Vermont Legislative Update Quick Links
Paid Family Leave
A bill to require paid family leave, H.107, was left on the legislative calendar upon adjournment last May, a result of a stalemate between House and Senate leadership. Many think this bill, along with a bill to increase the minimum wage, will move quickly when the 2020 session commences in January. The Governor is expected to veto both bills.
Last week, Gov. Phil Scott signed a two-year contract with the state employees’ union that will enable its 8,500 members to participate in a voluntary paid leave program. This new benefit will provide a 60 percent wage reimbursement for up to six weeks to care for a new child or an ill family member or for personal illness. The plan will allow non-state-employed workers to opt into this program at a cost of about $260 a year. A similar proposal offered last session was rejected by lawmakers. This new development gives the governor a stronger position for an expected veto.
As with the paid family leave bill, S.23 sits on the legislative action calendar. Legislators anticipate the bill will pass the General Assembly, but anticipate that it will be vetoed. The vote count will be closely monitored to see if a veto can be sustained.
S.23 as passed by the Senate would have increased the minimum wage to $15 by 2024, mirroring language from last year. The House, concerned about small businesses and health care providers funded by Medicaid, extended the timeline to 2026. Leaders in both bodies are expected to reach a compromise in early January to send to the governor.
One of the first questions legislators will face when they return in January will be whether to sustain Gov. Phil Scott’s veto of S.37, a bill passed in May that would create a cause of action for medical monitoring that could be brought by individuals who are exposed to toxic substances that may cause future harm.
Environmental and business groups have fought bitterly over the proposal for the past two years. The bill that was vetoed by the governor passed by a wide margin in the House, but it failed to receive the 2/3 votes in the Senate that will be needed to overturn the veto. Advocates on both sides of the issue have ramped up their pre-session lobbying efforts. The outcome will likely turn on the votes of one or two senators.
Global Warming Solutions Act
The issue of climate change is almost certain to receive heightened attention in the upcoming session. In the House, the focus will be the Global Warming Solutions Act (H.462), which is modeled after legislation that was approved in Massachusetts. The bill converts Vermont’s greenhouse gas reduction goals into requirements, and mandates that the Agency of Natural Resources adopt rules to achieve those reduction requirements. The bill also creates a private right of action against ANR if it fails to adopt and enforce rules to implement the mandatory greenhouse gas reductions.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee Efficiency is expected to focus on a bill that would expand the authority of Vermont’s emergency efficiency utility (Efficiency Vermont) to enable it to invest in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The current mission of the organization is limited projects that make electric energy usage more efficient.
The bill, called the Energy Efficiency and Modernization Act, could result in a slight decrease in the efficiency charge that most electric ratepayers now pay. The bill could also benefit Vermont’s electric utilities by increasing their load.
A bill to tax and regulate the cannabis industry in Vermont has passed the Senate and one House committee, but its future is unclear given recent statements of concern by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson. Johnson was quoted recently in VTDigger as saying that the bill is not on her list of priorities for the upcoming session. The Speaker’s comments were met with an unusual rejoinder by House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, who was quoted as saying that the House would definitely vote on the legislation in the upcoming session. Both comments may prove to be accurate, since Speaker Johnson was quoted at a recent press conference as saying, “I believe there is the will in the House to pass it”, and will likely not block an effort to bring a bill to the House floor if it has strong support among the Democratic caucus.
There are vast differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, so any bill that is approved by the legislature will likely not reach the governor’s desk until May. Whether he would sign a bill remains unclear.
2020 State Appropriations
In his report to lawmakers early this month, the legislature’s chief fiscal officer Steve Klein reported that revenues supporting the FY20 budget are currently running above expectations, boosted by strong e-commerce activity and an increase in personal tax revenues. The Transportation, Education and General Funds all are up slightly, but Klein said that the ability of the Transportation Fund to meet needs may be an issue this upcoming session. State transportation base budget pressures such as increased maintenance needs and increased salary and benefits costs are outpacing annual growth. Lawmakers will also have to contend with unpredictable federal dollars when making budget decisions this year. Klein pointed to the state’s strong stabilization fund reserves as a “bright spot.”
Before turning to the FY21 budget, the House Appropriations Committee will focus on the FY20 budget adjustment act in early January. The committee met with administration and department heads during the week of Dec. 16 to review the governor’s proposed BAA, which includes an increase for the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living and additional health care delivery system reform investments for population health management and care coordination.
Flavored Tobacco Products
Lawmakers are expected to take another step this session to address the health problems associated with tobacco consumption, as well as the enormous growth in vaping by young people. Legislators are planning to take up a bill that would end the sale of all flavored tobacco products, which would include menthol cigarettes. Menthol cigarettes are the choice of more than half of all 12-17 year-old smokers. The legislation has strong support in the House and Senate health care committees.
In 2015, the legislature approved a requirement that all properties that are three acres or larger obtain a stormwater permit. The Agency of Natural Resources recently issued draft new regulations to implement that legislation, which will require permits regardless whether the land was developed prior to current stormwater regulations. The Agency prioritized sites located within the Lake Champlain and Lake Memphremagog watersheds, and posted a list of properties that have received notice letters to inform property owners of the upcoming permitting requirements. The new requirement is likely to trigger significant legislative involvement once property owners become aware of the expense that will be associated with compliance, which some have estimated at $50,000 per acre.
Single-Use Products Working Group
The Single-Use Products Working Group was charged with evaluating state and municipal policies regarding the management of single-use products and recommending ways to reduce their use and environmental impact. The working group was created by Act 69 of 2019, which banned plastic grocery bags, single use straws and Styrofoam carry-out containers in grocery stores and restaurants beginning July 2020. It met several times this fall, taking testimony from a variety of stakeholders. Group members included legislators, representatives from solid waste management entities, municipalities, food service establishments, retail stores, industry representatives and environmental groups. The group will issue a final report of its findings and recommendations to the Senate Natural Resources and House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife committees.
The report is likely to recommend that the standing committees of jurisdiction consider a more robust producer responsibility stewardship program, an expansion of the bottle redemption program, and a ban on the use of disposable food products and packaging that contains PFAS and other chemicals of concern.
Rural Health Services Task Force Report
The Rural Health Services Task Force, created by Act 26 of 2019, was charged with examining the financial, administrative and workforce barriers in Vermont’s rural health care system. The Task Force is finalizing its draft report, which focuses on recommendations to address workforce challenges, telehealth, care coordination, and the financial sustainability of Vermont’s health care sectors. The draft report recommends:
- Expanding telehealth e-consults;
- Supporting provider-led accountable care organization reform efforts;
- Providing targeted increases in health care provider reimbursement;
- Reducing the administrative burden on providers;
- Engaging in occupational licensing reforms for the health care workforce and entering the Interstate Nurse Licensure Compact;
- Implementing higher education reforms in Vermont to increase the workforce;
- Offering financial incentives to the health care workforce to retain professionals and encourage migration; and
- Increasing state recruitment efforts.
The final report will be submitted to the legislature, and committees of jurisdiction may act on the report’s recommendations this session.
Health Insurance Affordability and Merged Market Report
Act 63 of 2019 directed the Agency of Human Services and interested stakeholders to evaluate Vermont’s health insurance markets and to submit to the legislature any recommended changes to the current market structure. The Act also required the examination of ways to make health insurance more affordable for all Vermont residents, including the establishment of a regional universal health care program in cooperation with other states.
The resulting report submitted to the General Assembly recommends focusing on and prioritizing the Vermont All-Payer Accountable Care Organization Model Agreement as a system-wide cost containment strategy rather than creating a partially merged market configuration. The report also recommends not pursuing a regional health care program due to current federal policies and potential policy changes, differences in state policies, and financing problems. The report does suggest engaging in additional research and analysis to evaluate the necessity and reasonableness of subsidizing health insurance for Vermonters who earn over 400 percent of the federal poverty level.
Builder Contractor Registry
A bill that creates a new registration for home builders was expected to pass fairly quickly last session, but hit a number of speed bumps. The new requirements under S.163 are. .important from the perspective of many builders as they protect homeowners from bad actors. This bill is the first item up for consideration on the House Calendar on Jan. 7. While there were concerns raised last session, it is anticipated that this bill will pass early in 2020.
Act 46 of 2015 was a major change in Vermont’s school governance system. The next major adjustment facing the education community is Act 173 of 2018, a massive reform effort to the way Vermont schools fund and deliver special education services. This reform provides schools with a block grant for services rather than reimbursement for costs per student. A number of special education rule changes will be needed before the law can be implemented. An advisory group has been working on draft rule recommendations, which will be submitted to the Agency of Education, the State Board of Education and the General Assembly. This issue will become significant for educators and students as the implementation date of July 1, 2020 approaches.
A recently-passed California law that greatly restricts the ability of employers to classify workers as independent contractors could revive a decades-long debate over how such workers are classified in Vermont.
The California law codifies and expands on a 2018 California Supreme Court decision that set a strict new test for employers. Independent contractors must be free to perform their work as they wish, must be in a different line of work from the company contracting with them and must operate their own business.
In Vermont, the long-debated topic was largely resolved following a state Supreme Court decision that created a bright-line test for employers who use independent contractors. But organized labor and others continue to believe that businesses should be required to classify virtually all workers as employees to ensure that they are eligible for state and federal employment benefits.
The Office of Attorney General is at odds with the Scott administration and Secretary of State Jim Condos over whether members of the public should be allowed to use personal devices to copy government records at no charge. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled in September that the Public Records Act provides for free and open examination of records.
Subsequent to the ruling, the Scott administration advised state agencies that members of the public may use a personal device to copy records at no charge. Condos agrees with the administration. Attorney General TJ Donovan has a different view. He believes that anyone who uses their own device to take photos of a public record should be assessed a charge for staff time and other resources expended to get those records ready for inspection.
Given the disagreement, Donovan will ask the legislature to weigh in. Donovan and Condos both support creating a public records ombudsman position in state government to handle public records requests in a uniform fashion across state government. The administration opposes the new position.
Primary Care Spending
Under Act 17 of 2019, the Green Mountain Care Board was tasked with determining the proportion of health care spending that is allocated to primary care in order to determine the amount of any increase. To accomplish this work, the GMCB and the Department of Vermont Health Access identified the categories of health care professionals who should be considered primary care providers and which procedures are considered primary care services. A full report will be provided to the legislature in January.
Health Care Reform
Lawmakers are expected to spend considerable time this session holding hearings about OneCare Vermont, the state’s only accountable care organization. Public scrutiny over the past several weeks has resulted in confusion and misinformation about the work of the ACO. The health care committees will give OneCare the opportunity to set the record straight. ACOs were created by the federal Affordable Care Act and are groups of health care providers that voluntarily join together to coordinate high quality care for patients.
In 2016, the Agency of Human Services and the Green Mountain Care Board executed a contract with the federal government for the All-Payer ACO Model Agreement. OneCare Vermont is the vehicle through which the agreement is administered. It is responsible for the management of payments to participating health-care providers and for overseeing the quality and performance of the health-care system for which it is responsible.
Knowing that the federal government will move away from fee-for-service payments in the future, Vermont leaders supported a move to valued-based payments in which health care providers are rewarded with incentive payments for the quality of care provided. The transition is not without its challenges and requires up-front investment, much of which has been borne by Vermont hospitals and Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
Older Vermonters Act
The Older Vermonters Act Working Group Report is the in process of being translated into legislation. The report supports the goal for Vermonters to live as independently as possible. It calls for regular funding increases for health care and long-term care providers who serve older Vermonters. Vermont’s population is growing older, and that shift in demographics is expected to continue. This will have implications for the state’s workforce, economy, and community system of supports and services.
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