(Some of) my 2024 Legislative Priorities

As we prepare to begin the 2024 legislative session, I want to provide a summary of the legislation that I anticipate will take primary focus for me. The Progressive caucus has not yet completed its legislative priorities, but these are the areas I’ll be bringing to that discussion. This, of course, does not preclude any items you feel are also important. I remain nothing but grateful for the opportunity to represent the Chittenden 15 district and I urge you all to keep in contact with me if you need me to advocate for any particular legislation on your behalf.

That being said, here is my current set of priorities. 

Within the Corrections and Institutions committee:
I anticipate we will begin the session by making certain all allocations are in place to fund the repairs of state properties that were damaged by the flood this summer. Earlier this fall, our committee received a briefing from the Vermont Department of Building and General Services (BGS) along with updates from Doug Farnham, the recently appointed Chief Recovery Officer. Our committee works frequently with BGS and they have my absolute confidence in their ability to manage the many projects that have resulted from the flood. Similarly, I was impressed and am grateful for the attention the Chief Recovery Officer is putting into the process by which we leverage as much federal money as we can while jumping through all of the hoops provided by our insurance entities. The recovery process from hurricane Irene in 2011 provides a very appropriate blueprint for how we will move forward.

In addition to finalizing these recovery processes, we will be reviewing the recently submitted Report on the Women’s Correctional Facility provided by the Department of Corrections (DOC). I anticipate our conversation will center on land acquisition and the continued design process for a new facility. During the offseason, I made it a point to meet with representatives of various advocacy groups as this conversation continues. As you can imagine viewpoints on whether or not we should be building any new facility range across a continuum. I have met with Vermont’s advocate from the Free Her campaign, the ACLU of Vermont, the State Employee’s union (VSEA), an advocate from the Vermont Network, and one from Kids Apart. Each of these advocates has dedicated so much time and energy into providing support and voice to women who are currently incarcerated along with the children and families who surround them. They have all been involved with ongoing updates from DOC on the process by which a new facility is considered and designed. The advocacy from these groups spans from a call to a complete abolition of prisons to those making certain we provide a full spectrum of wrap-around services to incarcerated women and their families. There is no disagreement on the fact that the current women’s correctional facility is abhorrent and inhumane. While engaged in this discussion, I try to frequently remind myself that somebody in my position sat on a committee 50 years ago and approved the design of that detestable facility as “perfectly fine”. I worry that such decisions are made in the midst of an ignorant hubris that I must most certainly carry myself, just as my predecessors did the last time we constructed a prison. Philosophically, I align with the prison abolition movement and remain convinced that we have the capacity to develop a society where prisons are most certainly obsolete as envisioned by the great Angela Davis. The legislative process, however, requires pragmatism and an honest reckoning with the fact that we have not created the support systems we would need to divest completely from a new facility. In my opinion, the current facility simply must be decommissioned. This leaves me with an understanding that we need a new facility that can accommodate all of the amazing work being done by the above mentioned advocacy groups. I’m grateful for a conversation I had with Sarah Robinson of the Vermont Network, also a resident of our district, who is helping me to frame this disappointing realization with a commitment that we are building the final women’s correctional facility this state will ever build. I welcome continued conversation on the process.

Our committee will also be engaging with the decisions that need to be made as we prepare to create additional dedicated space for justice involved youth. We remain, in the midst of having closed the Woodside facility, with no concrete process by which we accommodate our most vulnerable population that is currently intersecting with the justice system. This is actually a pretty good example of what happens when we decommission a facility before we have prepared to accommodate the population with supportive alternatives. Justice involved youth are at risk of continued harm when we are forced to place them, even temporarily, within an adult facility. I know we’ll be asked to consider a temporary facility as we continue the conversation about how to address the issue more permanently.

Finally, the Vermont Futures Caucus is working on legislation that would decrease the sentence of an incarcerated individual in response to a commitment to seeking a degree. I have not seen the specifics of the bill yet, but I am excited to assist the process by which we make it a priority. I am so encouraged and motivated by the work that is being done by our next generation of Vermont leaders.

Bills I will introduce:
I have requested a draft of a bill that will be based on California law AB933, recently passed legislation that provides protection to sexual assault survivors from weaponized defamation lawsuits. I am encouraged by the fact that this draft was also requested by the Chair of the Judiciary Committee where the debate will ultimately originate. I have spent the majority of my professional career working with college aged men to interrupt and end the campus rape culture. In my current position with the Center for Student Conduct, I work adjacent to the process by which Title IX sexual misconduct allegations are investigated and adjudicated. I have been frustrated on more than one occasion when a survivor/victim of sexual assault names an assailant only to have that person then initiate or threaten a defamation lawsuit. As we navigate our society’s response to the empowering #MeToo movement we are encountering a predictable push back by those who have always been free to wield their power and privilege served by the structured misogyny and patriarchy that pervades. Defamation lawsuits have flourished as one such method for this push back. This legislation will seek to respond.

I have also requested a draft that will amend the current statute 33 V.S.A. 5201. This amendment will require criminal cases against youths under 18 to start in the Family Division even in cases involving the “big 12” crimes (arson causing death, assault and robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault and robbery causing bodily injury, aggravated assault, murder, manslaughter, kidnapping , unlawful restraint, maiming, sexual assault, aggravated sexual assault, and burglary into an occupied dwelling). This is in direct response to the recent decision to charge a 14 year old child as an adult after what appears to be an accidental shooting. I anticipate that this amendment will be broadly supported by the Defender’s General office as well as the Department of Corrections.

Finally, I am thrilled to be working with a UVM student to amend the standing order for the Vermont Department of Health to distribute opioid antagonists to assist those at risk of experiencing an opioid-related overdose. The amendment would expand the delivery of Naloxone and the education for how to administer. This will include defining categories of businesses and organizations identified by the Department as having a moderate to high likelihood of interfacing with an individual experiencing an opioid-related overdose.

Bills I am watching and hope to influence:
H.523 is an act relating to amending the prohibitions against discrimination and harassment. This is a committee bill with the Education Committee in response to a loophole created when we created harassment and bullying protections in the workplace at the end of the 2023 session. I hope to also have this bill include protections for teachers from interference we are seeing across the country with curriculum censorship and book bans. H.106 is the bill I introduced last year that proposes to protect the academic freedom of public educators and their right to teach on matters of gender identity and systemic and structural racism. I believe the intent of that bill can find an obvious place in the Education Committee’s current bill.

H.446 is an act relating to the reconstitution of the UVM Board of Trustees to add faculty and staff representation. I have profound concerns on the morale of our faculty and staff as the current UVM administration continues to steamroll its policy approach without regard to the effect we are having on the surrounding community. I worry that continued demands from these labor groups are having an obvious and negative impact on our ability to retain talented personnel or to recruit the next generation of educators. Creating a more democratic Board of Trustees format is critical

Similarly, I will be watching the development of the Memorandum of Understanding between UVM and the City as we commit to zoning for future development. I am still hoping to convince my colleagues in the State House that UVM is ultimately a charter of the General Assembly and that we have an obligation to hold them accountable when they’re not being a good neighbor.
Please recall the bill I introduced last year that may apply to these endeavors. H.311 seeks to have UVM slow down enrollment expansion until our rental vacancy rate can handle it.

Finally, S.18 is an act relating to banning flavored tobacco products and e-liquids. This bill has passed out of the Senate and is now within the House. This is critical legislation that will impact a direct decrease in the number of Vermont youth who become addicted to nicotine.