Vermont’s 2019 legislative session was like a Thanksgiving dinner played out over multiple days: collegial and friendly to start and a lot of arguing to end, with everyone saying farewell until we do it again next year.
“A session that started with sky-high hopes of enacting a full-blown, veto-proof Democratic/Progressive agenda ended about as messily as it could in the House on May 24 and in the Senate five days later,” summed up the Vermont League of Cities and Towns in its legislative wrap-up last week. “The bickering between House and Senate members wasn’t partisan but it sure was bickering.”
Though marquee policies — a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave and marijuana retail sales — didn’t make it to the finish line, the General Assembly did pass some notable laws and, for the most part, avoided facing a veto from Gov. Phil Scott.
Here’s a rundown of new laws went into effect July 1, or will be rolled out in the coming months, and what roles local lawmakers played in their passage.
Bills: S.86 (Act 27), “An act relating to increasing the legal age for buying and using cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, and other tobacco products from 18 to 21 years of age.”
And H.47 (Act 28), “An act relating to the taxation of electronic cigarettes.”
The Legislature, in crafting a pair of laws limiting access to tobacco products, estimated 10,000 Vermonters under age 18 right now will die prematurely from smoking-related causes.
Starting this week, electronic cigarettes got more expensive and harder to get, as a law slapped a 92 percent excise tax on the smoking and vaping devices, and banned their sale online.
Two months from now, on Sept. 1, the state will raise to 21 its legal age to buy tobacco products.
Vermont originally made 17 the legal age for tobacco products in 1888, and raised it to 18 in 1991. The state joins 13 others that have raised the age to 21 in recent years, and several other states have cities or counties where the age is 21.
Bill: S.146 (Act 82), an act relating to substance misuse prevention.
Gov. Phil Scott used a well-attended — standing room only, with people spilling out in the hallway — opioid summit last week in Hyde Park to sign this bill.
While signing, Scott recognized his predecessor, Gov. Peter Shumlin, who dedicated his entire State of the State address in 2014 to addressing the opioid crisis.
Five years later, the number of people overdosing on opioids, including fentanyl, the new danger on the block, has increased. But so has the number of people being revived from an OD by Narcan. And so has the number of organizations and agencies offering recovery, treatment, counseling and protection.
H.146 creates the office of chief prevention officer, which will collaborate with “community partners, policies, programs and budgets to support and improve the well-being of all Vermonters through prevention efforts.” It’s the ultimate hub in Vermont’s nationally recognized “hub and spoke” model.
Roll call: None, but Lamoille County Sen. Richard Westman sponsored the bill.
Move over, Columbus
Bill: S.68 (Act 18), “an act relating to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. What happened next has, in relatively recent years, been the subject of much debate.
Heroic explorer or genocidal murderer? Skilled navigator or political opportunist? Whatever your take, the Legislature has decided that this singular man isn’t worthy of having an official space on the Vermont calendar.
According to the law, “The establishment of this holiday will aid in the cultural development of Vermont’s recognized tribes, while enabling all indigenous peoples in Vermont and elsewhere to move forward and formulate positive outcomes from the history of colonization.”
Not long ago, Vermont governors refused even to recognize the most famous Vermont tribe, the Abenaki, as an official tribe.
In 2016, Gov. Shumlin signed an executive proclamation changing the holiday’s name for the day. Scott followed suit in 2017 and 2018. The new law makes the change permanent.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, called the legislation “a simple bill with a high level of importance. It will allow us to acknowledge that the indigenous people of Vermont deserve recognition in a way that all Vermonters will appreciate — with a respect that solemnizes their fate and heritage.”
• House: 113-24, with Lamoille County Reps. Matt Hill, Dan Noyes, Avram Patt, Lucy Rogers, Heidi Scheuermann and David Yacovone all voting in favor.
• Senate: No roll call.
Bill: H.533 (Act 80), “an act relating to workforce development.”
The most talked-about portion of H.533 was the governor’s proposal to pay people to come to Vermont. Sort of.
The law creates the New Worker Relocation Incentive Program, which will pay people who want to move to Vermont and work remotely at their old jobs. Those who qualify will be given a grant to cover eligible expenses for moving and work-related activity.
Qualified New Workers can get up to $10,000 in grant money, capped at $5,000 per year.
H.533 also makes many changes in Vermont’s job laws, provides $2 million for workforce development, and aims to build upon the secretary of state’s “small business portal.”
• Senate: 24-3, with Westman voting in favor.
• House: 124-0. Rep. Matt Hill is on the committee that introduced the bill.
Get the lead out
Bill: S.40 (Act 66), “an act relating to testing and remediation of lead in the drinking water of schools and child care facilities.”
Last summer, many schools, including Johnson Elementary School, participated in a voluntary study to measure the level of lead in their drinking water.
Some of those 16 schools had at least one tap where lead levels were above 15 parts per billion, the take-action threshold set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
Act 66 now gives Vermont the lowest threshold of any state in the nation, at 4 ppb. It covers both public schools and child care facilities.
The law sets aside $3 million to cover the costs of testing and remediation, and provides a one-time appropriation to fund testing and retesting for lead in drinking water, and replacing drinking water fixtures including drinking fountains and ice machines.
• House 138-3, with Noyes, Patt, Rogers, Scheuermann and Yacovone voting in favor. Hill was absent the day of the vote.
• Senate: passed unanimously, 27-0.
Bill: S.113 (Act 69), “an act relating to the management of single-use products.”
This one doesn’t go into effect until next July 1, but considering how habitual consumers are, it might take a year to wean them off their plastic.
And it’s not just grocery bags that will be prohibited — stores and restaurants will no longer hand out plastic-foam takeout containers and beverage cups, and good luck finding a plastic stir stick to mix your coffee.
Stores will still offer the thin plastic bags used in the produce, meat and fish and bulk foods aisles. And if consumers forget their reusable bags at home, the store will sell the plastic grocery bags for 10 cents a pop.
• House: 120-24, with Noyes, Patt, Rogers, Scheuermann and Yacovone voting in favor. Hill was absent the day of the vote.
• Senate: Passed unanimously, 30-0.