2016 End of Session Report

Automatic Voter Registration
This year, the legislature passed a bill that automatically registers eligible Vermonters to vote when they apply for a state driver’s license. Vermont is now the fourth state with such a law.

The law will streamline voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with a system that identifies eligible Vermonters and automatically sends their information to the town or city clerk for addition to the checklist, unless they opt out.

Vermont continues to pave the way for greater democratic participation, just last year becoming the 14th state to allow same-day voter registration. It is estimated that automatic voter registration could add between 30,000 and 50,000 new voters within the first four years, strengthening Vermont’s ranking as a state with among the highest registration rates in the country.

Making Roads Safer for Bicyclists
One preventable motor vehicle/bicycle accident is one too many. We must foster a better “share the road” culture for both bicyclists and motor vehicles. There is inherent inequality between a bicyclist and a motor vehicle. We need to promote the quiet, safer to others, non-polluting, bicycle mode of transportation. While we didn’t get every provision we wanted, we did make progress with several policy changes.

First, we updated rules of the road to acknowledge the way cyclists use the roadway. Cyclists and motor vehicle operators are both obligated to signal before turning and to make turns only when there is a safe distance between themselves and other road users. The penalties were doubled for riding abreast while impeding the flow of traffic. Secondly, created an enhanced penalty for negligent operation with death or serious bodily injury resulting, increased DUI penalties and replaced certain DUI license suspensions with required interlocking ignition devices. Lastly, we increased the bicycle/pedestrian construction program (sidewalks, bike paths, and lanes) budget by another $3.9 million.

Low-Income Weatherization
This excellent program makes low-income Vermonter’s homes more comfortable, safer, lowers their heating bills, reduces the state’s carbon footprint, and employs trained Vermonters to do the work.

Perhaps the most cost-effective program in State government, through energy savings it allows for more dollars to be spent in the Vermont economy instead of on imported fossil fuels. Adding to its effectiveness, the program is administered by the community action agencies such as the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) here in Burlington.

By moving from a percentage of the price to a per gallon charge on heating fuels we were able to finally build up the Weatherization budget close to where it was when we enjoyed federal stimulus and CVPS/GMP merger settlement funds. This will result in an average increase per household per year of only four dollars. For the first time in three years the program will be able to increase the number of homes weatherized.

Federal Clean Power Plan
President Obama’s EPA rule to reduce the CO 2 emissions from the nation’s largest source, electricity power plants is going through the federal courts. Twenty-seven states are suing the EPA.

We ushered through the House, a resolution urging the governors of those states to move forward with the rule as it is likely to be upheld by the Supreme Court and is the first time EPA will be regulating CO 2 emissions from power plants.

Prohibiting Conversion Therapy
This bill prohibits attempts to “cure” youth, under age 18, who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, queer or questioning. “Conversion Therapy” is a practice that is not supported by credible evidence and has been disavowed by behavioral health experts and their associations. The lack of acceptance from parents, family and community can do irreparable harm to youth. As many other states continue their assaults on the rights of their fellow Americans, merely because they identify as LGBTQ+, Vermonters can be proud that we support and value all our fellow Vermonters with the passage of this bill.

Combating Opioid Abuse
Opioid misuse and addiction is still a public health crisis in Vermont. There were 76 opioid related deaths in 2015. Prescription drugs were a factor in at least 32 of those deaths. Legislation passed this year takes a multifaceted approach that includes treatment, education, prevention, and increased market-constraints. They include:

• Approving the funds to provide Naloxone across the state to those family and friends who are struggling with addiction, and to Emergency Medical Services that treat those who have overdosed;
• Expand the Hub and Spoke treatment network to serve over 400 Vermonters;
• Permitting a qualified nurse practitioner to see a patient for addiction-related treatment (other than the prescription of buprenorphine);
• Mandating continuing education for all professionals, including naturopathic physicians and advanced practice registered nurses;
• Funding (1) unused prescription drug disposal initiatives, (2) prevention of abuse and diversion of controlled substances campaigns, (3) overdose reversal kits and additional treatment, and (4) academic, bias-free information concerning these powerful drugs to physicians;
• Expanding the coverage of telemedicine services and other treatment efforts;
• Requiring health care providers and dispensers (pharmacists) to register with the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) and to query the system upon prescribing or dispensing a controlled substance; and
• Directing the Department of Health to adopt rules governing the prescription of opioids for acute pain.

None of these measures will prevent a doctor from prescribing a patient what they need to address their pain. Although we still have a ways to go in getting Vermont’s opiate epidemic under control, these policy changes will help us take significant steps in prevention and recovery.

Expanding Access to Marijuana for Symptom Relief
Cannabis can be an effective treatment for symptom relief for a number of medical conditions. A few years ago, the legislature adopted laws to regulate the use of marijuana for this limited purpose. This year, a number of changes to the underlying law were approved to make medical cannabis more accessible to those in need, while maintaining the integrity of the program.

Vermont’s medical cannabis program is recognized as the best-run program in the country. Currently, a person must have a six-month relationship with a doctor who has identified their patient has a disease or condition causing chronic debilitating pain. The doctor must also be willing to satisfy the conditions of the application process. This year, the legislature reduced the length of the required patient-doctor relationship from 6 months to 3 months. Other changes included: adding glaucoma to the list of qualifying conditions, reducing pain classification from “severe” to “chronic,” and permitting the transport of cannabis to Vermont postsecondary academic institutions for the purpose of research. All Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, or New York licensed naturopaths will now be considered a “health care professional.” Any marijuana-infused product must be in a child-resistant package each single-dose marijuana-infused and potable products must be labeled with the amount of THC in the product.

Matching Employees with Employment
Adequately aligning our workforce skills with employment needs is key to prosperity in our State. Vermont, like New Hampshire and Maine, is facing workforce shortages as the number of retirees surpasses the number of new, younger workers hitting the market. In the past two years, Vermont’s available workforce has declined by 1.2% or 4,150 available workers. However, during the same period, we increased the number of jobs at a rate of 2.3% or approximately 7,100 new jobs.

The news is good for Vermont workers – more jobs are available. Vermont’s employers, however, still struggle to find employees with the specific skills to meet their work demands. The legislature has funded an array of programs to help bridge this gap. For example, this year we invested up to 10% of the Vermont Training Program Funds work-based learning programs for students. We also updated to our Workforce Development Board statutes to better align with federal workforce support programs. From technical and career center programs, to workforce training, to non-degree education grants – Vermont is well on its way to creating a stronger, more agile, and prosperous workforce.

Western Rail Corridor
The State of Vermont was awarded a Federal USDOT TIGER (Transportation Improvement Generating Economic Recovery) Grant of $10M for the 2017 Transportation Bill. This will combine the $10M federal grant of 2014 and $16M in state and federal related funds to complete the long anticipated Western Rail Corridor.

These track improvements will allow for more freight to be moved by rail and less by road in large trucks. It will allow for the Ethan Allen Express daily Amtrak train to New York City to be extended from Rutland to Burlington’s Union Station with stops in Middlebury and Vergennes. This train connecting downtown Burlington with Manhattan will take only seven hours.

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