South Burlington lawmakers reflect on historic session

South Burlington legislators logged off the 2021 legislative session last Friday after finalizing a $7.3 billion budget and sending a stack of bills to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk to sign.

House and Senate committees tuned in to work virtually from day one, marking a historical pandemic-era session even as the state eases COVID-19 restrictions and inches closer to “normal.”

South Burlington lawmakers, including representatives Martin LaLonde, Ann Pugh, John Killacky and Maida Townsend, and Sen. Thomas Chittenden, hopped back on Zoom to give South Burlington residents a recap of their work and preview of what to keep an eye on moving into a potential veto session this summer.

Rep. Martin LaLonde (D, district 7-1)

Rep. Martin LaLonde (D, district 7-1)

• Bill S.3 sets up a notification system for when individuals with mental health issues, classified as a danger to themselves or others, are discharged from the Department of Mental Health back into the community — people who’ve been harmed by those individuals are notified.

“Until this law gets put into place … the victims are not notified and can run into an individual in the community” by surprise, said LaLonde, which can be harmful to both individuals. The bill also comes with a study to examine numerous issues in how mental health interacts with criminal justice system.

Rep. Ann Pugh (D, district 7-2)

• The Human Services Committee passed a bill prohibiting forever chemicals from consumer products, which Pugh said is a significant step in preventing future harm from toxic chemicals. “Rather than limiting our solutions to downstream cleanup, we addressed the issue to upstream by preventing these toxic chemicals from entering our state,” she said.

• A bill breaking down some barriers to rehabilitation for opioid addiction, specifically related to buprenorphine, passed “on strong votes” from both the House and Senate, Pugh added.

“What folks may not know is, with 157 opioid related deaths, 2020 was one of Vermont’s deadliest years for an overdose. And in 2020, we saw more deaths by overdose than we did deaths by COVID,” she said.

Buprenorphine is one method of helping people become clean and sober, said Pugh. The bill reduces criminal penalties for someone who has less than a two-week supply of non-prescribed buprenorphine. “This is something that will save lives, encourage them to seek safer alternatives and get into treatment,” she said.

• Last, Pugh worked on identifying racism as a public health emergency. “The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the severe inequalities in our public health systems,” she said. Both the House and Senate passed the resolution.

Rep. John Killacky (D, district 7-3)

Rep. John Killacky (D, district 7-3)

• The House committee on General, Housing and Military affairs updated some language around the National Guard which had dated back to the Civil War.

• The committee extended curbside pickup for alcohol during the pandemic and for the next year, though the extension will sunset in two years.

• A bill to study how neighboring states handle sports betting passed both chambers. Killacky noted that the House has been hesitant to encourage sports betting, although some in the Senate are “interested in at least understanding the potential revenues.”

• The bill that apologized for Vermont’s part in eugenics passed through Killacky’s committee and specifically stood out to him as an important moment. The bill has been in the works for 10 years, he said. “To have different people really talk to us about their lived experience and their trauma of surviving — that was pretty profound for me,” he said.

• The “heartbreak moment of the season,” Killacky said, was the stall of bill, S.79, which would create a rental housing registry in part to ensure professional health and safety inspections. The bill has been talked about since 2010, he said, but fell short of final approval in the last leg of the session.

“The time seemed right to do this, particularly during the pandemic with all the federal dollars coming in. It would have been nice if there was a central location to communicate with landlords,” he said. The bill also would have allowed property-owners more flexibility under the temporary eviction moratorium.

Legislators will pick it back up the first day of the January session in 2022, said Killacky — or sooner, if work resumes this summer for a veto session. “The bill did cross the line, it just was a little late and the race was over for the summer,” he said.

Rep. Maida Townsend (D, district 7-4)

• The House Appropriations Committee built and passed a cohesive and notably bipartisan budget, with 100 percent of state legislators voting in favor. Townsend described it as the result of “what the governor termed as progress, rather than politics.”

“Everybody was working together and basically had the same goals in mind, the same values, wanting to be reflected in this budget,” she said. The only rough patches of disagreement came down to whether some aspects should be supported by general fund dollars or federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act.

• To frame discussions in the 2022 session, when legislators will work on where the remainder of federal rescue funds will be allocated, the Speaker of the House and Senate President Pro Tem will go into communities for statewide listening tours, said Townsend. They intend to reach out to Vermonters “not using traditional means” to hear how people think the remaining money should be invested.

“We will have these recommendations from Vermonters from all over the state as to how we should be focused on developing the budget for fiscal year 2023,” she said.

• Another bill passed provides a 3 percent increase in the rates for caregivers. The bill “sounds teeny,” she said, but will have a needed impact.

• In the budget, $5 million is allocated for adult day care costs, and more funds have been used to fill “deficits in really important funds,” said Townsend, such as the Victims Compensation Fund, the 911 fund, the Human Rights Commission and more.

“The budget is filled with all sorts of wonderful things that really help Vermont and Vermonters across the board, and current into the future,” she said.

Sen. Thomas Chittenden (D)

Sen. Thomas Chittenden (D)

• Bill S.66, which the governor signed, gives greater clarification for different types of e-bicycles and allows municipalities to have standard signage, terminology and regulations.

• Chittenden expects “interesting” discussion on the pupil weighting study bill, S.13, which passed this session and will return with some kind of recommendation and report next year. “I think that will be a very important topic next year,” he said.

The bill is based on a study which proposed changing the pupil weighting formula, which effects how much funding school districts receive. South Burlington would likely see a tax hike under such an updated formula.

• Chittenden said he is largely supportive of another bill that dealt with four charter changes the city of Burlington passed in March, but he has concerns regarding one related to the Burlington International Airport in South Burlington.

“I look forward to having a rich, robust discussion about the composition of the airport commission in the coming January term,” he said, to ensure “we make the best decisions over the use of our airspace of the county for the largest airport in the entire state.”

• As far as the remainder of the federal rescue funds, Chittenden said he supports infrastructure investments that will last, specifically for smarter roads, electric cars, school buildings and broadband.