2024 Session

2024 Town Meeting Week – Senate Bill Updates

This document is meant to provide brief summaries of various bills of note ahead of Town Meeting Week and is not a comprehensive list of all bills or priorities.

Flood Recovery & Disaster Preparedness; Climate Mitigation & Resilience:

Flood Safety Act (S.213): After the devastating floods of 2023, and with climate projections indicating worsening and more frequent future flooding, we must adopt policies to build climate resilience and reduce flood-related damages to Vermont’s communities. As Vermont continues to rebuild and recover from this summer’s devastating flooding, we must guarantee that Vermont is rebuilding smarter and stronger with resilience against future flooding events at the forefront. S.213 takes important steps toward reducing the risk of future flood damage by addressing dam safety, improving the state’s approach to development in river corridors and wetlands, and making watersheds more resilient in the face of the climate crisis. Key provisions of of S.213 include:

  • Dam Safety: Improve dam safety by consolidating oversight and strengthening maintenance requirements for dam owners, while investing in the strategic removal of dams that exacerbate flooding and pose a risk to public safety.
  • River Corridor Protections: Better manage high-hazard river corridors by implementing statewide regulations to keep future development out of harm’s way and allow space for our rivers to store and slow floodwaters, which can help reduce flood impacts and costs for Vermonters.
  • Wetland Protections: Better protect these vital natural resources, which mitigate flood risks, by improving wetland mapping and reporting, and establishing a 2:1 wetland net-gain policy to reverse historic wetland loss through protection and restoration.

Improving Government Response to Natural Disasters (S.310):

Following the 2023 floods, Vermonters experienced firsthand the gaps in the State’s flood response and recovery efforts. As we continue to rebuild and recover from summer flooding events, it’s critical that we identify and address gaps in Vermont’s flood response and recovery efforts and enhance future disaster preparedness.

The bill would address many of the gaps in the State’s current response system, including emergency communications and translation, shelters and evacuation routes, emergency planning and training, stormwater utilities, public works employees and first responders, and swift water rescue teams. Key provisions of S.310 include:

  • Creating a Community Resilience & Disaster Mitigation Fund for municipalities to apply for grants for local disaster mitigation projects
  • Providing funds to municipalities that were impacted by the August and December floods (the BAA provided funding for communities impacted by the July floods)
  • Defining emergency response personnel and requiring local emergency management organizations and local emergency planning committees to incorporate information regarding the utilization of emergency response personnel into emergency management plans
  • Include public works and water & sewer employees as first responders and make such employees eligible for survivor benefits if they’re killed while responding to a natural disaster
  • Consolidating existing laws governing sewer utilities and amending the authority of sewer utilities to adopt rates based on equivalent residential units
  • Authorizing the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to create the Urban Search and Rescue Team to provide for the rapid response of trained professionals to emergencies and other hazards occurring in the State and creating a Chief Climate Resilience Officer in the Department of Public Safety
  • Requiring Vermont 211 to keep confidential any personal information acquired from victims of natural disasters except for coordinating relief work for individuals
  • Supporting E-911 and VT-Alerts after significant disaster events, having VoIP service providers provide subscriber information to the Enhanced 911 Board, and requiring telecommunications companies to notify their customers of outages impacting communication with 911 or receiving emergency notifications
  • Requiring Vermont Emergency Management (VEM) Division to publish best management practices for rebuilding after emergencies and for the placement and funding of local emergency shelters, and to provide interpretation services for emergency communications.

FY24 Budget Adjustment Act – Municipal Flood Relief Money:

  • Adds $30M GF to the AoA needed for FEMA match for costs incurred by the State due to the July 2023 flooding event.
  • Provides $23.5M GF for municipalities impacted by the July 2023 flooding event.
  • Transfers $17.25M GF to the Emergency Relief and Assistance Fund (ERAF)
  • $11M State share of Municipal FEMA Match funded.
  • $6.25M to increase State share of Municipal FEMA Match.
  • Allows the Secretary of Administration to forward fund ERAF payment to municipalities.
  • Dedicates $6.25M GF to municipalities for local economic damage grants.

You can see a breakdown here of municipal allocations.


Housing, Homelessness & Act 250:

The devastating weather events this summer only exacerbated Vermont’s housing and homelessness crises. Housing shortages have kept vacancy rates low, median rent prices high, and have increased barriers to homeownership – especially for low and moderate income Vermonters. We must prioritize statewide access to stable, affordable housing to build a thriving, resilient and vibrant future for all Vermonters.

Since 1970, Act 250 has been a significant part of shaping the Vermont we know and love today. Part of solving Vermont’s housing crisis will involve revisiting and reimagining Act 250 to reflect current realities and to meet the needs of Vermonters now and into the future. After 50 years of serving Vermont well, it deserves our full attention and focus as we grapple with addressing the dual climate and housing crises. This means getting people out of flood paths and mudslide zones, giving towns the tools to create a climate resilient vision for their communities, letting stakeholders act with the speed and flexibility needed to achieve that vision, and supporting a diverse set of first generation homeowners.

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources will be taking up multiple housing bills immediately after crossover, including the Senate Committee on Economic Development’s housing bill, S.311.


FY24 Budget Adjustment Act: Emergency Housing:

  1. Adds $11.3M GF for General Assistance Emergency Housing and provides language to cap the rates that DCF can pay for hotel and motel rooms. Provides flexibility to address access to services or related needs within the contractual agreement.
  2. Of the $4M GF appropriated for emergency shelters:
  • $1.3M to DCF to stand up emergency shelters
  • $671K for transitional housing for refugees
  • $2M to VHCB for permanent emergency shelters

Community Health & Safety:

Vermonters have long valued our tight-knit communities, locally-focused and innovative economy, and the health, safety and wellbeing of our families and neighbors. Public health and safety concerns in communities across the state have grown and the legislature is prioritizing a variety of policies focused on building safer, stronger, and healthier communities for current and future generations.

Prop 1 proposes amending Vermont’s Constitution to allow the Legislature to establish by law qualifications for individuals to be elected to and hold certain county offices and to be removed from office for failure to meet or to maintain those qualifications. A constitutional amendment must first be approved by the Senate and House in two successive biennia before the proposed amendment is considered by voters on the ballot.

Prop 1 would allow Vermont voters the opportunity to approve the Legislature’s ability to provide greater oversight and accountability of certain county elected officials, given the serious and ongoing concerns and current lack of adequate accountability mechanisms. Currently, the exclusive remedy for removing an elected official from office is impeachment, which is a lengthy, arduous, expensive and often political process.

If the constitutional amendment passes the Legislature and is approved by Vermont voters, the details of a removal process would have been determined by a future legislature through the legislative process and would likely include provisions for an appeals process, something that’s not possible with the impeachment process.

Ghost Guns (S.209):

Vermont currently does not regulate so-called “ghost guns,” which are do-it-yourself, unserialized homemade guns made from often unregulated parts and kits. Because of loopholes in federal regulations and state law, ghost gun sales have skyrocketed in recent years, allowing convicted felons, violent domestic abusers, and other people who are legally prohibited from purchasing firearms (such as children) to purchase them with no background check and no questions asked.

This bill requires the core building blocks of firearms to be serialized if they can readily be converted into fully functioning firearms, ensuring that they can be traced back to their source if they are used in connection with a crime. The bill does not prohibit Vermonters from manufacturing homemade firearms, including through the use of 3D printing technology — it simply requires them to go through a background check and ensure the firearms they manufacture are serialized. Critically, the bill would give Vermont law enforcement the tools to pursue individuals and companies selling ghost gun kits into Vermont, allowing them to cut off the flow of ghost guns at its source. Protecting the health and safety of Vermonters with commonsense provisions such as those in S.209 continues to be a top priority of the legislature.

Harm Reduction Centers (H.72):

Vermont has recently experienced record-breaking years for overdoses and overdose deaths. This bill proposes to establish a pilot program for two overdose prevention centers to add to our toolbox to combat overdose deaths. This epidemic is a public health crisis and we need to continue to act to save lives and support communities. The City of Burlington has expressed an interest in becoming a site and the intention would be to establish an additional site in southern Vermont. The bill also allows for a mobile unit(s). Overdose prevention centers are places where, under supervision, people can use substances that pose an overdose risk. Additionally, overdose prevention centers will:

  • Provide a space supervised by health care professionals and other trained staff
  • Supervise the use of substances that the individual has acquired elsewhere (they will NOT be provided by the center)
  • Provide medical care, including wound care
  • Provide harm reduction supplies (sterile needles, etc.)
  • Provide referrals to addiction treatment, medical services and social support services
  • Provide secure disposal of hypodermic needles
  • Educate individuals on proper needle disposal
  • Educate individuals on the risks associated with substance use
  • Provide education on prevention
  • Distribute overdose reversal medications

H.72 provides immunity from arrest or prosecution under state law for:

  • A person using the services of the center
  • A staff member or administrator, including health care professionals, employees, or volunteers of a center
  • A property owner in which the center is located and operates
  • The immunity is specific to the actions related to the use of the center

The Department of Health, in consultation with stakeholders and colleagues in other states that operate overdose prevention centers, shall develop operating guidelines by April 1, 2025. The Department shall establish an application process with specific timeframes for decision-making and appeal. Initial successful applicants will be granted approval to operate for two years. Current needle exchange programs are eligible to apply. Additionally, the municipal governing body of a community needs to vote affirmatively to host a fixed or mobile site.

The bill does not rely on Vermont taxpayers; it uses no state general funds. It utilizes an existing pharmaceutical manufacturer fee for drugs currently used in Vermont’s Medicaid program. That fee is currently set at 1.75 percent of Medicaid drug expenses; H.72 increases the fee to 2.25 percent. These fees already go into a specific fund (the Evidence-based Education and Advertising Fund) for use by the Health Department to support activities related to substance use disorder.  An increase in this fee will not increase pharmaceutical costs for Vermonters. This is also an ongoing source of funds.  Given the amount of resources available through this Fund, utilizing money directly from the manufacturers of these drugs to combat the overdoses they produce, makes this a logical source of funds for this pilot.

The bill contains language and funds from the opioid settlement fund to support a research study to evaluate their impact.

The first people to benefit will be individuals who are dealing with substance use disorder.  However, the ripple effects of preventing overdose deaths extend to family, friends, and our communities and state.  Emergency responders report that responding to overdoses is among their top reason for being called upon.  Law enforcement report similar information.  We can’t help people seek treatment and recovery if they are dead.  H.72 is expected to help save lives, reduce public drug use and the needles that can now be found in many public spaces, reduce emergency room visits, and turn some who make use of the centers to treatment.

There is a growing body of research that supports the effectiveness of such centers in saving lives, reducing public drug use, reducing pressures on emergency room visits, and turning some who make use of the centers to treatment. Some sources you may want to review:

● An annotated bibliography of research on the impact and effectiveness of centers that operate in the United States and internationally. It can be found here: 2022-2023 Annotated Bibliography for Overdose Prevention Centers

A 2023 Cato Institute report that identifies the ways in which OPCs are an effective, mainstream harm‐reduction strategy.

Sixteen or more countries currently operate overdose prevention centers. In the United States, OPCs operate in New York City, Philadelphia and the state of Rhode Island. Massachusetts recently issued a feasibility report and recommends establishing OPCs; legislation is currently being considered there.


Miscellaneous Bills

Transportation:

License Plate Eligibility for Veterans (S.256) is inspired from S. 264 refining the listing process for the DMV to offer special plates for members of the US Armed Forces.

The ‘Make Vermont Flat Again Bill (S.154) would update our statutes around our recognized sole coordinate system for defining and stating locations of points on the surface of the earth within the state of Vermont.

The DMV Misc. Bill (S.309) has a lot of varying sections including language from other introduced bills regarding window tinting standards in Vermont, car safety seats standards in our statutes (aligning Vermont with national pediatric recommendations), rotor brake rotors inspection standards, emergency warning lamps, fraudulent airbags and many more topics brought to us by the administration. This bill includes language from Bills S.187, S. 210 and S. 287.

Work Zone Safety practices including available technologies to monitor speed of vehicles.  All of our neighboring states are using Automated License Plate Readers for different transportation management capabilities and the interest of the committee is to work through many of the valid concerns regarding privacy, logistics, appeals and management with a pilot focused on Interstate Work Zone safety – similar to what we understand Connecticut to have done recently.

Fish and Wildlife Board:

S, 258 was drafted to further the principles of respectful civil exchange on wildlife management topics and gives an opportunity for Vermonters, both licensed and non-licensed, to work together using science based decision making on the Fish and Wildlife Board (FWB). Key provisions of the bill include:

  • Assigning all rulemaking for fish and wildlife matters to the Commissioner. This is in line with how most boards operate, by advising and giving recommendations to the agency they serve. The rulemaking directed by the Commissioner will be based on science.
  • Expanding its role to advise the Commissioner regarding game species (its current role) and non-game species. This includes the habitats for both because in nature there is no differentiation between these groups and the habitats they share.
  • A board made up of 15 Vermonters, balanced with licensed members (people who hunt, fish, and trap) and non-licensed members (people who engage in other wildlife activities such as watching, photographing, or listening to wildlife).  The board’s members will be appointed in equal numbers by the Governor, Senate, and House.
  • Making permanent the recent moratorium on hunting coyotes using hounds. While only 1 in 7 Vermonters hunt, all Vermonters share an interest in keeping wildlife healthy, and this bill brings everyone’s voice into the conversation while ensuring that the trained professionals at the Department of Fish and Wildlife manage using the best science available.

Consumer Protection: Vermont “Kids Code:”

Despite overwhelming evidence that social media is addictive and harmful to children, the internet has never had product safety testing for children and teens. The Vermont Kids Code would require online products “reasonably likely to be accessed by children under 18” to be age-appropriate, institute privacy by design and default, and be designed with kids’ best interests

The consumer protection approach focuses solely on ensuring that kids have data privacy protections and safely designed products. The bill does not regulate content and doesn’t focus on specific products such as social media or online gaming, but would apply to all online products reasonably likely to be accessed by kids. Big Tech product design changes under this type of law could include regulation like turning on Google SafeSearch by default for users under 18, turning off TikTok notifications for those under age 16 at 9pm and for those under 18 at 10pm, disabling direct messages on Instagram and TikTok between children and adult strangers, and turning off autoplay on YouTube and turning on break and bedtime reminders by default.

The Vermont Kids Code, based on an updated version of the California Kids Code, has been held up in the courts by a lawsuit brought by Big Tech lobby firm, NetChoice. Vermont and 40 other states have sued Meta for intentionally designing addictive and harmful products. The Vermont Kids Code would address the extractive practices outlined by Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark in the recent Vermont lawsuit, including the use of extortive privacy practices and the use of addictive features such as infinite scroll and autoplay.

Kids Code would provide both additional parental controls and tools for users and require companies to assess and revise their products and services under a new “duty of care” model. Given the growing body of evidence of the harms of online products, and the growing state litigation efforts to combat them, we know Big Tech will not prioritize our kidsʼ privacy and safety unless regulation requires them to do so.

Education Finance & Pupil Weighting (H.850):

This year, the legislature has heard from school boards and towns and cities across the state that they are struggling to create school budgets that both meet student needs and are reasonable for taxpayers. The legislature’s priorities in addressing these concerns are twofold: to support Vermont taxpayers and support Vermont’s schools and school children.

Which factors are contributing to higher projected property tax rates this year?

  • Non-property tax revenue is down, and education costs are facing unprecedented increases. During and since the pandemic, the Education Fund has had greater revenue from increased sales and use tax revenue. The legislature used that money in two ways: added to reserve funds, and used the remainder to protect taxpayers from rising property tax rates. Now that sales tax revenue has normalized, the difference in revenue will mean property tax rate increases will rise.
  • The CLA (common level of appraisal) is really high this year, related to a strong real estate market statewide and an increase in home values on Vermont’s grand list. The strong grand list growth increases the base that we use to set a statewide rate, thereby lowering the district rate. However, the accompanying CLA might increase the nominal tax rate at the town level. If the legislature, for example, froze the CLA at last year’s level that would increase the statewide tax rate before the CLA was applied.
  • Federal pandemic funds to support learning loss (ESSER) have run out while student needs have continued, including addressing absenteeism and mental health challenges. Schools have even more pressures to address. They are experiencing employee shortages and inflationary pressures. Combined with the challenging nature of work in schools, there has been a need to increase employee pay to face those needs. Healthcare costs are increasing by double digits for all Vermonters, including school employees. In addition, heating costs, transportation costs, and other supply costs are subject to the same inflationary pressures that we are seeing globally. As a result, education spending is proposed to go up by an unprecedented $250 million statewide
  • The coinciding implementation of the 5% cap on homestead tax rates (at the district level to make the pupil weighting transition less abrupt for districts that have a reduced tax capacity) in Act 127, known as the Pupil Weighting Bill, has made budgeting confusing and sent inaccurate messages about what was possible without raising taxes. The 5 % cap in Act 127 was designed for one purpose: to help districts hit particularly hard by the changes in pupil weighting make adjustments over time to accommodate those changes. It was created at a time when education spending increases were generally in the low single digits, not the 15 percent increase statewide proposed for FY25 budgets today. However, the “5% cap” mechanism in Act 127 had not behaved as expected, preventing the legislature from taking necessary steps to reduce property tax rates for Vermonters, across towns. H.850 addresses the flaws in this mechanism.

To restore the relationship between budgets and tax rates, and to align school budgets more closely with the state’s ability to financially support them, H.850 eliminates the 5% cap mechanism and replaces it with a new mechanism to protect the equity it was intended to create while addressing the immediate crisis facing budgets, voters, and taxpayers, in March and beyond.

The new mechanism in H.850 is more precise and will target only the districts that face reduced taxing capacity under Act 127. For these districts, this new bill provides one cent relief on the tax rate for each percentage point of negative change to the district’s share of the statewide weighted pupil count. This mechanism helps impacted communities while incentivizing all districts to build budgets that align with their community’s ability to pay.

While this measure comes at a very challenging time for town clerks, their communities and school districts it’s become increasingly clear as we’ve received budget information from across the state that this change is necessary. It’s the first step the legislature must take to address the projected 20 percent increase in property tax rates while supporting the budgets approved by school boards and voters.

Right now, town and school district clerks are hard at work preparing for Town Meeting in March. The legislature has been working closely with the Secretary of State’s office on this bill, and they are prepared to support town clerks and their staff through this process with guidance and reimbursement to offset costs related to rewarning budgets. The bill also appropriates $500,000 from the General Fund to the Secretary of State in fiscal year 2024 to offset election costs incurred by school districts due to rewarning and/or postponing budget votes.

H.850, which was signed into law last week, will repeal the 5% cap transition mechanism established in Sec. 7 of Act 127 (2022), which included the five percent capping of homestead property tax rates and the Tax Rate Review, and replace it with new tax rate transition mechanism to be implemented between fiscal years 2025 and 2029. This new mechanism will grant a discount to some district homestead property tax rates for those who experience a decreased tax capacity, which are the result of changes between the fiscal year 2024 pupil weighting scheme and the fiscal year 2025 pupil weighting scheme. This new mechanism will target only the districts that face reduced taxing capacity under Act 127. For these districts, this new bill provides one cent relief on the tax rate for each percentage point of negative change to the district’s share of the statewide weighted pupil count. This mechanism helps impacted communities while incentivizing all districts to build budgets that align with their community’s ability to pay.

Update to Vermont Open Meeting Law (S.55):

The VT Open Meeting Law ensures that members of the public have access to public meetings and that public boards, commissions, and committees are transparent and accountable. During the COVID pandemic, public bodies were permitted to meet fully remotely and much was learned about how meetings could be held remotely. Thus, S.55 permits all advisory bodies to meet fully remotely, if desired. All state-level non-advisory bodies with legislative, quasi-judicial, budget, or taxing authority would be required to meet in hybrid fashion, with both remote and in-person access. All municipal-level non-advisory boards, including selectboards and school boards, would return to pre-COVID rules permitting them to meet fully in-person or in hybrid fashion. The bill would create a working group, chaired by the Secretary of State, that would work on issues to strengthen the accessibility, transparency, and accountability of all public bodies.