Vermont Legislative Update 03-01-2019
An analysis from DRM's Government & Public Affairs Team
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Panel passes substance abuse prevention bill
The Senate Health and Welfare committee voted out a committee bill relating to substance misuse prevention on Friday. The bill proposes to establish a Substance Misuse Prevention Council to replace the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council. The bill also would eliminate the Tobacco Evaluation and Review Board and rename the Controlled Substances and Pain Management Advisory Council as the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System Advisory Council.
The nine-member Advisory Council would be directed to advance evidence-based and evidence-informed substance misuse prevention initiatives across the Department of Health and provide advice to the Commissioner aimed at improving prevention programs and policies across the State. The Council would focus on all prevention initiatives for all substances at risk of misuse including tobacco, tobacco substitutes, cannabis, opioids and alcohol.
The bill appropriates $400,000 from the Evidence-Based Education and Advertising Fund to support Council efforts in 2020, but includes an intent to explore revenue generated by the taxation of substances such as cannabis, tobacco and alcohol for the purpose of funding future prevention initiatives.
Senate Judiciary Committee approves strict liability bill
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 4-1 on Tuesday in favor of S.37, a bill providing extensive medical monitoring for individuals claiming exposure to toxic substances and imposing strict liability on businesses who release such substances, even if the releases are permitted in accordance with all state and federal law. The bill was a top priority for Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, was the only committee member objecting to the strict liability provision and the only member voting against the bill. Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, expressed skepticism about the bill throughout the past two months of testimony, but ultimately gave his support after a sunset provision was added to repeal the strict liability section in 2024. The bill will now make a quick stop in the Senate Finance Committee before going before the full Senate for approval.
Committee approves broadband funding bill
Legislators have grown increasingly frustrated about the lack of broadband service in Vermont’s remote areas. Expanding coverage has been the top priority for the House Energy and Technology Committee. After several weeks of work, the committee passed a bill on Thursday that includes the following:
- An increase in the Universal Service Fund tax on retail telecommunications services by one-half of one percent; An increase in the minimum Internet speeds that are required for carriers to be eligible for state funds to 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload;
- Addition of $1 million in funding for broadband grants and a feasibility study of using electric utility infrastructure to deliver broadband service;
- Authorization for municipalities to partner with private entities in bonding for expanded Internet service in unserved areas;
- Creation of a new Broadband Expansion Loan Program through the Vermont Economic Development Authority with $10.8 million in borrowing authority for high-risk loans; and
- A requirement for the Public Utility Commission to adopt new rules making it easier for telecommunications companies to attach wires to existing utility poles.
The bill will be considered by the Appropriations Committee when the legislature returns from its Town Meeting break.
Non-compete bill remains under consideration
Representatives Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock, and Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, continued to work this week behind the scenes to craft legislation that would limit the scope of permissible non-compete agreements. On Friday, Kornheiser circulated this draft.
Although the new draft addresses some concerns that were raised by the business community, it is unlikely to satisfy opponents of the legislation. Under the revised bill, a non-compete agreement entered into at the time of employment would be permissible only if:
- It is accompanied by substantial consideration (such as payment of 50 percent of salary for two years); and
- It is provided with a formal offer of employment, or 10 days before the commencement of employment, whichever is earlier.
Non-compete provisions as part of non-deferred compensation agreements would be allowed, as would agreements that prohibit the solicitation of the employer’s employees or customers.
The legislators have requested feedback on their latest proposal.
Cannabis legalization approved by Senate
By a vote of 23-5, the Vermont Senate approved on Thursday a bill, S.54, that legalizes the sale and use of marijuana. The bill creates a new Cannabis Control Board that would administer the new “tax and regulate” system. The bill faces an uncertain future with the House and the Governor.
Bill to regulate PFAS advances
The Senate Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved a bill this week, S.49, to require the Agency of Natural Resources to monitor all public water systems in the state for the presence of Polyfluoroalkyl substances. The bill also requires ANR to set water quality standards for these substances, despite ANR’s objection that there is a lack of science upon which to base standards. In response to the Agency’s protests that it is unable to set scientific standards based on non-existent science, the committee basically said, “Figure it out.”
The Natural Resources Committee has spent considerable time on the legislation during the past two months, with a great deal of back and forth testimony from the ANR general counsel and the Conservation Law Foundation. CLF has been the bill’s primary backer, while ANR has argued against many parts that seem to outpace current science and the Agency’s capabilities.
House Commerce Committee puts pen to paper
After weeks of testimony on the complex workforce challenges facing Vermont employers, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee began work this week on a draft bill. The committee’s initial draft address several key issues, including child care costs and a shortage of nurse educators. The bill allocates $350,000 for apprenticeship training and $300,000 for competitive grant awards to adult career development and technical centers. The grants would be used by the centers, in collaboration with regional development corporations, to develop additional training and certification programs.
In response to testimony that child care is a burdensome cost and a barrier to career development, the bill would also create a refundable tax credit for child care businesses or employers who fund child care programs. The bill also charges the Office of Professional Regulation with conducting a feasibility study of creating a nurse educator certification program. The draft includes the governor’s proposed “Reloc802” program, funds for workforce training for weatherization, and other supports for adult career development and technical centers.
While the specifics of these provisions are likely to change, the draft bill reflects the committee’s intent to prioritize adult and technical education, address workforce shortages through more affordable child care and provide targeted support to critical needs such as nursing.
Health Committees and GMCB receive All-Payer Model updates from the field
Members of two key committees took a field trip on Wednesday to receive comments from a provider panel at the Green Mountain Care Board on how health care reform is affecting change in Vermont communities. Organized by GMCB member Jessica Holmes for the House and Senate Committees on Health Care, the goal of the session was to tell “human stories” and provide detailed information on the efficacy of the all payer model, an alternative payment mechanism that pays for value not volume.
Panel members explained how the transition from fee-for-service to value-based fixed payments has changed care delivery in their communities. They provided examples of increased investment in services and personnel, increased focus on integrated care management, and improved data analytics provided by OneCare Vermont, the state’s provider-led accountable care organization tasked with implementing a coordinated care system for patients. Panelists said investments in programs like RiseVT, which emphasize and incent healthier lifestyles, improve Vermonters’ quality of life and lower overall healthcare costs.
University of Vermont Health Network Home Health and Hospice President and CEO Judy Peterson said OCV engages community partners from the start and invests in innovative projects. Peterson described the longitudinal care program, supported by OCV care coordination payments, which allows her agency to continue to make home visits to people with chronic conditions after their Medicare-covered visits end. These are people at high risk for hospital admissions and emergency room visits. Without the program, these individuals would not be covered for home health visits until after another hospitalization or emergency department visit. Peterson said the results show a reduction in hospitalizations by 30 percent, a reduction in emergency room visits by nearly 10 percent, and a remarkable difference in the quality of life for patients.
Senate Committee votes on clean water bill
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources finished its work on a clean water governance bill, S.96, and voted the bill out 4-1 on Friday. The bill is a strike-all proposal from the Scott administration that adopts a governance mechanism to prioritize state investments on projects that will help meet the pollution reduction targets in total maximum daily load plans for Lake Champlain and other surface waters.
The premise behind S.96 is that current regulations are insufficient in some watersheds to achieve the most aggressive regional targets required under the State’s TMDL plans. The bill directs the Agency of Natural Resources to identify those watersheds where additional pollution reductions are needed and allocate additional targets, along with funding, to regional entities responsible for meeting those goals. ANR is also directed to work with the State’s clean water board to make recommendations for a market approach to pollution reduction through nutrient credit trading, where rural landowners could sell ecosystem services that exceed regulatory requirements to regulated entities with more expensive pollution control obligations.
Senate proposes ban on corporate contributions
Vermont is one of the few states that allows corporations to make political contributions. That practice would be prohibited by S.47, a bill that passed the Senate this week by a vote of 21-5.
Rutland Regional Medical Center proposes secure residential facility
Leaders from the Rutland Regional Medical Center presented a proposal for a secure recovery residence to the House Corrections and Institutions Committee on Thursday. The new facility would be jointly owned and operated by RRMC and Rutland Mental Health Services, and it would serve individuals who have historically required extended lengths of stay in inpatient psychiatric settings, as well as those who have had their stays extended due to a lack of appropriate community resources.
Dr. Jeffrey McKee, RRMC Vice President of Community and Behavioral Health Services, told legislators the residence will provide an eight-bed, secure, adult residential program located on the campus of RRMC. It will also foster a therapeutic community setting, with intensive supervision and support for residents by on-site staff. The program will emphasize recovery approaches that foster improvement in resident self-care skills, increased autonomy, and meaningful goal setting and achievement for residents. McKee estimated that individuals would stay at the facility for three to 12 months.
RRMC President Claudio Fort anticipates opening the doors within two years. If the certificate of need requirements are waived, he estimated that the project could be completed in less than 18 months. RRMC projects annual operating costs for the program to be approximately $3 million. The up-front capital expense is estimated to be no more than $8 million. Fort said these estimates are contingent on a commitment from the state for the project.
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