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Posts from the ‘News’ Category

Facts Matter

February 10, 2019

reptomstevens

The following commentary was written by my district mate, Rep. Theresa Wood. Because the federal law written under Roe v. Wade is threatened like at no other time since the 1970’s, Vermont is considering codifying the protections for women and for the health of a fetus in our state law. We have relied on the federal law, in combination with several court rulings, to maintain these protections because we never thought the federal law was in danger of being overturned. To protect Vermonters, we are considering H.57. This is Rep. Wood’s explanation of the bill.

Facts matter. And so do emotions. H.57 – “An act relating to preserving the right to abortion” has been the subject of intense, often emotional debate and testimony in the State House over the last three weeks. Perhaps the most visible of this debate occurred during the public hearing attended by hundreds of Vermonters – both pro and against the bill.

As proposed, the bill recognizes the fundamental right to the freedom of reproductive choice for women. Because this is an emotionally charged issue, it is important to understand some of the facts. This bill does not change current practice in Vermont, or in fact, the practice as it has been for more than 40 years since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade – notably one of the Supreme Court’s most controversial decisions. Given the politics in Washington, there is considerable debate about whether the Supreme Court will eventually overturn Roe v. Wade and leave it entirely up to individual states.

This bill does not allow for partial or full birth abortions that are specifically prohibited by the 2003 “Partial Birth Abortion Act” enacted by Congress. All medical providers must comply with this federal law. The bill does not change the ability of a woman to sue for wrongful death if something goes wrong during her pregnancy. Testimony revealed that abortions in Vermont are declining – that’s good news. They are declining because of improved education and increased access to family planning and birth control. In Vermont, 1.3 percent of abortions occurred later in pregnancy – only because of the mother’s health or viability of the child – not for elective purposes of the mother. No elective late term abortions are performed in Vermont according to the Vermont Medical Society.

As the bill was discussed in my committee, I introduced an amendment to remove the section that stated, “A fertilized egg, embryo or fetus shall not be considered a person.” This amendment passed, and that section is now omitted from the bill. We also added reference to the federal statute banning partial or full birth abortions. With these two amendments, the bill passed out of the House Human Services Committee by a vote of 8 – 3.

With the amendments and clarifications around the lack of late term elective abortions noted above, I voted in favor of the bill. This was a deeply difficult decision that I did not take lightly. I remain grateful for all of the notes and calls I received from constituents sharing their deeply held views both in favor and opposition to the bill. In the end I believe that these decisions are intensely personal, and best made by women with consultation from their medical providers.

The bill has now been referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which will begin taking testimony next week. It will come to the House floor for a full vote later this month and then, if passed, it will move to the Senate. It is fair to say that there will be other amendments offered along the way, so if you want to watch the progress of the bill you can do so on the legislative website: https://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2020/H.57

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Homelessness Ends When We Have Enough Housing

February 8, 2019

reptomstevens

This opinion piece has appeared recently in several local publications, including the Barre Montpelier Times Argus, The Waterbury Record, and the Times Ink.

The bitterly cold weather we have experienced since the beginning of the year really focuses attention, especially in the State House, on the homelessness that Vermonters experience. It is a silent scourge, and that silence makes solving it even harder. People are usually experiencing homelessness through no fault of their own, but the shame and poverty of living in the shadows that we attach to this condition makes it worse, and for some their mental illness makes it doubly difficult to find a permanent shelter. And while we dedicate resources to help people experiencing homelessness, we are also focusing on programs to prevent Vermonters from becoming homeless in the first place. If only they knew what they were.

Homelessness is a complex issue. To ask what causes it requires the patience to sift through the many strands of events and situations that can lead to a person or a family becoming homeless. It is an economic issue —you can fall behind on your rent in a minute, having to choose between food or heat or medication. It’s a mental health issue — a significant portion of the chronically homeless have difficult mental health issues. It’s a choice — we know that some homeless veterans, for example, feel more secure living outdoors, even when it is this cold. And it’s capacity — we continue to underinvest resources into programs that would provide sufficient shelter and housing in a way that stabilizes those that are experiencing homelessness.

Already this year we’ve heard testimony about the good and bad news surrounding this issue. We heard from the Office of Veterans Affairs, which reported that, due to improved focus, outreach and provision of services, there is only about a dozen veterans who have refused services and chosen to live homelessly in Vermont. This is a huge success. We heard from the University of Vermont Medical Center and Champlain Housing Trust, who have teamed up to provide both transitional and permanent housing for chronically homeless and disabled people in Burlington. The concept being embraced is called “Housing is Health Care” and is a result of the Medical Center finally realizing that the costs — financial and physical — of caring for the most vulnerable Vermonters can be reduced if they are provided with a home.

We also heard about a proposal that can stem the tide of homelessness for some by preventing evictions. Eviction is a terrible process, and it is excruciating for both landlords and tenants. A new study done by Vermont Legal Aid shows that 70% of all evictions are — simply — because of the nonpayment of rent. Many of these situations can be resolved if the back rent is paid. Vermont Legal Aid is promoting an increase in funding to an existing program in our Agency of Human Services that would provide qualifying tenants funds to pay their rent arrearage (and which would go directly to the landlord). The average rent owed is $2,000. The average cost to a landlord to evict a tenant — back rent, court costs, damage to the apartment — is $8,500. And by avoiding homelessness, a family remains stable and state services are not overtaxed.tIf we can provide the funds to make the landlord whole and bypass the eviction process altogether, we save money and stress, we provide stability to the tenant and landlord, and we turn a “lose-lose” situation around.

But here’s the thing: more affordable housing will reduce homelessness, plain and simple. We know how to do this, and we have a way to make it happen. Unfortunately, it appears that the administration is primed to underinvest in affordable housing, and housing that is affordable, once more by not transferring the statutorily required funding from the Property Transfer Tax to the Housing and Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF). This diversion of funds is not specific to this administration — it has happened over the last twenty years.

This is money collected by the sale of land and houses through a small tax on the purchase. This tax was created over 30 years ago, and the intent of the money earmarked for the HCTF was to acknowledge that as Vermont became a destination for many new folks, the price of housing and conservation of land was going to increase, perhaps putting some Vermonters at risk of not being able to afford a home. This tax was to fund new housing and new conservation.

So what’s happened? There is a provision in Vermont law that says that the administration (and the legislature, by nature of voting a budget that approves the transfer) can “take” those funds for other uses. In other words, the money from the tax collected on the sale of homes, meant to create new affordable housing, can’t be segregated and protected, even though our statute states very clearly what that tax is for (and it also pays for municipal planning grants, and clean water programs).

In this year’s budget proposal, we learned that the Property Transfer Tax was nearly $44 million, and the statutory share to the HCTF was $21.8 million. But the budget proposal would only transfer $9.8 million to the HCTF, with the remaining $12 million used in the General Fund. For what purpose? We don’t know. What we do know is that with the proper project and investors, we can turn that $12 million into $100 million worth of housing for those who need it most.

Over the last twenty years, the HCTF has been shorted by over $60 million, which could have resulted in over $400 million of new housing and conservation. I have introduced legislation to stop this practice. If we don’t fully fund this transfer, and let the people who have the knowledge, the creativity and the experience in providing housing to those who need it most, we are making a mockery of our promises of affordability and livability.

Don’t get me wrong — we do well, compared to others. A young man spoke on the steps of the State House and told us his story of homelessness, and, while he continues to struggle, he came to Vermont because, in his words, Vermont is a good place to be homeless. No place is a good place to be homeless, actually, but he recognized that we do have services, and that we are trying to provide more. By diverting over 50% of the money meant to help solve that problem, we are never going to solve the problem.

And We’re Off!

January 12, 2019

reptomstevens

Opening day of the 2019-2020 Biennium was Wednesday January 9, and the pomp and circumstance continued through the next day, with the inauguration of Governor Scott. I always have to remind myself that patience is needed at the beginning of the biennium — there are no bills yet to consider, there are brand new legislators who need to be assigned to committees and learn the elements of their subject matter, and everyone is settling in for what will be sure to be an interesting ride over the next two years.

Looking back first, though, I would like to thank Waterbury, Huntington, Bolton and Buel’s Gore for your support, especially over the last two years. I have not been as physically present in our communities as I would have liked, and I apologize for that. I have been dealing with the failing health and death of my mother, and planning for the future care of a brother who has Down Syndrome. Much of my free time was taken by trips out of state and will again this year, but much less frequently. Quite a bit of local presence has been covered by Rep. Wood, for which I am grateful. Nevertheless, I remain accessible to you and encourage you to reach out to me on any issue.

On the first day of session, I was appointed Chair of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee. I have served my entire legislative career on this committee and was vice chair the last four years. During that time, our committee, under the leadership of Rep. Helen Head of South Burlington, passed bills that increased the minimum wage, instituted paid sick days, gender free bathrooms, provided state recognition of local Abenaki bands, outlawed discrimination against pregnant women and protected the employment of Vermonters who were victims of crimes and needed time to seek justice in court. We have worked on legislation that has provided improvement in mobile home parks and increased the number of affordable housing units across the state, as well as developing a mechanism to provide help for first time home buyers. We passed legislation that created the veteran’s check off on your tax form, where you can donate a portion of your tax return to organizations that help our vets. And we have passed legislation that allows our burgeoning craft beer, wine and liquor industries to mature responsibly.

And now, I have the opportunity of chairing this committee, and I am humbled by the faith shown in me by Speaker Mitzi Johnson. I am proud of the work this committee does, because it keeps me in touch with my constituents — you — by dealing with the everyday issues that affect us all.

Looking ahead, and while there are no bills of note posted as of yet, I am sure we will be contemplating bills that will increase the minimum wage and institute a paid leave policy that will be meaningful for Vermonters needing time to take care of their families — young and old — and themselves. It is expensive to live in Vermont — really, everywhere — and the main reason is because wages have stagnated for the lower and middle classes. We are being paid the same, but the prices of food, housing, health insurance and the costs of taking care of the least fortunate among us keep increasing. A minimum wage is a start for those who must work at that level of pay, and it won’t solve the “livability” problem many Vermonters have. But we must reduce the stress that comes with poverty and the shame that comes from not being able to pay your bills, even if you have a good job, by developing policies that create the tools Vermonters can use to achieve that baseline.

Finally, a word about my hopes for this session. Last year was a difficult year for the Legislature and for Vermont government in general, and it showed that elections matter, and that your vote matters. The House and Senate passed reasonable legislation that would have addressed not only minimum wage and paid family leave, but protection for our towns against pollution, and protection against consumer-unfriendly fine print in contracts you make with companies. The budget was also vetoed a number of times and only went into law at the last minute because the Governor did not sign it, but withheld a veto.

This kind of relationship was intolerable to me, and tested my beliefs that we all serve to serve Vermonters. The tone of the dialogue was extremely negative. Work didn’t get done, and the good work that did was invisible compared to the work that didn’t.

And so we focussed on electing better representatives in the fall, and we did. The balance between parties shifted in a way to create a “veto-proof” majority, with 95 Democrats and 7 Progressives. Now, I don’t think that is a “slam-dunk,” but it does give the legislature more leverage with the Governor. This doesn’t mean we will win every battle, either, and nor should it. But what it does mean is that the tenor of our work will improve, and we saw that in the Governor’s inaugural address, where he emphasized the need to work together on behalf of all Vermonters. He peppered his speech with some political points — no surprise and no shame there — and with some solid points where the differing parties can put aside their differences and work together. That’s the stuff I can work with, and that’s the attitude I will bring to my work on my committee.

I look forward to working with and for you in the coming months. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at anytime. My email is tstevens@leg.state.vt.us