By Rep. Mike Yantachka
As I write this, the Vermont legislature is nearing the end of the session – we hope! Several bills passed both chambers, House and Senate, in the last two weeks and have been sent to the Governor for his signature. Several others need to have differences resolved between the House and Senate versions before getting a final vote by both chambers. The most significant is the fiscal year 2022 budget, a.k.a. The Big Bill. Once the budget is passed by both chambers, it is time to adjourn. Anything left unfinished will have to wait until January. Governor Scott is also weighing in with his priorities, particularly with respect to spending the $1.25 billion American Recovery Plan Act money coming to Vermont. The legislature would prefer to spend about half of it in FY22 and hold off on the rest for future needs. States have until the end of 2024 to spend the ARPA money.
The tremendous participation of last year’s general election proved the feasibility and popularity of universal vote-by-mail in Vermont. The House passed Senate bill S.15 this past week which authorizes universal vote-by-mail for all future general elections and allows the option for municipal elections as well. S.15 builds on the work that was done to help Vermonters vote safely during 2020 in several ways. It creates new provisions for town clerks to cure defective ballots by notifying voters who forget to sign the certificate envelope or fail to return unvoted primary ballots along with the voted ballot of their chosen party and allowing them to come into the office to correct the mistake. It also provides for expanded access by providing secure ballot drop boxes that are accessible 24/7 for voters to return their ballots and limits the number of ballots someone can deliver on behalf of others. Passing on a vote of 119 to 30, this legislation is in stark contrast to the prevailing trend across the U.S. where state legislatures are curtailing voter access with more restrictive election laws.
Vermonters’ health and safety were also addressed by major bills passed by the House. The House gave final approval to a nation-leading bill, S.20, to ban toxic PFAS chemicals from food packaging, firefighting foam, ski wax, and carpets and rugs. PFAS chemicals — per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances — are linked to harmful health impacts including high blood pressure, thyroid disease, kidney, and testicular cancers, and suppressed immune system function. They are particularly dangerous because they “bioaccumulate” in our bodies and last throughout our lifetime. PFAS is found in groundwater and drinking water across the country; it is found in the runoff (or leachate) from active and abandoned landfills in Vermont as well as in every wastewater treatment facility in Vermont. Perhaps most concerning, PFAS can be found within the blood of almost everyone in the United States. S.20 passed on a vote of 145 to 0.
With a vote of 143 to 0, the House also passed this week a bill that ensures a crime victim would know if the person accused of the crime is set free because they were found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity. The legislation, S.3, is intended to make sure the crime victim knows when the accused person is released to the community. Under the bill, the state Department of Mental Health must provide at least 10 days’ notification of the accused person’s upcoming release to the prosecutor in the county where the crime took place. That prosecutor would be obligated to notify the crime victim. The same notification process would take place if an offender escaped from custody. S.3 also funds a study to determine if a separate holding facility should be established for accused persons found to be incompetent or insane and who are considered a danger to themselves or others.
Finally, the month of May has been designated Asian-American and Pacific Islander month. As with any discrimination, we cannot tolerate and must condemn the violent attacks against persons of Asian or Pacific Island heritage that have been reported for several months across the country. Each and every one of us has the responsibility to actively stand against hate, discrimination, and violence aimed at anyone regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, race, religion, disability status, age, gender identity, or sexual orientation.