Week Four: Budget Adjustment, Trust in our Teachers, Alarming Worker Conditions

I write today’s update a few days following Groundhog’s Day … providing, perhaps, a notable analogy to the legislative work we do that seems to perpetually repeat itself (sometimes seemingly without any tangible end or prediction in sight). I landed in Montpelier just one month ago and I’m already feeling as though I’ve begun to find some secure footing as I navigate the processes and relationships that should help me instigate changes that truly serve those who have elected me.

This week’s most noteworthy legislation passed as H.145, The Budget Adjustment Act (BAA). The BAA provides the Scott Administration an opportunity to offer adjustments to the budget of the previous biennium prior to the close of the fiscal year. The Legislature then offers any edits that better reflect our policy priorities. With this Act, the House added to the Governor’s proposed adjustments by leveraging an unprecedented amount of federal dollars that remain available following the pandemic, along with revenue increases from favorable projections and the carrying forward of various savings and funds that have gone unused. This is a last look at the budget put in place by my predecessors before the close of the fiscal year at the end of June.

I was more than pleased to vote in support of the BAA which adds $83 million for statewide housing initiatives, including a continuation of the emergency housing vouchers paired with accompanying wraparound support services for Vermonters most in need and currently unhoused. We also approved an additional $9 million in support of Vermont’s Organic Dairy Farmers. These funds will assist us in preventing any additional losses of these critical family run businesses. Finally, the bill provides an additional $30 million in support of expanding broadband high-speed internet access to our underserved rural communities along with $3 million for additional rural infrastructure assistance. These are critical advancements that will allow us to mend the gaps we’ve discovered as a result of our need to rely more and more on technology as we step into various hybrid plans for work and school. The bill passed 107-33 via roll call vote.

I began my week responding to a request from the House Committee on Education to provide a brief walk-through of H.106, the bill I introduced that intends to protect our public educators (pre K-12) and their autonomy to teach on topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was grateful for the opportunity to hopefully convince the committee of jurisdiction that this step is critical to the recently passed Act 1 (2019) that offers recommendations to the Agency of Education resulting from the Ethnic and Social Equity Standards Advisory Working Group. All testimony, including mine, is logged on each committee’s  page via YouTube. I welcome any critique, concerns, or feedback. I was also pleased to receive support from VT-NEA, our teachers’ union. Colin Robinson, Vermont-NEA’s Political Director responded by stating we know that the standards established by the Act 1 Working Group, assuming they are adopted, will be significant not only in substance and practices but will likely result in significant and important conversation in classrooms in the years to come.  In many ways, the concept raised in H.106, could be a belt or suspenders to assist/protect districts and educators as they embark on the process of implementation of the Act 1 standards.” Again, please do not hesitate to contact the Committee Chair or any of the other members should you wish to offer support or thoughts on the progression of H.106. All contact information can be found on the committee’s landing page

This week, we also received notice of the Senate’s much anticipated child care bill. S.56 is a robust bill that seeks to expand the availability of pre-kindergarten child care options. I was thankful to read that Let’s Grow Kids, Vermont’s most impactful early childhood education advocacy group, remains supportive and enthusiastic about the bill. Please stay connected with Let’s Grow Kids for ways to remain active as we advance this legislation. I have already signed-on to the House bill that will partner the process in support of these endeavors and look forward to its first reading on the House floor, hopefully this coming week. I’ll update with more information once I have a bill number for the House legislation

In committee, I was both grateful and saddened to continue the conversation on the status and morale with our state’s corrections workers. In my last blog update, I provided some initial thoughts on what I was learning about the general state of our incarcerated population. Since then, we’ve received multiple days worth of testimony that unpacks the more general concerns to offer a more detailed look at the data. I’m grateful to a partnership that has recently developed between the Vermont Department of Corrections, Independent UVM Researchers Professor Kathy Fox and Professor Abigail Crocker, and the Urban Institute. The partnership results in the Prison Research and Innovation Network (PRIN) and the Vermont 2022 Prison Climate Surveys. I urge you to review the results presented to our committee via the slide deck found within the documents of our committee page. I will warn you that the data from this longitudinal study highlights that our corrections officers are highly stressed and report being at an undeniable breaking point with their stress and morale. An alarming 30% of these workers recently responded ‘yes’ to the question: “At any time in the last 12 months did you seriously think about trying to kill yourself?”.

Following that presentation, our committee asked our Chair to continue the conversation. After hearing testimony from the Vermont State Employees’ Association, the union representing our corrections officers, we have arrived at an intersection between two conflicting viewpoints – those held by the Commissioner for the Department of Corrections, who expresses optimism for recent recruitment and retention strategies, compared to those held by the union leadership who reports continued concerns from their employees who feel unheard, unvalidated, and disregarded. As I write this update, that conflict has not been resolved and I can only assure you that I will continue to seek as much information as I can with the hopes of improving conditions.

I also want to provide an update to pending legislation regarding my attempts to hold UVM accountable for playing a role in alleviating Burlington’s housing crisis. I have requested a draft of legislation that would attempt two things. First, I think we have arrived at the time to cap UVM’s enrollment at current levels until Burlington’s rental vacancy rate improves to 5%. Additionally, we need to apply light to the methods by which UVM continues to masquerade its moratorium on tuition increases by bringing more and more out-of-state students (paying more in tuition) and then simply warehousing those students, along with our Vermont students, into more and more forced triple rooms that have historically only housed two students. My proposed legislation will also require UVM to guarantee a minimum amount of floor space per student based on the current average sized double room. Any newly constructed residential facilities would first need to serve that requirement. This would also likely free up more rooms to accommodate students who have medical needs that require a single room. Once that bill draft is complete, I’ll update with a bill number and urge you to follow its progression through the committee.

Within hours of expressing my intended legislation to the other Burlington Representatives, I was contacted by UVM’s legislative liaison to discuss the proposed bill. It appears I’ve got their attention which will hopefully keep the UVM administration at the bargaining table with our City Councilors. I received nearly unanimous verbal support from the other Burlington Representatives with the exception of one – a Representative who also serves on the UVM Board of Trustees. You can read that Representative’s thoughts in a recent VTDigger Op-ed. I do not share the optimism expressed within the article, and will continue to proceed with the legislative process I’ve begun with my draft request. Updates will follow.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact me in any number of ways to discuss these issues or if there is any way I can improve upon my service. I appreciate the faith you have all put in me to represent you.