By Rep. Mike Yantachka
The Vermont Legislature returned virtually to Montpelier last week to complete the work of developing a budget for the last three quarters of fiscal year 2021. While this is our primary objective, we are not ignoring other important issues that require our attention. The pandemic continues to require making adjustments, and there are a number of issues that can’t be shunted aside while we wait for a return to “normal.”
As we got started last week, we passed two bills, S.233 and H.967. S.233 eases the ability to transfer certain medical and trade licenses from states with similar licensing requirements. Equivalent skills learned in the military will also qualify for Vermont licensure. H.967 will allow a family childcare home to care for school-age children for a full day when the child’s school has scheduled the child for remote instruction. Current law limits the care to four hours per day on school days.
As the state is putting the billion dollars of Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) to work in the programs authorized by the Legislature in June, the governor presented his budget for the remaining $200 million to the Legislature. With due diligence, the House Appropriations Committee with the help of other relevant committees is reviewing the proposal. One of the governor’s proposals for CRF money is to give every household a $150 payment that could be used for purchases from local merchants using a phone app. While it might be a good idea, this is raising several questions. Since CRF money can’t be used for direct payments to taxpayers, is this a legitimate use? What about households that don’t have access to a smartphone? Local businesses would have to opt in to receive payment from the app. Would everyone have reasonable access to participating merchants? The Commerce Committee is currently taking testimony on this and will very likely propose changes.
The protests this summer in response to the many tragic killings of Black men and women by police and by individuals acting as vigilantes has awakened the American consciousness to the systemic racism and societal bias present in our nation. National politics has fueled the divisiveness as people choose sides between supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and respect for police. There is a danger in viewing this issue in either/or terms as well as ignoring its implications in Vermont. Choosing sides is akin to tribalism. Neither side should be painted with a broad brush. Instead, we should be looking at the conditions that create bias in policing and correct them. We also need to be respectful of protestors and their right to protest peacefully. There must be room for dialogue. Only then can the problem be solved. There are several bills that are currently under consideration in the House that will clarify the policy on use of force by police and training requirements in unbiased policing. A recent study by UVM has indicated that Black drivers in Vermont are significantly more likely to be stopped and searched than white drivers yet have a significantly lower incidence of possessing contraband than white drivers.
Recognition of a problem is the first step toward change.
Climate change hasn’t stopped because of COVID-19. When we went into lockdown in March, there was a noticeable decrease in driving for a couple of months. This probably resulted in a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions during that time. The new phenomenon of Zooming has also decreased the need to jump in the car for meetings and work, but people are becoming Zoomed-out and yearn to get back to face-to-face meetings. If you’ve been out recently, you probably noticed that traffic is almost back to pre-COVID levels. We need to keep our attention on our efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) with minor changes, and the House is expected to concur with the Senate’s amendments and send the bill to Governor Scott for his signature. You can find my article explaining the GWSA on my website. As we head into winter, we also want to be sure that funds for weatherization are available for low- and moderate-income families. A Senate bill (S.337) that will allow Efficiency Vermont to increase assistance for weatherization passed in the House this week.