Considerations from the capital: Vermont legislative updates

By KAITLYN GIROUARD

KAITLYN GIROUARD
Members of the House of Representatives discuss with each other before being called to order by the Speaker on February 6. There was unease before the floor session as Democrats were talking with legislators who voted to sustain the governor’s veto on paid family leave, asking for them to reconsider.

Electronic cigarettes, climate change, marijuana, the safety of sex workers and paid family-leave are all topics that have come before the Vermont General Assembly this year. The topics have caused consequential debates about what is, and what is not, best for the state.

Electronic cigarettes and vaping products have become increasingly prominent in recent years, prompting legislators to propose bills addressing these devices and their markets. The 2020 session brought a proposed ban on menthol products, which was met with significant pushback from the tobacco industry. The bill as introduced (H.823) proposes “to ban the sale or possession of flavored cigarettes, flavored e-cigarettes, and flavored substances that contain nicotine or are otherwise intended for use with an e-cigarette.”

Led by Representative Jessica Brumsted (D-Shelburne), over thirty members of the House sponsored bill H.823. Brumstead explained teenage use of flavored vaping products  underpinned her sponsorship. “Those who start using e-cigarettes while in their teens are four times more likely to become traditional cigarette smokers than teenagers who do not,” Brumsted said. 

The General Assembly has made multiple efforts to combat the health effects of e-cigarettes and similar products, including the ‘Tobacco 21’ bill passed last year to ban the sale of and use of tobacco products for people under the age of 21. Still, the Assembly sees a need for further action. 

“We know that by reducing the number of people vaping and smoking, we will also reduce health care costs for our state,” Brumsted said. H.823 was read and referred to the Committee on Human Services Jan. 21 of this year.

Legislators are also working on several climate-related bills this session. Senator Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) said this an area of particular importance for lawmakers. “I am a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus, [which] has been working hard since the end of last session to put forth a bunch of different proposals,” she said. 

Legislators are considering bills to create and meet targets for greenhouse gas emissions, to increase electric vehicle accessibility and use and to create carbon credit programs for owners of forest land, among other bills addressing climate change. 

“In Vermont, our number one emissions [source] is automobiles,” Hardy said. 

Though the effect auto emissions have on Vermont’s carbon footprint is immense, its prominence allows lawmakers such as Hardy to address the problem head-on.

“We all have to do our part as individuals because we don’t have one big smoke stack it’s all coming from, it’s all coming from our tailpipes,” she said, adding that she wants students to know that the legislature is working to pass “meaningful climate legislation.”

“I don’t know what the end result will be, but [climate legislation] is something that we work on every day on a number of fronts,” Hardy said.

Legislators are also working on cannabis-related issues. S.54 was introduced last year and has been actively worked on to date. The bill proposes the creation of the Cannabis Control Board to regulate “the production and sale of cannabis and cannabis products in Vermont.” The senate passed S.54 on March 1 of last year, moving it to the House, where it was referred to Government Operations and then to by Ways and Means. It was referred to Appropriations on Feb. 6 of this year. 

Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a cosponsor of S.54, believes that the need for the bill is simple given the activity that takes place on the black market. 

“In the black market, we have no control over who obtains [cannabis], no control over what it contains, and no revenue to promote educational or prevention programs that might help eliminate this and other problems,” he said. 

Benning said that the bill, if passed, would introduce a method of distribution that would take on an educational stance, monitor product quality, and prevent minors from accessing cannabis. Benning said too that the bill generates revenue to put towards prevention and rehabilitative programs, including law enforcement efforts.

One bill gaining national attention this session is H.569, an act relating to prostitution. The bill as introduced reads that, “It is the intent of the General Assembly to repeal the laws pertaining to prostitution between consenting adults, while retaining strict prohibitions and criminal penalties for human trafficking.” H.569 was referred to the Committee on Judiciary Jan. 7 after a first reading.

The 2019 session also included a proposal that creates a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program within the Departments of Labor and Taxes. This program is funded by contributions from employers and employees as part of H.107. Following a sustained veto from Governor Phil Scott (R), sponsors of the bill reformed and brought a new version of the bill to the legislature in the 2020 session. Gov. Scott vetoed the bill again on Jan. 31, 2020 in accordance with his promise to not raise taxes. The bill then returned to the House where the assembly sustained the governor’s veto by one vote. 

Gov. Scott said he is not opposed to paid family leave but said he is opposed to the notion of raising taxes to sustain a mandatory family leave policy. Gov. Scott talked about his work on a voluntary paid family and medical leave plan in his veto message to the Legislature, Jan. 31.

“Our approach is voluntary for employers and employees,” he said in the address. “It can be accomplished more efficiently, affordably and quickly, without a $29 million payroll tax that Vermont workers simply should not be burdened with, and without putting the risk of underfunding on taxpayers.” 

Representative Constance Quimby (R-Essex Caledonia) explained that the Republicans agreed with Gov. Scott and came together to support his position. The Republican party needed all members present to have any hope of sustaining the veto, given the significant Democratic majority. 

“It’s a shame that the liberals did not think it was a good idea to ‘tweak’ the bill and make it a voluntary program so that perhaps all members of the house could have voted for it,” Quimby told The Campus. 

Legislators are also considering bills relating to electric vehicles, water quality, gun regulation and other points of interest. More information about activity in Vermont’s capital can be found at legislature.vermont.gov. 

Editor’s note: Senator Ruth Hardy (D-Addison) is the spouse of Prof. Jason Mittell, The Campus’ academic advisor. Any questions may be directed to campus@middlebury.edu.