Legislative Update: March 19, 2023

Two more problematic bills moved out of committee this week. The first was a bill tightening restrictions on independent schools who receive public tuition dollars under Vermont's historic town tuitioning system. We have been following this bill for quite a while and, although duplicative, the bill was generally acceptable until a new provision was added the day before the Committee was set to vote on it... That provision would disallow any sort of normal application processes to play out before schools make enrollment decisions. Current rules prevent discriminatory behavior, but schools still saw value in bringing students in for site visits before enrollment so they could begin planning how to best meet their needs. The bill would prevent this as well as other criteria such as program alignment. This was particularly concerning for students ability to use their tuition dollars at specialty schools like ski academies, which were not given an opportunity to comment on the bill. We are hopeful that this language will be fixed by a House floor amendment or by the Senate.

The second problematic bill was S.42 which would divest our state pension funds from investments in fossil fuel companies. This is problematic in two key ways: First, the cost to the pension funds is still unknown and the organization responsible for these investments is VERY nervous about moving down this road until the impacts here are well understood. We agree! Gambling with the retirement benefits of our public servants is NOT a good idea, particularly because those funds are already under stress right now. The second reason is Harvard and other top universities have chosen NOT to do this because divestment means you no longer have any leverage over the business practices, products, or environmental impacts of those companies.


Other topics this week:

  • The Senate's major housing bill advanced out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee this week with a confusing set of amendments.
  • A new bill emerged as the House's workforce development vehicle. Voted out of House Commerce.
  • The Senate Government Operations Committee advanced their Ranked Choice Voting bill.


Quote of the Week:

“[My] part of the state struggles most with suicide and depression, struggles most with transportation, ability to reach public schools, to keep a state college, and even to keep libraries open... this is one more struggle they will have to go through... I'm sorry I failed to stop it."

Comments in regard to the passage of The House Education Committee bill regarding Independent Schools



Terri Lynn Williams

Representative, Essex-Caledonia District


Pat McDonald

CFV President


Message of the Week:

I was incredulous this week to hear legislators challenge the public pension professionals who testified before them. To dismiss the concerns of the people we entrust to manage our public retiree benefits is just wrong. This state is beyond fortunate to have people like Tom Golonka overseeing our the investments. He and the rest of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission have the requisite expertise for the job and are highly qualified. They voted against supporting S.42 on a 6-1 vote, that should carry weight.

Given the work done over the past couple years to address the outstanding liability of the state employee and teacher pension plans, this is not the time to make rash decisions with our investments. I understand the desire to divest away from fossil fuels - I get it. Over time these investments will make less sense, but we should not toss "the baby out with the bath water" by tying our hands without understanding the impacts. Employing a little Vermont common sense would be called for right about now.


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Fiscal Sustainability

What you need to know:

  • Senate advances pension divestment bill.
  • Strong concerns remain from fiduciary managers.

Public Pension Divestment (S.42)

The Senate Government Operations Committee took testimony on Tuesday regarding S.42, which proposes to divest fossil fuel investments from the state's pension funds. As of prior meeting, the Committee still had not come to a consensus on several issues. Several individuals agreed to meet Friday and Saturday to hopefully come up with a compromise so bill could be voted out of Committee.

Key Points:

  • VPIC is VERY uncomfortable with this bill due to potential financial impacts on pensions.
  • Treasurer Pieciak supports latest draft of bill.
  • Flexibility offered after 2030 deadline for certain types of funds.




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What you need to know:

  • S.100 advanced by the Senate Natural Resources Committee with a number of changes.
  • Senate Economic Development Committee dubious of the new version of S.100.

House Opportunities Relating to Everyone (S.100) - Tuesday

On Tuesday, Gus Seelig (Executive Director, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board) spoke to the Senate Natural Resources Committee about their version of S.100.

He commented on the state’s failure to pass statewide land use planning back in the “Act 250 days.” Specifically, he pointed to the abundance of opportunities during the permitting process for folks to increase costs and raise objections that lead to a lack of affordable or lower market rate housing generally.

Key Points:

  • Open appeals process creates delays and drives up costs.
  • Housing costs went up 15% last year alone.
  • Advocates ask for a faster permitting process.
  • Latest draft makes it more difficult for municipalities to adopt energy standards that are more strict than the state.
  • A universal 25-unit Act 250 trigger re-introduced into the bill.



House Opportunities Relating to Everyone (S.100) - Wednesday

One of the sponsors of the companion house bill, Representative Campbell, reviewed the current statutes on Commercial Building Energy Codes (CBEs) and Residential Building Energy Codes (RBEs). Commercial codes have been in place since 1997 and RBE’s since 2007 but have had no central administration and hence not truly enforced. Building codes generally are enforceable by the Department of Public Safety, but energy codes to not fall under this jurisdiction.

Key Points:

  • Senate Natural Resources Committee contemplating inserting energy code language into bill.
  • Racial Equity Office supports the bill, but remain concerned that Act 250 is discriminatory.
  • Mayor Weinberger pushed back against the Committee's plan to push back implementation of the 'Enhanced Designation Program' to 2025.
  • A new temporary Act 250 exemptions added in Village Centers for Priority Housing Projects under 50 units.
  • Bill voted out of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.



House Opportunities Relating to Everyone (S.100) - Friday

The Senate Economic Development Committee reviewed the amendment to S.100 from the Senate Natural Resources Committee on Friday.

Key Points:

  • Amended version raises density requirements from 4 to at least 5 units per acre in residential areas served by water and sewer infrastructure.
  • Amended version restores ability for 10 unrelated persons to appeal zoning changes.
  • The Committee was confused by some of the changes.
  • New draft of the bill viewed as "a power grab" from municipalities.



Creating a Housing Advocate (H.378)

The House General & Housing Committee took up H.378 on Wednesday, which would create an Office of the Housing Advocate to assist landlords, tenants, and homeowners with housing-related questions by providing information, referrals and assistance to individuals about obtaining or providing housing services.







What you need to know:

  • Secretary of Education calls for restraint over new requirements for independent schools.
  • New provision over enrollment practices introduced into the bill with virtually no testimony.
  • Committee forces through independent schools bill despite concerns.

Independent School Oversight - Tuesday

Dan French (Secretary of Education) shared with the House Education Committee on Tuesday that the Agency of Education did not fully support the bill. The main reason is because they just embarked on rulemaking with the State Board of Education (SBE), which he described as “yeoman’s work… to bring forward a much-improved regulatory framework for independent schools.”

He is concerned about changing the rules before they even go into full effect. His preference would be to see the new 2200 series rules go into effect and then make adjustments as necessary.

Key Points:

  • French is in favor of some anti-discrimination assurances but does not want to usurp the State Board of Education process.
  • Legislators questioned what enforcement mechanisms were in place.
  • French suggested that some reporting mechanisms were better to put into contracts between local supervisory unions and receiving schools.



Independent School Oversight - Wednesday

On Wednesday the Committee came back to this topic, hearing from Sue Ceglowski (Executive Director, Vermont School Boards Association) who shared that she was testifying on behalf of the Education Equity Alliance. She called the current situation following the Carson v. Makin decision a “defining crossroads.” She believes that there are equity and accountability gaps in Vermont’s current “parallel education systems.”

Key Points:

  • Ceglowski would prefer to see the Committee move forward with H.258 instead (which ends Vermont's public tuitioning program).
  • “Significant revisions” to the committee bill were called for.
  • Ceglowski took issue with French's suggestion to use local contracts because she doesn't think this approach is feasible.
  • Four heads of school testified on the bill, asking for the new 2200 rules to be followed instead of imposing this bill.
  • Concern was voiced that reporting requirements in the bill were potentially redundant and overly burdensome.
  • The Committee was warned that the 25 mile limit was arbitrary and that there were schools just beyond it.



Independent School Oversight - Thursday

The Committee returned on Thursday to review draft 2.1 of their committee bill. The main portion of the bill essentially codifies the rule 2200 series for approved independent schools eligible to receive public tuition. After testimony earlier in the week, the new draft does not specify the frequency of attendance reporting. It instead defers to the Agency of Education (AOE) to create a format and interval for this reporting.

Key Points:

  • Requires an open enrollment process that went beyond the 2200 series rules. Virtually no testimony taken on this point.
  • Asks for same-day reporting of enrollment changes to the supervisory union a student resides in.
  • Prohibits schools from charging more for public-pay students than private-pay ones.
  • Requires annual reporting of state-mandated assessments (this already happens).
  • Interest among committee members in holding independent schools accountable for outcomes.



Independent School Oversight - Friday

Chairman Conlon re-opened discussion on Friday by framing the bill as “taxpayer accountability” mechanism and feels that the bill goes “some distance” towards that goal. the Committee heard from Mark Tucker (Superintendent, Caledonia Central Supervisory Union). His supervisory union tuitions nearly all high school students. He likes many of the provisions in the bill around equity and non-discrimination. He would like to see more done about special education billing and some of the reporting requirements. He also likes the notification requirements for dismissal of students from independent schools.

Jay Badams (Superintendent, Norwich/Hanover Interstate School District) also spoke, acknowledging that the Committee had a difficult decision in front of them. He pointed to declining enrollment as creating pressures on the system because of the “zero-sum economics” involved, saying that found it ironic that “in the wake of Act 46 consolidation we continue to fund a parallel school system with negligible regulation, minimal oversight, and independence from duly elected school boards.”

Key Points:

  • Tucker does not believe local contracts are the best way of holding independent schools accountable.
  • Badam called Vermont's public tuitioning system a "conservative rallying cry" and suggested that we should force independent schools who mostly rely on publicly-tuitioned students to become public charter schools (which the state does not allow).
  • The had a contentious debate over the open enrollment provisions, many feeling like they hadn't heard enough testimony and worried about unintended consequences.
  • The bill advanced on a 7-4-1 vote.







Workforce Development

What you need to know:

  • New bill emerges as a workforce development vehicle.
  • Study of RDC financing model scrapped.

Workforce Development - Tuesday

The House Commerce Committee pivoted on Tuesday and took up draft bill 23-0991, which deals with enhancing workforce and economic development opportunities, a topic they had not previously covered in earnest. The bill appears to be a replacement for H.452.

Key Points:

  • Introduces over a dozen appropriations for workforce development programs.
  • Adds additional funding to Mental Health and Nursing forgivable loan programs put in place last year.
  • Creates a new position of Healthcare Workforce Coordinator.
  • Creates a new Rural Industry Development Grant Program (which functions as an equity investment for RDCs).



Workforce Development - Wednesday

The House Commerce Committee returned on Wednesday to hear from Joan Goldstein (Commissioner, Department of Economic Development) again. Marcotte admitted they missed two sections of the bill when she testified earlier.

Key Points:

  • Goldstein unsure why RDC funding changes study is in the bill.
  • ReSOURCE, Audubon Vermont, and others asking for training appropriations.



Workforce Development - Thursday

On Thursday the House Commerce Committee returned to the draft bill again, hearing from Heather Simons (Executive Director, Vermont Criminal Justice Council). Marcotte prefaced the conversation by saying the Committee is looking for assurances that the provisions in the bill are assistive and will not in any way hinder the training and certifications offered at her organization.

Key Points:

  • Governor Scott's budget has $4M included to overhaul law enforcement training.
  • Legislators look for ways to affect culture change within the Department of Corrections.
  • Regional Development Commissions ask the Legislature to stop taking the funding allocated to them in the property transfer tax.
  • Committee abandons the RDC funding mechanism study.
  • One-stop business portal language considered.



Workforce Development - Friday

The House Commerce Committee rounded out testimony on Friday with a walk through of draft 7.1 of the bill. There were some minor technical changes discussed until members of the Joint Fiscal Office arrived with a fiscal note for the Committee on the bill. Marcotte explained they would quickly review this draft for “happiness purposes” only.

The vote was 10-0-1 in favor of advancing the bill. It will next be sent to the House Appropriations Committee by rule.







Good Government

What you need to know:

  • Senate advances Ranked Choice Voting bill.

Ranked Choice Voting (S.32)

Legislative Council provided the Senate Government Operations Committee with an overview of the newest draft of S.32 on Wednesday. They noted that in draft 3.1 if a municipality wanted to get rid of ranked choice voting (RCV) once approved either the voters of the municipality or the legislative body would have to vote to move away from it. However, the legislative body could not vote to get rid of RCV if the voters of a municipality had voted to adopt it originally. Only the voters could repeal RCV in that case.




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Things to watch for next week:

VOTE: Paid Family and Medical Leave Insurance (H.66) - House Appropriations (Tuesday)

VOTE: Property Tax Bill - House Ways & Means (Tue/Fri)

VOTE: Divestment of State Pension funds of Investments in the Fossil Fuel Industry (S.42) - Senate Floor (Wednesday)

IT'S BACK! Thermal Carbon-Pricing (S.5) - House Environment & Energy (all week)

Amending the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (H.10) - House Ways & Means (Tuesday)

Housing Opportunities Made for Everyone (S.100) - Senate Natural Resources (Tuesday)

Creating a Rental Housing Registry (H.276) - House Ways & Means (Thursday)



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