Last Friday marked the end of the 2023 legislative session. A lot has happened in the past few months. We saw legislation addressing childcare, gun safety, universal school meals, election reforms, worker rights, climate change mitigation and so much more. Approximately 70 bills worked their way through the statehouse process this year. Here is a brief overview of some of the things that happened- and some of the things that did not- over the past few months in Montpelier.
Over the past several years, I’ve heard from hundreds of Vermonters who have been impacted by or are deeply concerned about the childcare crisis. This year, the legislature has taken action to address some of these concerns by passing a childcare bill (Attached to a workers compensation bill, please do not be confused!) that invests more than $120 million annually into our childcare system. Families who make up to 575% of the federal poverty level ($172,000 for a family of four) will have access to support for childcare based on their income. Providers will also receive higher reimbursements from the state that will allow them to raise wages for childcare workers, hopefully attracting and retaining a more robust childcare workforce.
You can read this article in VT Digger for more information about the childcare bill.
Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML)
I talked about PFML in a newsletter earlier this year, citing the importance of being able to take necessary time off in times of injury, illness, or when welcoming a new child into your family. Unfortunately, the paid family and medical leave bill did not come to fruition this year. However, it did make some good progress, with a house vote of 99-32. I hope that this issue continues to be discussed in future legislative sessions.
Gun Safety/ Suicide Prevention
I recently wrote about the suicide prevention bill that passed both chambers. Most firearm deaths in Vermont are by suicide, and in Vermont we’re seeing a rate of suicide that is almost 1.5x higher than the national average. Data shows the unfortunate fact that suicide attempts with a firearm are far more successful than other means. This bill implements a few very reasonable mechanisms, including a 3-day waiting period, to help reduce the number of deaths by firearm in our state.
Universal School Meals
Another big win for all Vermont children this session was the passage of permanent universal school meals in Vermont. I’ve written about this topic in a previous newsletter and made statements in support of this crucial legislation, and I am so happy that it made it past the finish line this year. While there is concern that the Governor will veto this bill, we expect there to be enough votes to over-ride his veto. Universal school meals will help ensure that no child knows what hunger feels like in the classroom. We also know that if all kids are fed, then all kids benefit due to more stability in the classroom.
This year, we saw a miscellaneous elections law bill that included some unfortunate “poison pill” provisions. While there are several pieces of the bill that I do support, such as ranked choice voting (which was bundled in with the original bill last minute rather than staying its own, separate bill), and efforts to make town and city clerk's jobs’ easier, other pieces of this bill give political parties more power and will lead to decreased voter and candidate choices. I believe that, in an era marked nationally by hyper-partisanship, we need to be doing everything within our power to increase voter choice, expand democracy, and allow the halls of power to be accessible to people from all walks of life. You can read my full statement on the bill here.
With 3 major parties and many independents, Vermont is unique. I am dismayed that such an election reform bill was pushed through by the super-majority party without any support from either of the two other major parties nor any independents. Given what we are seeing in other states, where super majorities are passing legislation to disenfranchise voters and concentrate power, I think we would want to only pass election reforms that had broader non-partisan support. In both the House and Senate there were many members of the super-majority party that bucked leadership and voted against this legislation. For me that creates the question why it was still forced through with such party pressure?
Last week this bill barely passed in the Senate on a narrow margin of 16-14. It will continue being discussed in the Senate during the scheduled Veto session in mid-June and then will have to pass the House before making its way to the Governor’s desk.
The “Vermont PRO (Protect the Right to Organize) Act” was the big labor bill that was working its way through the legislature this session (you can read a piece from a previous newsletter on it here). The purpose of this bill was to expand protections for workers who are trying to organize their workplaces and allow agricultural and domestic workers to unionize.
Though this bill did pass the Senate, unfortunately it did not pass the House this year. I do hope to see the legislature continue to work on the PRO act next year so we can see these important worker protections become law. If you want the House to pass this bill next year, you can contact your state Representative and ask them to support S.102.
Affordable Heat Act
The Affordable Heat Act was the legislatures major piece of climate legislation for this year. Vermont Natural Resources Council (VNRC) put together a comprehensive summary of what is in the bill. In short, it is a way to help Vermonters reduce their dependence on high-cost, price-volatile, and polluting fossil heating fuels by establishing a Clean Heat Standard that will reduce pollution over time. This is in line with science-based pollution-reduction requirements of the Global Warming Solutions Act. This bill includes major supports to help working people afford to make changes to more efficient heating systems. It will not force anyone to make the switch to heat pumps who does not wish to do so.
While this bill passed through the Senate and House, it was vetoed by the Governor. Both the Senate and House then over-rode the Governor (20-10 and 107-42). For implementation, it will still need a vote in the next biennium, so it is on a slow path.
Abortion and Gender Affirming Healthcare Shield Law
Last but not least, this year the legislature passed shield laws to protect medical providers who perform abortion and gender affirming care. Key parts of this bill include:
A requirement for health insurance plans and Medicaid to cover gender-affirming health care services and abortion-related services,
Protection from professional disciplinary action for health care providers who provide or assist in legally protected health care services,
Establishing a new “unfair and deceptive act” to prohibit false and misleading advertising about services provided by “pregnancy centers” that are not providing the full range of medical options for clients, and
Allowing pharmacists to prescribe emergency contraception and permit pharmacies, colleges, and universities to make nonprescription emergency contraception and other contraceptives available by vending machine.
This is, of course, only a few of the 70+/- bills that worked their way through the legislature over the past several months. If there are any other bills that you would like an update on, you can always send my office a message and we’ll do our best to get you the information you’re looking for.
My office has some exciting things in the works for this summer that we’ll be announcing soon. We will also be updating you on the bills that the Governor vetoes and the actions that the legislature takes during the veto session June 20th to 22nd. Be sure to keep an eye out for more updates!
Thank you and have a great summer!
Lt. Gov David Zuckerman