4.9.2021 – An Assortment of Bills to Improve the Lives of Vermonters

In the last two weeks, we have taken many steps to improve the lives of Vermonters. I’ll take a few moments to focus on several of them.

H.159, among other things, creates the Better Places Program and makes a strong commitment to our Vermont State Colleges (VSC). We allocate $20.5 million to the State College system to be focused on workforce development in the fields of childcare, nursing, accounting, and mental health counseling, as well as scholarships for Vermont students who want to complete their degrees or return home from out-of-state colleges and universities to attend VSC. The Better Places program is allocated $5 million to advance its mission of creating or revitalizing public spaces in our communities through matching grants. In an effort to begin to reopen our state to tourists, $2.5 million is dedicated to marketing Vermont in support of our hospitality and tourism industry. H.159 also places an emphasis on supporting businesses owned by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color) community members. The bill passed unanimously on roll call and voice votes.

Over the last three months, I have discussed several system weaknesses that COVID-19 has revealed including in broadband and the food supply chain system; another of those is in health care. Our goal is to have equal access to health care for all Vermonters, but data and statistics indicate that that is not the case, especially for those in the BIPOC and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Questioning) communities. For instance, twenty percent of COVID cases were members of the BIPOC community when they are only six percent of our population. This may be because they are less likely to have a personal physician. Statistics also show that non-white Vermonters are more likely to suffer from depression, LGBTQ adults are three times as likely to report seriously considering suicide, and adults with disabilities are more likely to report being in poor mental or physical health.

To try to correct these disparities, address structural racism, and promote equal access and equity in our health care system, we passed H.210. It creates a Health Equity Advisory Commission, which will collect and analyze data and then provide grants to programs that improve health care for members of the BIPOC, LGBTQ, and disability communities.

In recent years, we have witnessed more incidents of people being sexually assaulted on college campuses and elsewhere after being incapacitated, either by drugs or alcohol. H.183 expands the definition of consent, makes clear that those who are incapacitated are unable to consent, and provides added protections for those who are sexually assaulted. It creates the Intercollegiate Sexual Violence Prevention Council in an effort to reduce sexual violence on college campuses. It also asks law enforcement to increase data gathering to better understand sexual assault and violence here in Vermont.

March 31, 2021 marked the 90th anniversary of the passing of legislation that would be one of Vermont’s least stellar moments. On that day in 1931, “An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization” was signed into law. Based on research and a survey done by UVM professor, Henry Perkins, the goal of the eugenics movement was to prevent procreation by people deemed unfit in order to preserve “old pioneer stock”. This, of course, targeted folks in the BIPOC community, in particular those of Native American and French-Canadian heritage. Also included on the list were those with disabilities, the poor, and people of mixed ethnicity including French-Indians.

Some of the tactics used included forced sterilization, family separation, incarceration, and institutionalization, which led to trauma that is still felt today by some members of our population. Records were kept on Vermonters as Perkins collaborated with municipal and state officials, including the Vermont Department of Welfare and it is believed that at least 253 people were sterilized.

In an attempt to apologize for the harm that was done, we passed J.R.H. 2, which is a formal apology for Vermont’s State-Sanctioned Eugenics Movement. In resolutions, perhaps the most important parts are the “Resolved” clauses. In this case they read, “That the General Assembly sincerely apologizes and expresses its sorrow and regret to all individual Vermonters and their families and descendants who were harmed as a result of State-sanctioned eugenics policies and practices, and be it further Resolved: That the General Assembly recognizes that further legislative action should be taken to address the continuing impact of State-sanctioned eugenics policies and related practices of disenfranchisement, ethnocide, and genocide.”

This helps explain something that I have wondered about. In 1985 when I moved back to Windham, my mother-in-law, Cora Cheney Partridge, was close friends with a long-time Windham resident. I had heard that her mother was Native American, and I was intrigued to learn more. She knew many home remedies that I wanted to know more about, but she was very hesitant to talk about it. I’m sure that years of hiding her ethnicity for fear of being separated from her family, or worse, was a result of the Eugenics Movement that she had grown up with.

The final bill I’ll cover is H.225, which is an act that decriminalizes small amounts of non-prescription buprenorphine, commonly known as “bupe”. Buprenorphine is an opioid that, among other things, is used before coming into Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) under the care of a doctor. At this point in time, possession of small amounts of buprenorphine, while a misdemeanor, is rarely prosecuted because it is seen as a method to wean people off of serious opioid addiction. This practice of turning a blind eye may not be followed state-wide so H.225 seeks to make clear that possession of 224 milligrams (a one- to two-week supply) or less of non-prescription buprenorphine by those twenty-one and older is legal.

Debate on H.225 brought fresh to my mind the untimely death of my niece in 2017 due to a fentanyl overdose. I wrote about it in 2020, which you can read if you go to my website at Carolyn Partridge » 1.17.2020 – Farm to Plate Report and Substance Abuse Disorder. If you haven’t experienced directly the loss of someone to substance abuse disorder, it may be hard to understand the tragedy it introduces to a family. Families struggle to help their loved one kick a habit that may have been the result of post-operative medication or a chance experimentation with friends that leads to a rapid brain chemistry change. Even after several visits to rehab and seeming to be on a good path, one little slip and reduced tolerance to drugs or alcohol can be lethal.

Aside from the time I served as Majority Leader, in twenty-three years I’ve explained my vote two or three times, but I felt compelled to do so on this bill. The following is what I said, “Madam Speaker: Nearly four years ago, my niece died of a fentanyl overdose. Had something less lethal been available to her, she might be alive today. If you have not experienced the loss of a loved one to substance abuse disorder, you are fortunate. It breaks hearts and tears families apart. Today, I cast my vote for Megan Anne and have faith that this bill will save lives.” I sincerely hope it does. The pandemic has not slowed the death rate due to opioids; in fact, we have seen a thirty-eight percent increase in overdoses during the last year.

One of the good things the pandemic has brought to us is familiarity with Zoom meetings. My district-mate, Rep. Leslie Goldman is holding monthly Zoom meetings for our constituents in the Windham-3 district, but she assures me that all are welcome. The next meeting is April 24 at 10 AM and if you want to join, please register at www.lesliegoldmanvt.com. I was able to join last month and really enjoyed it. This month I will not be able to join because I will be participating in a Council of State Governments virtual conference entitled “Carbon Sequestration from the Ground Up: Opportunities in Northeastern Farms and Forests” but hope to participate again next time.