Updates
February 15, 2019

Vermont Legislative Update 02-15-2019

An analysis from DRM's Government & Public Affairs Team

Vermont Legislative Update Quick Links

Paid family leave advances

Non-Compete bill advances in House Commerce Committee

Health commissioner endorses age 21 for tobacco purchases

Senate Judiciary continues work on strict liability bill

Senate Natural refocuses clean water discussion on ANR proposal

Compromise reached on medication-assisted treatment

Panel hears grim picture for health care workforce

Lawmaker frustration grows over broadband and wireless coverage

Administration previews health insurance reforms

Paid family leave advances

Paid family and medical leave legislation, H.107, passed the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee on Wednesday on an 8-1-1 vote. Rep. Marianna Gamache, R-Swanton, a lone but passionate dissenter, raised concerns about the expansiveness of the bill, including the eligibility of caring for extended family members, saying “The more people who are included, the bigger the program becomes.”

The bill proposes to provide employees with twelve weeks of paid leave in a twelve month period. Employees would receive 100 percent wage replacement with a cap at double the Joint Fiscal Office’s determined livable wage. The program would be financed by a 0.93 percent payroll tax, a cost shared evenly by employees and the employer.

The committee rejected changes offered by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce to reduce the paid compensation period from twelve to six weeks, to align the bill’s definition of impacted businesses with existing Vermont and U.S. medical leave laws, and to reinstate provisions from last year’s bill that protected employers from increased tax obligations.

The bill now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee.

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Non-Compete bill advances in House Commerce Committee

Despite hearing from nearly a dozen businesses and associations in opposition to legislation that would ban most non-compete agreements between employers and employees, the committee released a new version of the bill on Friday.

Businesses argued that non-compete agreements are essential to prevent employees from leaving with customers, to protect trade secrets, and to enable long-term incentive compensation plans. The revised legislation only partially acknowledges these concerns. It would still prohibit most non-compete agreements, while allowing those that:

  • Are with a key employee;
  • Protect a legitimate business interest;
  • Do not exceed one year;
  • Are reasonable in geographic scope; and
  • Meet a variety of other conditions.

The committee’s decision to move forward has perplexed many observers. There has been virtually no testimony to suggest that non-compete agreements have created any systemic problem for employees; and the committee has heard compelling testimony from businesses about their necessity.

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Health commissioner endorses age 21 for tobacco purchases

Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D., gave his strong support this week for S.86, a bill that would raise the minimum purchase age for all tobacco products to 21. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee intends to mark up the bill next week.

Levine argued that Vermont is experiencing a new epidemic of vaping by kids. We don’t yet understand the impact of nicotine on developing brains, although it is known to alter brain chemistry. E-cigarettes are a pathway to cigarette use, and one-thousand Vermonters die each year from tobacco use.

Levine said that T-21 legislation has been identified as National Academy of Sciences and CDC as an important prevention tool, since 90-95 percent of adult smokers start before the age of 21. He continued with a long list of other arguments that were well received by the committee.

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Senate Judiciary continues work on strict liability bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee took more testimony this week on a bill, S.37, that would impose strict liability for toxic chemical releases. The committee failed to pass the bill as planned. It has strongly divided Vermont’s business and environmental organizations. Further markup is scheduled for Feb. 26.

In addition to imposing strict liability for releases, the bill would create a new cause of action for medical monitoring for individuals who claim they have been exposed to a harmful substance but who do not show any sign of injury.

The committee spent a considerable amount of time discussing whether the bill would apply retroactively to discharges that occurred prior to its effective date. That issue remains to be resolved, although the committee agreed that it would not apply to pending cases..

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Senate Natural refocuses clean water discussion on ANR proposal

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy has taken extensive testimony for weeks regarding the State’s clean water priorities – from the Scott administration, environmental and farm groups, and other clean water stakeholders. Through it all, committee chair Chris Bray, D-Addison, has repeatedly urged that Vermont must maintain a consistent level of funding for clean water investments, and advocates have obliged by describing the wide array of needs across Vermont.

In order to provide long-term funding for the Clean Water Board to sustain those efforts, Bray introduced S.96, a bill that would impose a per-parcel clean water assessment on all property in the state, to be collected as part of the statewide education-property tax. On Friday, despite widespread agreement about the critical need to fund clean water investments, Bray’s four other committee members made clear that they don’t support an expansion of the property tax.

The only alternative vehicle before the committee is a bill proposal from the Agency of Natural Resources. The ANR proposal would allocate pollution reduction targets—and corresponding funding—to municipalities or clean water utilities to implement the most cost-effective projects to meet the allocations. A municipality or clean water utility would have wide latitude to invest in stormwater controls, natural resource infrastructure or investments on farms and logging operations, so long as it could demonstrate that the results of the projects meet or exceed pollution reduction goals.

Advocates expressed a wide range of concerns about the ANR bill during initial testimony, from skepticism about the delegation-based approach to logistical questions about how project results will be verified. But committee members seem attracted to ANR’s market-based model, where the lowest cost investments go first and grant recipients must account for the pollution reduction achieved with each dollar spent. Bray seems inclined to work with his colleagues and fashion a new draft with their support in the remaining three weeks before crossover.

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Compromise reached on medication-assisted treatment

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday approved S.43, a bill related to medication-assisted treatment, a pharmacologic approach to the treatment of substance use disorders. An agreement was reached with the state’s two major insurance companies, the Department of Vermont Health Access, the Vermont Medical Society, and Bi-State Primary Care Association to remove prior authorizations and cost-sharing for medication-assisted treatment for patients as long as the treatment is within FDA dosing recommendations. Health insurers also agreed to ensure that at least one MAT medication from each drug class is available on the lowest cost-sharing tier.

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Panel hears grim picture for health care workforce

The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard testimony on Thursday on health care workforce development. Green Mountain Care Board Chair Kevin Mullin and lobbyist Laura Pelosi painted a grim picture of the nursing shortage, stressing that the shortages in the health care industry are more pressing than other industries’ shortages because it is about people taking care of people.

The Vermont Talent Pipeline Management Project, an employer-led, data-driven model for filling the most critical jobs in the Vermont workforce operated through the Vermont Business Roundtable, has found that 3,900 nurses will be needed in Vermont over the next two years.

Mullin said the GMCB is focused on the shortage of health care workers, especially given the impact traveling nurses and other short term employee expenses have had on hospital budgets. Pelosi reiterated the pressure that traveling nurses have on budgets, reporting that Vermont nursing homes spent $11.6 million on travelers in FY 2017. Pelosi highlighted potential solutions, including financial incentives such as a Maine’s tax credit program, licensing reforms, educational initiatives and targeted marketing and recruitment.

Mary Anne Sheahan, Executive Director of VTPM, suggested using career and technical education centers to train adults who have graduated from high school and are looking for a career change. Using the construction industry as an example, she laid out the different career pathways available to individuals depending on their education. She stressed that career and technical education centers should be available to adults and not just youth..

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Lawmaker frustration grows over broadband and wireless coverage

The challenges facing state government and wireless communication providers were given faces this week by a succession of exasperated dairy farmers testifying before the House Energy and Technology Committee. The farmers held members of the committee rapt as they described how everything from tractors to manure digester drag lines could be controlled by smartphone, if only their phones could find a cell signal.

Legislator frustration about the state’s lack of progress is expanding coverage has been evident from the beginning of the session. When the Senate Finance Committee heard testimony regarding the State’s new 10-year communications plan, Committee Chair Ann Cummings, D-Washington, said, “If this is our 10-year plan, we’re just killing trees.”

The department returned to the committee this week. Commissioner June Tierney acknowledged that the state has relied on deference to the private market to expand coverage, but said it’s time to try a different method. Senators lamented that the Department “is putting money into stone age technology.” Sen. Becca Ballint, D-Windham, has said that the State’s telecommunications situation is the result of a lack of political leadership.

House Energy & Telecommunications Committee Chair Tim Briglin, D-Thetford, unveiled his proposal on Friday to expand coverage. (A summary of the bill is here). The bill would:

  • Increase the Universal Service Fund by .5% to expand broadband coverage;
  • Appropriate $1 million from the general fund for feasibility studies for municipalities to set up their own telecommunications companies and to provide other connectivity grants;
  • Create a new position to advise municipalities in setting up their own companies;
  • Allow municipalities to use general obligation bonds to finance communications improvements;
  • Direct the Vermont Economic Development Authority to create a “Broadband Expansion Loan Program,” with projected losses that “will be much higher than the Authority’s historical loss rate”;
  • Directs the Department of Public Service to conduct two broadband market feasibility pilot projects with electric utilities.

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Administration previews health insurance reforms

Administration officials told the members of the House Health Care Committee on Tuesday that they are exploring several ways to stabilize Vermont’s health insurance marketplace. Pointing to a high uninsured rate among young adults, and a high rate of unsubsidized premiums for older Vermonters, the administration told committee members that they are reviewing the idea of “age-rating” in conjunction with an age-based subsidy through a federal waiver. Age-rating is a practice that all states but Vermont and Maine permit, and would allow younger customers to pay reduced premiums while increasing the rate for older populations. In turn, increased subsidies would be used to keep costs down for older insureds.

The reform ideas received a lukewarm reception from the committee, and they are unlikely to receive much further legislative consideration until the administration presents a full proposal.

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