Returning to the floor at 6 p.m. Thursday after a 30-minute recess, Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, D-Middletown Springs, thanked the speaker of the House for giving the body a chance to grab a bite to eat before the next item on the agenda: H.66.
“A quick, easy, little bill,” he joked.
A three-hour debate ensued.
Democratic leadership in the House has thrown its weight behind the legislation, which would enact one of the most generous paid family and medical leave programs in the country. It would provide workers with a 90% wage reimbursement, up to the state average weekly wage, for 12 weeks of leave. (The average weekly wage was $1,135 in 2022, according to the Joint Fiscal Office.)
Workers taking time off for a serious health condition, to care for a family member, to care for a new child, flee domestic violence, or deal with military exigencies would all be eligible. (A shorter, two-week bereavement benefit is also included.)
But the price tag is significant. Including a 50% program reserve and administrative costs, startup costs are estimated to be about $111.5 million, spread out across fiscal years 2024 through 2027. Benefits, which the state would begin doling out starting July 1, 2026, would cost an estimated $94.1 million that year. A payroll tax of 0.55% would pay for benefits that year, but the rate would adjust each year based on claims.
Gov. Phil Scott, who has rolled out his own voluntary leave plan and twice vetoed mandatory leave bills sent to him by the Legislature (in 2018 and 2020), has made clear that his position has not changed. And his fellow Republicans in the House echoed his criticisms on the floor.
How much higher might the payroll tax go, they wondered, and where would the state treasurer’s office find the dozens of employees needed to stand up the program?
“There are so many issues and unknowns in this bill that concern me. And yet this body has a perfectly viable, reasonable alternative that has been vetted, that will be stood up, that will go forward effective July 1 of this year — and that is Gov. Scott's plan,” said House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney. “Using a third-party insurer, his plan manages to dot all the i's and cross all the t's.”
Harkening back to the universal healthcare debates of yesteryear, Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford, called the bill a “Cadillac plan.”
“How do we know that this extra coverage is necessary?” he asked.
But Democrats countered that the legislation was indeed exactly that — necessary — and many told stories from their own lives to underline the point.
Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne, recalled how Rhode Island’s paid leave plan had kept her family in her childhood home when, following the sudden death of her father, her mother had a nervous breakdown and took a leave from work. Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, told of his own restaurant employees, who need more robust paid leave benefits than he can currently afford to provide.
And Rep. Jubilee McGill, D-Bridport, told her colleagues about how her husband had clocked into work at 6 a.m. the day after she was discharged from the hospital after delivering twins. Because she had to leave her job to recover from a difficult pregnancy, he was unable to take any time off — and took on extra shifts to pay the bills.
Gone so much, her husband didn’t notice at first when she slipped into a dangerous postpartum depression.
“I lost so much of myself that I became convinced that my husband and children would be better off without me,” she said. “And I began to plan for how I would end my life once my babies were no longer at risk for SIDS.”
McGill’s husband later got a new job — with time off — and, with his support, she sought treatment. And when they had another child several years later, the paid time off they’d accrued allowed them to welcome another baby with “the space and time to adjust together as a family.”
“I will be voting yes on this bill. Because I know deeply the indisputable effect it has on the health and outcomes of infants and their parents,” she said.
House members ultimately voted 99 to 32 to amend the bill and then gave it their preliminary approval by voice vote. A final vote is scheduled for Friday. It would then head to the Senate, where a quick, easy, little debate awaits it, as well.
— Lola Duffort
IN THE KNOW
For the past three years, the federal government has picked up the tab for state programs that now house about 2,800 people experiencing homelessness — 600 of whom are children — in motels across Vermont.
With federal funding for its Covid-19 pandemic-era motel programs nearly gone and Vermont’s rates of homelessness climbing ever higher, the vexing question before state budget writers in the Legislature is this: Now what?
— Lola Duffort
Our friends across the river at the University of New Hampshire Survey Center have released a new poll, and absolutely no one will be surprised to learn that housing is far and away the No. 1 issue on the minds of Vermonters. Of those surveyed, 32% said it was the biggest problem facing the state. Cost-of-living and taxes tied for the number two spot, with 9% citing each as their greatest worry.
But more interesting findings included that most respondents — 60% — also support extending emergency housing in motels after federal funding dries up. There was a partisan split: 79% of Democrats would like to see the state continue funding, while only 25% of Republicans would.
Other surprises? Gov. Scott remains popular, but his approval rating has dropped 10 points since the fall. Currently, 58% of residents approve of his performance and 39% disapprove. Here, too, there is a partisan split: It is Democrats, and not those in the GOP, who remain the governor’s most enduring base of support. Sixty-two percent of Dems approve of Scott, while 46% (less than half!) of Republicans approve of their standard-bearer.
For more details, including how Vermonters feel about child marriage (bad), accessible hiking trails (good) and town meeting (all over the place), check out the Green Mountain State poll in full here.
— Lola Duffort
Recommendations for how to spend almost $7.4 million in funds from the settlement of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors reached legislative appropriations committees earlier this month.
But former opioid users appointed to a committee created to shape those recommendations said on Thursday that the process had not given them time to advocate for projects beyond what had been prepared by the Vermont Department of Health.
The result, they told the House Human Services Committee on Thursday, was a missed opportunity to consider alternative ideas and make projects better.
— Kristen Fountain
ON THE MOVE
Senators tacked on two last-minute changes to S.99, this year’s miscellaneous motor vehicle bill, before approving it unanimously on third reading Thursday morning.
One amendment stems from a bill filed earlier this year by Sen. Becca White, D-Windsor, that sought to levy civil fines for illegally modifying a vehicle’s exhaust system to make it louder. That bill, S.64, did not make crossover. The S.99 amendment, also proposed by White, calls only for a study of vehicle noise issues and potential remediations.
Senators also agreed to an amendment proposed by Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, who raised concerns this week over language in the bill that would have let the Department of Motor Vehicles update its policies when the full Legislature is not in session, needing only to notify a joint committee of six lawmakers.
Hardy’s amendment nixes that provision and requires the DMV to report the changes it wants to make to the House and Senate transportation committees for consideration, as well.
The motor vehicle agency is undertaking a $100 million-plus project to modernize its systems, with plans to digitize a number of its driver-facing services by the summer of 2025.
— Shaun Robinson
The Senate has offered its initial support for S.27, a bill that would end the use of cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.
Proponents of ending cash bail say that the system keeps people in custody pre-trial simply because they don’t have the means to post their bail, not because they’re more dangerous to release than those who can afford the expense. (Those deemed too dangerous to release are held without bail.)
Before senators voted to advance the bill on Thursday, Sen. Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden Central, said in a floor speech that as of January this year, the Vermont Department of Corrections reported that nearly 200 people were being held in custody pre-trial because they didn’t post bail.
“There is a significant and growing body of evidence that cash bail not only is not the most effective tool to ensure defendants’ appearance in court, but it is also disparately and inequitably applied to hold people in jails before they have had the due process guaranteed to them, simply because they are poor and cannot afford to post their bail,” Vyhovsky said.
Senators approved the bill on second reading by voice vote. They will vote on the bill once more before it heads to the House.
— Sarah Mearhoff
WHAT WE’RE READING
As the ‘right to repair’ debate comes to Montpelier, lawmakers face a ‘flood’ of opposition from national interest groups (VTDigger)
State and local volunteers scramble to deal with increased crossings at the northern border (VTDigger)
Bear incidents are on the rise in Vermont. What should you do to avoid them? (Vermont Public)
A walk-in center for people facing mental health crises is proposed for the NEK (Seven Days)
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman's name.
Clarification: This story was updated to make clear that the 90% wage reimbursement would be provided up to the state's average weekly wage.
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