Kimbell.
The bill continues a years-long program in Vermont that tries to attract out-of-state workers by subsidizing their relocation costs. And it creates two new positions at the Department of Labor to oversee workforce expansion pilot programs in three regional hubs.
There are direct financial grants for businesses as well.
Lawmakers have allocated $40 million for a “Community Recovery and Revitalization Grant Fund,” which will help subsidize capital investments at businesses, nonprofits and even municipalities that are struggling to recover from the pandemic.
The bill contains an additional $20 million forgivable loan program, to be administered by the Vermont Economic Development Authority, for businesses that can document significant revenue losses due to COVID-19.
In the opening weeks of the session, more than 40 House lawmakers signed on to legislation that would have decriminalized the possession of personal-use amounts of all illegal drugs.
Supporters of the bill, modeled after a law passed in Oregon last year, said the proposal would advance the twin goals of public health and racial equity.
“As Vermont struggles with a serious overdose crisis, unrelenting racial biases in our criminal justice system, and incarceration’s high cost to taxpayers, we must ask ourselves whether a system that criminally punishes individuals for non-violent personal-use possession of drugs makes sense or advances our goals involving pressing issues of public health and racial justice,” said Ludlow Rep. Logan Nicoll, co-lead sponsor of the bill.
While a majority of House lawmakers weren’t ready to do away altogether with criminal charges for small-scale possession, the body reached a compromise that would have downgraded a slew of possession crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
Senate lawmakers, however, said they didn’t have enough time this year to vet the House-passed plan.
The Legislature has instead created a taskforce to determine what “personal use amounts” should be for cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs.
They say the findings will set the stage for a criminal justice reform package in 2023.
The governor signed into law a ban on knowingly killing any fur-bearing animal, game bird or crow without plans to harvest it for food or for its pelt — except for coyotes.
But another bill before the governor now, S.281, proposes a temporary moratorium on hunting coyotes with hounds. That's until the state Fish and Wildlife Board can enact new rules to reduce bad interactions with landowners. After that moratorium expires, hunting coyotes with hounds will be allowed on a limited basis, and only by permit.
Right now, Vermont doesn't have best management practices on the books for trapping fur-bearing animals. A third bill on the governor's desk, S.201, would change that, and require stricter trapping regulations by 2024.
Lawmakers gave their approval this week to a bill that makes it easier for landowners who want to let their forests grow old to enroll in the Current Use program.
The Current Use program offers a lower tax rate to landowners who manage at least 25 acres for agriculture or timber harvest. For forestland to be eligible, however, landowners need a plan in place to harvest the wood.
This bill would let parcels with large swaths that aren't suitable for logging or farming, or that have ecologically sensitive features, enroll under a new category called "reserve forestland."
Right now, old forests make up about 1% of Vermont's forested land, according to Vermont Department of Forests Parks and Recreation.
The state’s conservation planning tool, Vermont Conservation Design, says that number should be closer to 15%. The latest U.N. climate report and state Climate Action Plan say that letting forests grow old is a key tool for fighting climate change.
Every 10 years, the General Assembly is required to redraw the boundaries of all House and Senate districts to reflect population changes in Vermont based on the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The 2020 Census data showed a continuation of a multi-decade trend: a shift in population to the northwestern part of the state from the counties in the northeastern and the southern parts of Vermont.
As a result, the more urban regions of the state were entitled to additional political representation, while many of the rural parts of Vermont lost some representation at the Statehouse.
The impact of the population changes can be seen in the new Senate map: One of the two senators from Caledonia County was shifted over to Chittenden County, giving it seven of the Senate’s 30 members.
In addition, as a result of a law passed in the previous session, the six-member Chittenden County Senate delegation, which is the largest in the country, has been divided into two three-member districts. There will also be one single-member Chittenden County district resulting from the shift from Caledonia County.
The direct impact of the population shift is less noticeable in the House, but districts in the rural parts of the state have had to be expanded to include neighboring towns to meet population requirements.
And many of the districts in the northwestern part of Vermont will have smaller geographical boundaries to reflect a growth of population.
It’s estimated that the more urban areas of the state have gained roughly five seats in the Vermont House because of the population changes.
All of the new districts will be used for the 2022 election.
In 2019, Vermont lawmakers gave their approval to legislation that creates a retail cannabis marketplace in the state beginning on Oct.1, 2022.
The job of the Legislature this session was to finalize many of the rules and regulations governing all aspects of the marketplace, including cultivators, testing companies, product manufacturers, and requirements for the retail industry.
The General Assembly followed many of the recommendations proposed by the Vermont Cannabis Control Board.
One of the main priorities of the board was to encourage people who are currently growing cannabis on the illegal market to join the state’s legal program.
They did this by limiting growing licenses to small cultivators who use less than 5,000 square feet of land — about the size of a basketball court.
And to prohibit the development of “franchise” cannabis stores along the lines of McDonald’s, the board mandated that any business could operate only one store in the state.
Lawmakers also approved a plan to tax cannabis products. They created a new 14% state excise tax, and they imposed the 6% state sales tax on all retail cannabis purchases. Most of the revenues from those taxes will be dedicated to youth drug prevention programs and afterschool programs.
Because it took lawmakers several months to authorize a dozen cannabis-related state positions, the Cannabis Control Board had to delay its timetable to issue its initial licenses for small cultivators and testing companies.
But members of the board say they are confident that these delays will not affect the opening date of the retail marketplace at the beginning of October.
In 2013, Vermont enacted a law that allowed terminally ill patients to request medication to hasten their deaths, and granted doctors the ability to prescribe it.
The “Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life Act,” as the law was called, was the fourth of the its kind in the U.S.
But the advocates who pushed for the bill nearly a decade ago say it’s now out of date.
Existing law requires patients to make two in-person requests for lethal medication to a doctor.
Lawmakers this year heard emotional testimony from terminally ill patients – including former House Majority Leader Willem Jewett – who said forcing extraordinarily sick people to travel by car to visit a doctor was inhumane.
And they said advances in telehealth made the requirement unnecessary.
Lawmakers later approved — and Gov. Phil Scott signed — legislation that allows terminally ill patients to request lethal medication via telemedicine.
“We look forward to updating medical and hospice providers about the changes in the law, which we expect to make for a smoother, less stressful process,” said Betsy Walkerman, president of Patient Choices Vermont, which pushed for the original law and also lobbied for the changes.
The bill also eliminates a provision that required a 48-hour waiting period between the doctor issuing the prescription and the patient being allowed to obtain it. And it grants legal immunity to health care providers that participate in the process.
This bill directs the Agency of Agriculture to create best management practices for neonicotinoid pesticides, which are the most widely-used pesticides in the world. They're applied most often in Vermont as a powdered coating on seeds.
Preliminary findings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show several of these chemicals are highly toxic to bees and other wildlife.
From 2020 to 2021, Vermont beekeepers reported the second-highest annual colony losses in the United States. An earlier version of the bill included a temporary ban on using the pesticides, which beekeepers supported, but it was softened after lawmakers heard testimony from the dairy industry.
Gov. Scott and lawmakers approved legislation this session that creates a mandatory statewide registry of new cases of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Some health researchers say they’ve identified a link between ALS and the presence of blue-green algae blooms, which happen regularly in many lakes across Vermont and are expected to increase with climate change.
Lawmakers recently gave their approval to a bill that pushes the state to revisit Vermont’s water quality regulations for dairy farms, in light of climate change.
Vermont now sees on average about 21% more precipitation than it did at the beginning of the last century. More of that is falling in heavy rain events, which leads to more runoff.
This bill directs the Agency of Agriculture to examine whether existing water quality standards for dairy farms are up to the task.
Environmental groups asked the state to revisit the standards earlier this year. The bill requires the agency report back to the Legislature early in 2023, with recommendations for updates.
This bill was the biggest piece of emissions-cutting policy recommended in Vermont’s new Climate Action Plan. It aims to reduce emissions from heating buildings — the second biggest source of Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions as a state.
The bill directs the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to set up a marketplace, where companies can buy or create “clean heat credits,” by doing things that lower emissions from buildings. The bill called out switching to biofuels, high-efficiency wood heat and weatherizing homes as examples.
Businesses that import fossil fuels for heat will be required to purchase or create credits every year in proportion to how much their products emit.
The policy passed the House with strong support, as well as the Senate, which added a “check-back” amendment that would have brought whatever the PUC comes up with back to the Legislature for final approval in 2024.
The governor vetoed the bill, saying the Legislature’s “check-back” provision wasn’t specific enough. Lawmakers insisted it was as specific as statute would allow.
The question facing lawmakers at the start of the session was how to craft a tax cut bill made possible by an increase in state revenues.
Gov. Phil Scott had a plan, the House had a very different approach, and the Senate developed its own proposal.
Scott wanted to raise the income threshold at which Social Security benefits are subject to state taxes, and increase the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Care and Dependent Care Tax Credit.
Another key priority for Scott was a plan to exempt military pension benefits from state income taxes.
The House, meanwhile, favored a more targeted tax relief plan that focused mainly on a Child Tax Credit for families with children under 7. The House plan also called for increases in the Social Security income thresholds, though less than what Scott had proposed.
The plan developed by the Senate combined some of the elements of both the House bill and the governor’s proposal.
The final agreement uses the Senate approach as its framework, and adds several million dollars for additional tax cuts.
- A scaled-back Child Tax Credit program that allocates $1,000 a year for each child under six in a family
- Allowing filers to deduct student loan interest payments
- Expansion the income tax thresholds for Social Security payments by $5,000
- A small expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit program
- Tax credits for child care and dependent care services.
- A $10,000 exemption for military pension benefits.
Act 93 lets people who have been exposed to toxic chemicals sue the companies responsible for the cost of undergoing medical monitoring. It goes into effect July 1. Gov. Scott signed it into law this session, after vetoing past versions of the bill.
Vermont doesn’t have regulations on the books for surface water withdrawals — except for snowmaking, which requires a permit.
Starting in 2023, this bill would require anyone who draws 10,000 gallons or more of surface water per day or 150,000 gallons of water in a month report to the state how much they draw annually. That data will help the state create a permitting system for surface water withdrawals, to go into effect in 2030.
Farms won’t have to get permits — but they will have to contribute data during the research phase.
The state is expected to see more frequent periods of drought with climate change, and the Vermont Climate Assessment predicts that irrigation will be a bigger part of agriculture in Vermont in the future.
Some lawmakers and environmental groups say we should take stock of whether our surface water resources (ponds, lakes, rivers and streams) are up for that — and whether Vermont’s current water use is sustainable. The bill is headed next to the governor.
The Community Resilience and Biodiversity Protection Act sets an initial goal to conserve 30% of Vermont's total land by 2030. By 2050, it calls for Vermont to conserve half of all land in the state.
It goes further than Pres. Joe Biden’s 30x30 executive order, which sets a goal to conserve 30% of land nationwide by 2030.
That includes state, federal and private land, as well as town lands.
Some of that land will be set aside to promote biodiversity, but land protected for sustainably harvested timber would also count.
The bill directs the Secretary of Natural Resources to come up with a plan by 2023 to reach those targets. It also creates an inventory of already conserved land in Vermont.
During the 2022 session, lawmakers gave their final approval to two proposed amendments to the Vermont Constitution. Now that the multi-year legislative process has been completed, both amendments will be presented to voters in a statewide referendum on Election Day in November.
Proposal Five, known as the “personal reproductive liberty” amendment, has drawn the most attention because it comes at a time when a number of states are passing laws to restrict access to abortion.
This amendment states “the right to reproductive liberty is central to the exercise of personal autonomy and involves decisions people should be able to make from free from compulsion of the State.”
While the proposed amendment does address contraceptive rights for men, the proponents of the plan view it largely as a way to guarantee future abortion rights for all people who can get pregnant in Vermont in the event that U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The amendment passed both the House and Senate by wide margins and has the strong support of Gov. Phil Scott.
Lawmakers also gave their final approval to Proposal Two, a constitutional amendment that “clarifies the prohibition on slavery and indentured servitude.”
Vermont prides itself on having the first state constitution in the country that banned slavery, but some legal experts and social justice advocates have been troubled by part of the section of the Constitution that highlights this prohibition.
Here’s why: Article I of the Vermont Constitution states that, “All persons are born equally free and independent, and have certain natural, inherent and unalienable rights….and therefore no person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law to serve any person as a slave.”
But then article goes on to say that the prohibition applies to persons “after arriving to the age of twenty one years unless bound by the person’s own consent.”
The proposed amendment strikes this provision from the Vermont Constitution and replaces it with the words “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.”
It was passed by large margins in both the House and the Senate and has the strong support of Gov. Phil Scott.