Issues

For the second year in a row, I voted for the State Budget (Fiscal Year 2019) as it passed out of the House of Representatives.  It was a responsible budget that increased only slightly the spending over last year, while making some small investments where needed, and protecting the most vulnerable.  Additionally, for the second year in a row, it did no rely on any new or increased taxes and fees.

That said, a challenge arose later with regard to the State Budget, as the Governor fought to prevent a 5.5 cent property tax increase on all non-homestead property in Vermont.  As it turned out, the state was experiencing higher than anticipated revenues coming into state coffers, so the Governor wanted to use some of those revenues to offset that 5.5 cent property tax increase.  The democratic legislature did not.  Given that the property tax increase was unacceptable to Governor, so he has vetoed the budget ... twice.

To be clear, this 5.5 cent increase on non-residential properties was not just a tax on second-homeowners and non-residents.  In fact, 57% of the non-residential property in this state is owned by Vermonters. This kind of tax increase - at a time when we have revenues coming in well above target - is not something that should have advanced.

In the end, though, the democratic majority prevailed as the Governor decided to allow the bill to become law without his signature.  Given how close we had been to a government shutdown, the Governor proved he was the adult at the table and made the right decision.

All of this said, I will reiterated my oft-repeated concerns about education funding:  it is exceptionally disappointing that we are in this position year year in and year out.  For years, it has been clear that the education funding system is broken and beyond repair, unsustainable, and unfair.  Yet, throughout that time, legislature after legislature, and administration after administration have failed to advance any meaningful reform to the system.  In this regard, we have continued to fail the people of Vermont, and we end up in the situation in which we have founds ourselves now. 

You can be sure that I will continue my effort in this regard on behalf of the community of Stowe, and of all Vermont families and businesses.

With regard to budgets in general, we have begun these last two years to put into place sustainable and responsible state spending, and I have been pleased to have been able to vote in favor of the budgets.  With louder and louder calls for increased spending and new state programs, however, we must do all we can to ensure the trend we have begun continues.

Rest assured, I will also do all I can to ensure that happens.

I have spent much of my time over the past twelve years advocating for greater attention to, and investment in, our state’s economic growth.

And, while I'm proud of my achievements over that time, I have found that far too often, the health of our state's economy is on the back burner when it comes to legislative priorities.  This has begun to change with the leadership of Governor Phil Scott, but there is still a great deal to do.  We must make economic growth a legislative priority each and every legislative session.

A Few of My Successes in the 2017-2018 Biennium

Much-Needed, Overdue Changes to our Beer Franchise Laws

I happily led this effort to modify our beer franchise laws in order to provide to our small, craft breweries relief from some of the burdens of Vermont's franchise laws.  After all, craft brewing is a thriving sector of the Vermont economy, and a significant source of jobs.  This bill will allow those craft brewers greater opportunity to get their product to market. 

Free Tuition Program for Members of the Vermont National Guard 

After three years of effort, the committee on which I serve in the House was successful in moving forward a program to provide higher education tuition benefits to the Vermont National Guard.  This tuition benefit - which will kick in after any GI Bill benefits have already been exhausted - is not only an important economic investment to support our National Guard members and their families, but it is absolutely critical to ensure our recruiting needs are met.  As the only state in the area without these kinds of benefits, we have been at a significant disadvantage with regard to recruitment.  Simply put, our recruiting is not keeping up with the needs of the Guard.  In fact, from what I understand, the goal is to recruit 300 non-prior service recruits per year.  Yet in 2013, that number of 248; in 2014 it was 219; in 2015 it was 190; and in 2016 it was 173.  This tuition benefit will, undoubtedly, turn this trend around.

Successfully Fought a Bill That Would Have Had a Dramatic Impact on our Incredibly Important, Statewide Outdoor Recreation Industry

The legislation (S. 105) would have mandated a "rebuttable presumption" of anti-consumer intent in all instances in which there is any limitation of a claim in a contract; essentially, that the 5 items listed in the bill would be considered "substantively unconscionable" when included in a contract.

What this change does, in a nutshell, is open up the door to a much wider array of legal claims - specifically very costly lawsuits, consumer fraud claims, and fine, in addition to the potential of costly increases in a business' liability insurance.  In the cases of the many recreational activities offered in this state by the thousands of non-profit and for-profit . provided - biking, skiing, horseback riding, fishing, boating, golf, etc. - this means that those who offer those activities may not be able to include in their contract some of the important waiver conditions that have historically been in their contracts.

The importance of these kinds of waivers in the outdoor recreation industry cannot be overstates, and the Vermont Outdoor Recreation Economic Collaborative outlined well this importance in testimony presented to the committee of jurisdiction:

"Waivers are an integral aspect of Vermont's recreational landscape.  Ski resorts, guide services, trail-based organizations, recreation event providers, environmental and educational programs, college outing groups, land owners, and summer camps all use waivers for protection under the law when a participant in an activity has agreed to assume the associated risks.  These entities depend on strong legislation to help them enforce waivers."

"States like New York, Connecticut and Illinois, have proposed model consumer bills similar to S. 105, which have not passed.  New Hampshire and Colorado, states like Vermont that are highly dependent on recreation, have passed language to enforce waiver forms and strengthen inherent risk laws."

"Meanwhile, Vermont has failed to provide legislative protections for recreation providers.  Further, this bill makes it easier for participants to sue and harder to recreation providers to secure liability insurance."

 

Additional Successes In Recent Years

2015 Economic Development Bill

Led by me in the Commerce and Economic Development Committee, this law included the following:

  • Necessary changes to the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive to ensure more Vermont companies are able to take advantage of this program that has more than proved its worth in helping to create jobs;
  • The elimination of the sales tax on prewritten software accessed remotely (cloud tax);
  • A first time home-buyer downpayment assistance program to help young professional around the state into home ownership through the creation of a revolving loan fund
  • An economic development branding and marketing initiative to complement and supplement our tourism marketing efforts - including a $200,000 appropriation to create and implement it;
  • A Vermont-Quebec Initiative to recruit and expand into Vermont, Canadian businesses interested in a US location - including $100,000 appropriation to fund the program; and
  • An increase in our Licensed Lender limits from $75,000 to $250,000

2014 Comprehensive Economic Development Bill

Led by former Representative Paul Ralston (D-Middlebury) and me, this law included the following:

  • The creation of an Entreprenuerial Lending Program that will allow for greater access to capital for start-up and growth-stage businesses;
  • The creation of a Domestic Export Program that will provide technical assistance to our state's producers and help them connect to brokers, buyers, and distributors in other state and US regional markets;
  • The creation of a One-Stop Shop for businesses;
  • the creation of a de minimus exemption from Vermont's licensed lender laws for a person who makes three or fewer loans in and three year period; and
  • A Public Service Department examination of our state's electricity rate structure and design, and a requirement that the Department bring to the legislature proposals that would ensure greater business competitiveness for our state's manufacturers.

 

Since arriving in the Vermont House in 2007, I have been a fierce advocate for local control - both in terms of education finance and budgets, and in terms of education delivery, local decision-making, and the creation of school district policies.

Unfortunately, as the years have passed, the growing trend has been to wrest more and more control from the local districts and voters and put it in the hands of the state.

From decisions about what kind of cleaning products a school must purchase, and purposefully placing communities in the position of having to eliminate educational choice for parents and students, to the state-mandated change to proficiency-based learning, and the forced consolidation of school districts under Act 46, local authority and decision-making by school boards and voters is being replaced by the top-down, one-size fits all, approach to education.

This trend, especially in a state that claims to value local control of education, is a great disappointment, and one I continue to fight.

One of the most recent examples, Act 46, was, in my view, misguided.  As it was progressing, I expressed over and over again my concerns about the legislation, but politics won out.  Simply put, Act 46 was a product of politics - doing something for the sake of doing something.  It was not a solution to our property tax crisis, nor was it the creation of more and better opportunities that the proponents claim.  That is why I was one of 50 members of the House (the majority of which were Republicans) who voted agains the bill.

After its passage, however, it was time to work within the law and do all I could to ensure that our local district and Supervisory Union had the tools necessary to move forward under the new law.

And, that is just what I did.

First, I co-sponsored legislation that would extend the Act 46 deadlines. This was designed to allow communities such as Stowe time to do their due diligence in making decisions about how they move forward. 

Second, I co-sponsored legislation that would make clear that Alternative Structures under Act 46 were not only allowed, but were a legitimate course of action under Act 46. After all, it became clear, shortly after passage of Act 46, that the State Board of Education misinterpreted the legislative intent of Alternative Structures, and were attempting to make it very difficult for any district to be granted one. 

Finally, as the decision was made by the Stowe and EMUU School Boards and Lamoille South Supervisory Union to propose to the State Board of Education that we be granted an Alternative Structure, my role was to support that decision in every way I could.

For that reason, I closely followed the process of the State Agency of Education and State Board of Education in developing the rules sand regulations that would govern the approvals of Alternative Structures on Act 46.

In August 2016, the State Board of Education released is draft of "Proposed Rule 3400 - Rules Governing Alternative Structures Under Act 46."

In a nutshell, they were completely unworkable for Stowe and many other communities throughout Vermont that were planning to apply to be approved as an Alternative Structure.  The proposed rules made it virtually impossible, except in a case of geographic isolation, for any community to get approval by the Board for an Alternative Structure.  This, in my view, did not represent legislative intent.

In response to these draft rules, therefore, I submitted Public Comment to express my serious concerns.  I felt it critical to have a voice from Stowe at the table as they deliberated on the draft, and any proposed changes to it.

I was only one of 13 individuals to submit Public Comment in writing or by testimony.  Yet, as a result of my comments and the comments and testimony of those dozen other individuals, the draft rules were materially modified and made it easier for towns like Stowe to obtain approval of their Alternative Structure submissions.

As this process played out, I also had a number of meetings with the Scott Administration to discuss the hopes of Stowe to be granted an approval for an Alternative Structure under Act 46.

I was pleased therefore, that the Secretary of the Agency of Education recommended in her June 2018 report that the EMUU-Stowe School Districts NOT be merged in the Statewide Education Plan!

"Accordingly, because the Secretary believes that it is not practicable to require merger at this time because it would not advance the goals of Act 46, the Secretary does not propose that the State Board of merge the Elmore-Morristown Unified District and the Stowe District in the statewide plan."

This was great news for our region!  It is testament to the work of the Cara Zimmerman and the Stowe School Board, Stephanie Craig and the EMUU School Board, and Supervisory Union, and our collaborative approach to the entire process.  Now we just want to be sure the State Board agrees with the Secretary's recommendation.

 

For the past 12 years, I have vigorously advocated for education funding reform and property tax relief.  Time after time, I have tried to educate my colleagues on the unfairness and unsustainability of the current system, and have pleaded for comprehensive reform. Yet, time and again, my pleas have been dismissed by the legislative leaders.

And, once again this past year, the very real concern of property tax increases continued to be at the forefront of the legislative discussions.

Unfortunately, however, while reform of the root cause of the problem - the education funding system itself - had been discussed earlier in the biennium, no meaningful reform came to fruition.

Instead, that discussion was replaced, in large part, by proposed top-down mandates from Montpelier.  While this was a disappointment, it should not have been a surprise.  After all, in the past, rather than addressing the underlying issue of the funding system, and reconnecting Vermont voters to the budgets they vote on and money spent, Montpelier has found it satisfactory to sit on the sidelines and place the blame at the feet of our school boards and local voters.

And, when Montpelier does claim to have solutions to our ever-increasing property taxes, they inevitably wrest more and more control from local districts and voters, and put it in the hands of the state (Act 46 is a perfect example of this).

Indeed, legislation did come to the House floor for debate and action late in the 2018 session. Unfortunately, it did little to nothing to either reconnect people to their votes and spending decisions, or bring property tax relief to Vermont families and businesses.  For that reason, I made a valiant attempt on the House floor to make substantive changes tot he education funding system that would have done both of those.  While that amendment was defeated, I was pleased that it garnered the attention of House members and provided greater opportunity for those members to learn more about the flaws of our current system.

In the end, as the bill progressed through the end of the session, the meaningful education funding system reform for which I had hoped never materialized.

So, where do we go from here?

I believe strongly that having more Vermonters better connected to their education spending decisions is the only way we will be able ensure spending sustainability and long-term property tax relief.  I am also hopeful that the discussions we had this past year in the House will lead to more agreement and understanding that the system is broken and beyond repair.  More importantly, I am hopeful it leads to the realization that the only way we will achieve true sustainability in the program and long-term property tax relief is to create a system in which more Vermonters are connected, better, to their spending decisions; that as many Vermonters as possible have skin in the game - even the modest amounts I suggested in my amendment.

Rest assured I will continue my vigorous advocacy for just that in the 2019-2020 legislative biennium.

 

My long, and sometimes lonely, quest to establish an Ethics Commission and develop a conflict of interest code of conduct for elected and appointed officials in Vermont finally came to fruition in 2017.

As background, in July 2013, the Telecom Czar appointed by Governor Peter Shumlin resigned to take a senior position with VTel, a company that had received $8.5 million in state funds in the two years this person was a voting members of the state board that authorized the funds.

In February 2014, a sitting Democratic legislator was hired as a director of a special interest group having just led the passage of the organization's legislation the prior year.  Her responsibilities as a new employee (while she was also a legislator) were to work with lobbyists to prepare for any future legislative action.

And, in March 2014, the Vermont House Majority Whip, a Democrat, resigned mid-term to become executive director of a single-payer health care advocacy organization.

While in my mind, and the mind of others, these - and other similar instances - raised significant ethical questions perceptions of conflicts of interest, there was no support in Montpelier for putting into place an independent ethics commission or code of conduct for our elected and appointed officials.

Yet, I started my quest.

And, then continued my quest anyway - year ... after year!

After all, we hear over and over again the distrust the public has for politics and politicians.  While politics should be regarded as a noble profession, as it is a critical way to ensure government works for the people, it has been reduced, with good reason in many cases, to the butt of late-night talk show jokes.

While ours is a small state, and our public officials are very accessible, that does not mean that transparency and accountability are always present.  And, it certainly doesn't mean that conflicts of interest don't arise.

Instead of Vermont leading the way in this regard, though, we were far behind most states.  We were only one of five states that did not have an Ethics commission, and was last ranked 37th in government integrity from the Center for Public Integrity.

I was very happy, therefore, that in 2017, the Vermont House and Senate passed its first Ethics Bill.  And the Governor happily signed it.  While the final piece of legislation is not all I had hoped for, it is an important first step to ensure accountability and transparency in our government.

Beginning in 2012, I have lead the effort - working with colleagues from across the political spectrum - to bring our labor laws and regulations into the 21st Century.  Starting with my collaboration with Democratic Representative Chip Conquest and the Department of Labor under Governor Peter Shumlin, up until this past year, my goal has been to ensure true independent contractors in Vermont would continue to be able to find work, and that entities would continue to be able to contract with them.

Unfortunately, it has been a very long, difficult road.  Even with a unanimous vote out of our House Economic Development Committee in 2016 (6 Democrats, 4 Republicans, and 1 Independent), and wide support across the political spectrum, pure politics prevented the bill from even coming before the full House for action.  After all of the effort bringing so many together on a very difficult issue, Big Labor brought their power to bear on the democratic legislative leadership, and killed the bill.

As background, as both native Vermonters and Vermonters by choice know well, our state has a long tradition of independence.  One manifestation of that independence throughout the years has been in work.  For greater flexibility and autonomy, and greater control over their destinies, many Vermonters have chosen to work for themselves, and be what we now call independent contractors.

Over the years, this style of work has sometimes come into conflict with various labor laws - specifically in workers' compensation and unemployment insurance - because of how we in Vermont, define employer.  In the past, this conflict has mostly arisen in the construction industry with general contractors hiring subcontractors to do specific parts of the job.  The Department of Labor (or the hiring entity's insurance company) then determines through an audit that the subcontractor should have been classified as an employee.

To be clear, the goal has always been to ensure that businesses are following the laws and that employees are being treated fairly; that when an individual works for somebody, and is, in fact, and employee, that person is employed as such by the business and covered under workers' compensation and unemployment insurance.

However, this conflict has recently reared its head in our new economy.  The 21st Century economy is fast-growing, but is very different, Instead of the traditional economy of an employer with many employees, in many ways, it is an independent workforce coming together to collaborate on projects.  Couple this with the sharing economy, and we have a new kind of independent workforce around which we must tailor our laws.

Every state in the country is trying to address this issue, but I would like Vermont to lead the charge.  If we can position ourselves as the place to come to work both independently and collaboratively, and do so successfully, we can attract this new workforce and start to address our significant demographic challenges.

I am really pleased to report that in 2017, we started to do just that!

Through both a unanimous decision from the Vermont Supreme Court and a Guidance Document released a bit later by the Department of Labor, we have begun to open the doors wider for the independent workforce.

In June 2017, the Vermont Supreme Court, in Bourbeau Custom Homes, unanimously ruled that a single-members LLC could not be classified as an employee for the purposes of Unemployment Insurance.

To be clear, this decision was limited to Unemployment Insurance, with the Court specifically saying "We need not decide whether any of these individuals are employees of Bourbeau for other purposes, such as tort law or tax law."

That said, many of the arguments used by the Court in making the determination would hold true in the Workers' Compensation program as well.

The Vermont Department of Labor clearly realized that as well, so released a Guidance Document, "Workers' Compensation Best Practices When Hiring an Independent Contractor."

Like the Supreme Court decision, this Guidance Document opens the door to allow greater flexibility and greater opportunity for the independent, creative, collaborative workforce in Vermont.  Importantly, it also provides some critical best practices for businesses when they hire a LLC, Corporation, Sole Proprietor, or Partnership.

If you pay an individual to perform work for your business, you are required to provide workers' compensation insurance for that individual unless:

You can demonstrate the individual is covered by his/her own workers' compensation policy

OR

The individual is a member, manager or executive officer of a Corporation or LLC registered with the Vermont Secretary of State's office or with another State

AND

The individual has filed an exclusion using Form 29 with the Vermont Department of Labor and had it APPROVED

It should be noted that if a hiring entity is not responsible for workers' compensation coverage, it is potentially civilly liable for injures to its independent contractor and the possible civil damages may be considerably costlier than worker's compensation coverage.