It was an incredibly busy week in the State House as all of the bills that were voted out before the crossover deadline hit the Floor, making for long hours. Several large and important bills made it through the process and will be moving on to the Senate. I’ll highlight a handful here.
H.703, an act relating to workforce development, was a major goal for House members this year. For many years, we have tried to figure out how to address our workforce issues. In the past, we have made attempts to improve the situation but this year, with the influx of federal money, we have produced a comprehensive bill that provides a broad approach to the problem. It also became even more important to the members of the House Agriculture and Forestry Committee because H.566, the Forest Future Strategic Roadmap, was folded into H.703.
One of the glaring needs that has become apparent as a result of the pandemic is the need for more nurses. Many more “traveling nurses” have been employed in Vermont and the increased cost for these important workers has driven up the cost of health care, in general. H.703 has addressed this problem in several ways; increased capacity in Vermont’s nursing programs is one of them. In the past, we have offered tuition loan forgiveness for nurses who stay and work in Vermont. This, and nursing scholarships, will be offered again with the goal of increasing Vermont’s nursing workforce.
Another strategy will be to incentivize our regional Career and Technical Education (CTE) centers by lowering the enrollment barriers and providing $3 million in scholarships and $500,000 in loan repayment for people who are pursuing or have graduated in the trades. An exciting aspect is the establishment of a revolving loan fund that will allow communities to hire students who will gain experience in the building trades by working in renovation or construction where additional housing or other projects are needed. This model has been used in our state parks where it is known as the “Serve, Learn, and Earn Program.”
Our Forest Future Strategic Roadmap was included in H.703 because one of the major concerns we have is developing a workforce that will help manage our working lands, in particular the forest sector, into the future. A significant portion of our forest land is enrolled in the Use Value Appraisal Program, commonly known as Current Use. The owners of that land need to have a Forest Management Plan in order to qualify for the tax reduction benefits that come with enrollment. In order to fulfill the requirements of those plans, one must have a logger to do the work. It’s a dangerous profession and we have taken steps in the past to improve worker safety, but this will advance that cause and make forestry more successful and sustainable into the future.
H.703 passed on a unanimous 139-0 roll-call vote and we were proud to be part of the work that went into this very important bill.
Another issue that is near and dear to my heart is the creative economy. We have seen the dramatic impact that the creative economy has had in Bellows Falls, for instance. Vermont’s arts and cultural sectors have been negatively affected by the pandemic and need our assistance as they recover after shutdowns from which some are just now rebounding. H.624, an act relating to supporting creative sector businesses and cultural organizations, will provide $17.5 million in grants to aid in that recovery.
One of the annual bills that we work on is the Transportation Bill, also known as the “T-Bill.” This is a very important bill because it funds the work that we do to improve our transportation infrastructure – so important to our business and tourist economies. It was not all that long ago that we experienced a “perfect storm” of crumbling roads, culverts, and bridges, so bad that the administration at the time, rejiggered the grading system so that things didn’t look so dire! Back then, there was a town in northern Vermont where the roads were so terrible that beer was not delivered in glass bottles because of the resulting breakage. We’ve come a long way since then due to the investments we have made over the last decade and a half.
This year, H.736 not only makes investments in our roads and bridges, but also focuses on reducing carbon emissions in an attempt to mitigate climate change. Transportation and home/business heating are the major sources of our carbon emissions, and reduction measures have been a driving force in our efforts this year. The bill will help low- and moderate-income Vermonters take the step of purchasing an electric or other very fuel-efficient vehicle. The goal is to also provide more Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations, which is a deterrent for many when thinking about buying an EV. Another area of investment is in non-vehicle areas by incentivizing safer walking and bicycling infrastructure as well as free public transit. We are thankful to our Regional Planning Commissions for being a big part of this effort.
The T-Bill spends $866 million to maintain and improve our transportation infrastructure – an important investment in Vermont’s future. It should be noted that it also draws down significant funding from the federal government, so our dollars are leveraged.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we passed the FY2023 Budget, aka the “Big Bill.” Our budget has always been a reflection of our values, and this year is no different. We are proud of the fact that we always pass a balanced budget, though not constitutionally required to do so. We try hard to balance the needs of our most vulnerable citizens, while keeping in mind our taxpayers’ pocketbooks.
The Appropriations Committee put in an incredible effort, taking testimony from all stakeholders including pertinent agencies and departments, policy committees, and dozens of Vermonters who attended public forums and/or sent written testimony. The bill was voted out of committee unanimously, testimony to the cooperative work that was done, and was voted on the Floor 135-4.
All of these bills now move to the Senate, and I encourage anyone to reach out to your senators if you want to weigh in on them.