Greetings!

katewebb_photoWe are on the brink of some very powerful and important decisions that will profoundly affect the direction of this beautiful and unique state. Through collaboration, innovation and respectful communication I believe we can face tough choices today and support a vision for a sustainable future. We can create a state budget which reflects Vermont’s priorities and is lean but not mean.

My skill in bringing divergent groups together to solve complex problems is much needed in the legislature.  Blame and attack often keep us spinning in circles and in defensive argument; whereas appreciation of differences and seeking to understand is more likely to lead us to solution.  Vermonters are asking for this.   We have many challenges ahead.

 

Blog

  • Marijuana Update 4/22/16

    As we enter the last weeks of the session, several issues face an uncertain outcome. By the end of the session, all we are really required to pass are balanced budgets for the general fund, education and transportation. The rest is optional. Anything that does not make it through dies, as we say, “on the wall,” meaning the bill number and title pinned on committee bulletin boards are pulled down and discarded. Dead. One of those bills still under consideration, perhaps on life support, is S.241, a bill that would regulate recreational use of marijuana. Whether you are for or against the legalization of marijuana, the events this year are a fascinating study in the democratic process. “Laws are like sausages,” Otto von Bismarck once said, “it is better not seeing them made.” But I do disagree here. Our founders created different branches of government and then divided the legislature to essentially slow us down a bit. While Colorado, Alaska and Oregon legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives, Vermont is putting this question to the full General Assembly. This allows for constructive debate rather than a popularity contest subject to the powers of marketing to a partially informed electorate. S.241 grew from the work of a Senate summer study group. The first Senate draft, introduced in January, allowed Vermonters over the age of 21 to grow, use and purchase marijuana as soon as July 2016. Traveling through four Senate committees, countless hours of debate and revision, the bill that emerged in February removed the ability to grow, but did allow for use and sale, other than edibles. It created education and prevention programs as well as a commission to continue to study and gather data. To pay for these, the Senate added an excise tax on cultivation, lab testing and retail establishments. Implementation was moved to January 2018 and passed the Senate on a vote of 17-12. House Judiciary took possession of the bill on March 8th. Over the next four weeks, the House Judiciary Committee read reports, heard testimony, held joint and public hearings, and reviewed the Senate bill line-by-line. By April, the committee simply could not find enough support to legalize and agreed to start anew. The new bill retained the Senate language for the commission, education and prevention, and training for law enforcement. It added a new provision that would lower DUI blood alcohol levels to 0.05 if THC were also present. Narrowly squeaking out of committee on a vote of 6-5, the new bill continues on its journey through Ways and Means and Appropriations. Here is where it starts to get really interesting. The next two committees deal with all things money and both have indicated there is no more. The bill before them, however, now had expenses in the form of the commission and new education and prevention requirements, but did not have the revenue sources for legalized cultivation and sales. What to do? In a new twist, the committee found a revenue source. By bringing back the original Senate language that allowed for home cultivation, the Committee found that by legalizing two plants per household and attaching a $125 fee for that right, they would likely have enough money to cover these programs. The committee voted this out on April 15th on a vote of 7-4. The amused buzz around the Statehouse cafeteria referred to it as “doing it the Vermont Way.” This week, Appropriations takes possession of the bill and here is where the sausage making may well end. With Massachusetts, Maine and California poised to legalize this year, it is inevitable that Vermont will need to address this issue if not now, then in the near future. Setting up programs for prevention, education and impaired driving may well provide appropriate checks.
  • Vermont Rail, Shelburne and the Role of the State Legislator

      Members of Vermont United recently asked that Representative Lenes and I take a more vocal role in opposing the Vermont Railway (VRS) intermodal facility slated for development in Shelburne. I am responding here.   It is frustrating to find that there is relatively little that we can do legislatively. It is certainly frustrating for our community to see how easily our local planning and approval process is powerless in the face of the preemptive powers of federal law.   Members of our community have put forth a valiant effort to stop or at least influence the project using both the court of law and the court of public opinion. Through the court of law, the Town of Shelburne is seeking to determine whether federal law preempts local and state law here as the owners assert, or must conform to local and state law, as the town believes. Through the court of public opinion, the Vermont United group is seeking to stop the project altogether, creating social media connections and engaging our youth in public debate and participation around issues for which they care deeply. A ruling in federal court is due next month. The actual influence of the court of public opinion is unknown at this time.   Since the project came to light in January, Representative Lenes and I both believed that our highest and best use would be working out of the spotlight and behind the scenes. Representative Lenes took an active role in helping to negotiate the opening of the railroad station parking lot. I organized a legislative hearing in February to help determine what we could do, what we should do and what roles we might, or might not play in the process. I gave a recording of that hearing to the Town, to VRS and the Shelburne News.   We support the Town in its efforts to require VRS to prove federal preemption. Our research has led us to believe that a full win in court is probably a long shot, however our opinion here is irrelevant to the judge and has no impact on proceedings. The Town and VRS may well find a way to settle out of court and we are appropriately not involved in any way in those deliberations. If VRS prevails and federal law controls, the project will still need to meet requirements for two federal Clean Water Act permits and one state permit. Because Vermont has delegated authority to administer this federal law, the State ultimately issues and oversees all three permits.   Representative Lenes and I have been working with the Agency on Transportation and the Department of Environmental Conservation to identify specific areas where Vermont law requires greater environmental protection or road safety. To that end, we were able to identify additional stormwater. river corridor, buffer and wetland protections that go beyond the federal Clean Water Act. Although we believed we had begun a productive dialog with VRS to address some of these issues, we learned that members of the Vermont United advocates found our efforts counterproductive to their goals. Out of respect for this large group and for our town officials with more direct influence, we have pulled back.   Because the laws we develop in Montpelier are prospective and not retroactive, there is little we can do on a legislative level to affect change in the Shelburne facility. We are, however looking at where breakdown occurred in this process and working to make changes in law that might help in the future. These include the following: 1) draft of a joint resolution asking Congress to afford more local input for freight-related development; 2) increase the time for permit public notice; 3) require notice to the Commissioner when harvesting more than 10,000 board feet or 20 cords of wood; 4) identify and protect critical habitat for threatened and endangered species. All of these amendments are actively moving through the legislative process and may well be signed into law this year.   I support Vermont United in its efforts to protest including any efforts to breathe life back into negotiating for the alternate site. I recognize that this role is not enough for some. It is, however, the role I have found where I am most effective in the work I do: working quietly, doggedly behind the scenes to influence events and bring people together to solve tough problems.    

  • Reforming Vermont Driving Laws 3/27/16

    Vermont is a driving state. Our development patterns and limited public transportation require most of us to have access to a vehicle to get to work, buy groceries and participate in community life. Loss of a license can become a huge economic barrier; yet dangerous drivers are costly to our communities in life-altering ways.   Two bills related to drivers who make mistakes passed the House last week. One is designed to improve highway safety by bringing swift and sure driving consequences to help keep those who want to drink and drive off our roads. The other strikes a balance between legitimate license suspensions and archaic laws that stand as economic barriers and no longer serve public safety.   Driving under the influence, commonly known as DUI, is implicated in numerous accidents, often involving innocent drivers and vulnerable road users. Current law addresses these drivers through license suspension and in some cases the use of a breath alcohol ignition interlock device or BAIID. These devices are smarter than you think. An installed camera takes a picture of the person using the device and random checks while the car is moving help to swiftly identify cheaters. Any blood alcohol level above the legal limit warns the driver and allows a short window to pull over and turn off the ignition before lights flash and the horn honks. All incidents are reported back to the Dept. of Motor Vehicles.   Our current DUI license suspension and BAIID installations laws, however, are still leaving many impaired drivers on the road. First time offenders, given the option of a 90-day suspension or 30 days plus 6 months with a BAIID, often simply choose suspension – and drive anyway, sometimes impaired. The House-passed bill would provide a different choice: 6-month suspension or start driving right away with a restricted license using an ignition interlock device. Second-time offenders would be required to use the device for 18 months. A third offense, in addition to prison and fines, would see a driver’s license suspension for life, with some possibility of restoration of a restricted license for those who can demonstrate a long period of abstinence. Criminal penalties in all cases would still stand.   The second bill proposes changes to Vermont’s driver’s license suspension process, providing a different path to distinguish those who lost a license for legitimate traffic safety violations from those who simply failed to pay a fine. Sixty percent of Vermont driver’s licenses are suspended for failure to pay traffic fines. Although one would think this would encourage timely payment, this does not appear to be the case. Too often, individuals who fail to pay are unable to pay. In addition, they are now hampered from getting to and from work, and some simply continue to drive thereby risking more debt burden. This can become a cycle of poverty and law breaking for which no one wins.   The Judiciary Committee found that the point system was a better indicator as to when a license should be suspended and stiffens penalties for those violators. Non-traffic violations are addressed in three parts: 1) those existing before 1990; 2) restoration between 1990-2015 and 3) sets a more rational plan going forward.   The 1990 suspensions for failure to pay were found to be impossible to prosecute in part because evidence of those suspensions was burned or water-damaged. The Attorney General will seek dismissal for those suspensions that did not have points.   The second group, may apply for restoration and a more reasonable payment plan during a three-month period from September 1 to November 30,2016. Going forward, fines with points may be subject to suspension, while those without may apply for a payment plan.   Please feel free to contact me by phone (802) 233-7798 or email: kwebb@leg.state.vt.us. I am usually available to meet on Mondays and Saturdays.
  • Of Elephants and Salt Sheds

     Representative Lenes and I receive requests from our community regarding personal, local, and state as well as global issues. With 14 committees in the House and 11 in the Senate, the legislature is well designed to hear concerns, from large to small, and from personal to far-reaching issues important to Vermont citizens.   Here are two recent concerns from Shelburne residents: 1) prohibit the sale of ivory in an effort to reduce the slaughter of elephants and rhinoceroses, both on a road to extinction within a decade; and 2) find a way to stop or reduce the impact of the salt shed storage facility slated for development in Shelburne.   Ivory first. Last year, inspired by the leadership of Shelburne residents Ashley McAvey and Laurel Neme, students from Shelburne’s Renaissance School came to the Statehouse to speak for elephants and identify a role Vermont could play in their survival. One student, Taegan Yardley, now at Vermont Commons created a video inspired by her desire to help. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRM6y3XnezE   Students and experts pointed out that reducing the value of ivory could perhaps avoid the tragedy of elephants becoming extinct within ten years. Advocates argued that as world citizens, we have an obligation to do everything in our power to save one of the icons of the animal world from extinction. Devaluing ivory is the best way to do this. Plus, it would remove a major funding source for criminals and terrorists operating in Africa.   A new federal Endangered Species Act rule limits the sale of ivory between states but loopholes continue to exist within state boundaries. Individual states are now stepping up to restrict the sale of ivory within their borders. Last Friday, on a vote of 135-4, the House advanced a bill to join New York, New Jersey and California in closing the intrastate loophole. The Vermont bill would restrict the sale of antique ivory weighing more than 200 grams - about the weight of a set of piano keys - staring in 2018. The bill is now in the Senate.   Second, the Vermont Railway (VTR) salt sheds. Members of the community have contacted Representative Lenes and me asking us to help in addressing town and community concerns regarding the proposed salt shed transfer station. In an effort to better understand how we might help, we convened a hearing with a particular emphasis on how federal railroad law intersects with state and local law. Two legislative lawyers with expertise in transportation and environmental law guided us through a general description of this rather complex relationship. Our Shelburne Town Manager, the designing engineer for the railroad, the Nature Conservancy and an environmental analyst from the Department of Environmental Conservation stormwater program testified as to more specific aspects of the Shelburne facility. A copy of the recording of the meeting was given to the Shelburne News, the Town Manager and Vermont Railways.   As a result of the two hour hearing and pressing questions, I was left believing that 1) federal law would probably preempt state and local regulation, 2) the railroad was working to comply with state law even though it did not have to and 3) the clearing of the 19 acres followed the Accepted Management Practices and a notice for “heavy cutting” of trees is only required for 40 acres or more. I was also left with a general frustration that the process did not trigger an earlier conversation. Very often, relationship can trump law.   The Town and some very savvy members of our community are working through legal action to stop, slow or influence development, asserting that federal preemption may not be as complete as is currently assumed. VTR has also started a conversation with the Town that could move the project, likely at considerable expense, from Shelburne to a site in South Burlington. It is worthy of discussion. Representative Lenes and I will continue to engage in a dynamic conversation with VTR, the Town and the State in an effort to achieve as little environmental and traffic impact as possible should the project move forward in Shelburne.   I am also looking into general notice requirements that, under different standards, might have triggered a public hearing earlier in this process.   Please feel free to contact me by email kwebb@leg.state.vt.us or phone 802 233-7798. I am also generally available to meet on Mondays by appointment in Shelburne or Tuesday-Friday in Montpelier.    
  • End-of-Session Report, May, 2014

    Dear Friends and Neighbors, The following is a highlighted some of this year’s work.  As always, we strive to balance what is best for Vermonters, for Shelburne, what we can afford, and the consequences of action or inaction.  I will continue to be available over the summer and fall.  Best, Kate EDUCATION UPDATE: As we face the three variables of declining enrollment, escalating costs and changing requirements for 21st century learning, expect to see education receive a significant focus in 2015-16. The following is a partial summary or work completed this year: Investments in Early Learners:  While most school districts, including CSSU, provide 10 hours of pre-K during the school year, 13% do not. Starting in July 2015, all districts will be required to offer this resource. Parents may choose public or district-approved private programs, providing high quality programs and the flexibility parents requested. Research shows that investments in high-quality early learning opportunities during rapid brain growth provides a foundation for learning that can’t be replicated later in life. Connecting College Students with Vermont Employers:  How can Vermont attract and keep a talented workforce?  The new Vermont Scholars and Internship Initiative is designed to encourage Vermont post-secondary students to consider jobs in economic sectors considered critical to Vermont. Starting in July 2015, students enrolled in Vermont post-secondary institutions and live in Vermont upon graduation may be eligible for partial loan forgiveness for education in targeted fields. It also provides learning experience through internship opportunities with Vermont employers. A report due this fall will identify selected economic sectors and the feasibility of extending this to Vermonters attending schools outside of Vermont and out-of-state students attending Vermont institutions. Funding Education:  We heard loud and clear that escalating property tax rates are not sustainable. Of the $1.8 billion dollars appropriated for education, 68% comes from property taxes, 22% from the General Fund and 8% from Federal funds. The tobacco fund and pension fund transfers make up the rest. Balancing the competing interests of high quality education with the desire not to increase taxes to pay for it will require fresh thinking. To help curb costs going forward, the Legislature anchored the excess spending penalty to the current fiscal year and increased it by an inflation index rather than average statewide spending. We required a fiscal note for any new legislation that creates an unfunded mandate on our school districts. The House voted twice to double the General Fund transfer, to tax e-cigarettes at tobacco rates and phase out the small schools grants to reduce the property tax. None of these survived in the final version. ENVIRONMENT AND INFRASTRUCTURE Capital Investments in our State:  The capital bill includes the culmination of a six- year effort to provide a strategy and tools for the State to reduce its annual energy consumption by 5%. Working with the State Treasurer, the Legislature created a “credit facility” that uses cash on hand to finance energy conservation and renewable energy projects. These projects are financed through the savings they achieve, it is expected that over time $8 million of projects will be financed this way. Following the payback period, the current $14 million of energy costs in state government could be reduced by 15 to 20%. Lake Champlain Clean Up: Although three House committees developed policy and funding strategies in preparation for the new EPA clean up plan for Lake Champlain, none of these made it into law.  Expect to see renewed energy on this over the summer and next year. Shoreland Protection:  After a lengthy process, an act protecting the shorelands of Vermont’s lakes and ponds will become law. We are awaiting final confirmation from the Department of Environmental Conservation to present at the June 26th Shelburne Planning Commission at 7 pm.  Please come and hear about the new standards first hand. Green Up Day:  To support a steady revenue source for this important effort, we created a new income tax return check-off that allows Vermonters to donate directly to this effort. Recycling: Vermont became a leader in recycling with the passage of Act 148, the Universal Recycling Law. This year we remove two additional waste streams from landfills. In 2015, contractors will be required to haul certain discarded construction materials to recycling centers. In 2016, consumers will be able to drop off alkaline batteries at solid waste facilities, municipal buildings and participating retailers. This is a win for the environment and solid waste districts and is promoted by the industry. Protecting our forests: Firewood is a known vector for carrying invasive species deadly to forests such as the Emerald Ash Borer. Now present in our neighboring states & Canada, Act 112 passed this year sets the stage for regulation of imported firewood. Unprecedented Transportation Investment: This year we passed the largest transportation investment in Vermont history-- $665 million for our roads, rail, airports, bike/ped facilities and bridges.  Although this is still hundreds of millions short of our need to adequately maintain our transportation infrastructure, the investments we have made over the past few years are paying off. In 2008 we were 45th in the nation with 19.7% of our bridges structurally deficient.  We are now 28th with only 8% structurally deficient. Our road surfaces have gone from 34% in very poor condition to 21%. Thanks to our changes in gas and diesel taxes last year, as well as aggressive pursuit of federal grants, we have a much-needed record investment in our infrastructure. Post-Irene Investment: The pouring of footings for the new state office building in Waterbury marks the final stage of commitments made to remain and invest in Waterbury post Irene. The $125 million building project is paid for with FEMA and insurance dollars as well as multiple years of capital dollar allocations. The project preserves the historic character of the state office complex while creating workspaces that break down silos. This allows state workers to serve Vermonters in a more productive and cost-effective manner. In an effort to prevent expensive flood recovery in the future, Act 107 lays a clearer foundation for development in flood hazard areas and river corridors. HEALTH  AND SAFETY Vermont Health Connect: In response to the difficult rollout of our health care exchange, legislative committees spent significant time reviewing system challenges and the ongoing work to improve access to health plans in VHC. Although the system is still not fully functional for small businesses and is frustrating for people who have needed to make application changes, there are some signs of improvement. The Legislature passed a provision so that small businesses will continue to be able to enroll in VHC plans directly through insurers. This will be extended to individuals as well. Green Mountain Care: As we continue to work our way toward the next stage of health care reform, many have expressed frustrations with the Governor due to a desire for more details on how he will propose to replace our current health care financing system. In 2012, Vermonters spent over $715 million in deductibles and copays and spent over $1.88 billion in premiums. The question is not whether we will raise the money to fund our access to health care, the question is can we find a way to do it that is fairer, more predictable, provides for better care, and gives people more confidence that they won’t have higher costs or loss of coverage if they change jobs. Remember that GMC will require an approved financing plan before the Legislature can vote to move forward. Lyme disease: Lyme disease is increasingly widespread in Vermont and has become endemic to the State. If identified early, Lyme disease may be successfully treated with a short-term course of antibiotics. If not, complex and ongoing symptoms may require more aggressive treatment. Historically, physicians have been held to a limited number of treatment options recommended by the Center for Disease Control. Many Vermonters did not find these adequate. Starting in July, long-term sufferers may seek expanded treatment options recognized by the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society without putting their health care providers at risk for discipline. Changes to tobacco laws:  Vermonters came forward this year asking for additional relief from second-hand smoke and other tobacco related concerns. Starting in July, tobacco products and tobacco substitutes will be prohibited in or around childcare centers and smoking in a motor vehicle occupied by a child may result in a $100 fine. Manufacturers of e-cigarettes will be required to use child-resistant packaging to sell liquid nicotine in Vermont. Smoking within a 25’ zone around state buildings will be prohibited. Protecting Children from Toxics: The Children Safety Act of 2014 takes a major step forward in protecting children from toxic substances. Manufacturers of children’s products, such as toys, jewelry and cosmetics sold in Vermont will be required to notify the Department of Health if their product contains chemicals that are known to be harmful to children. Due to continued inaction at the federal level, Vermont joins Washington, California and Maine to protect our children from toxic substances.  If it is bad for children, it is bad for business. Sometimes, we do have to legislate common sense. Cellphone Ban: On October 1st, drivers will have to be hands-free or face fines, starting at $100.  The final version of the bill removed point penalties that could have resulted in hiked insurance rates.  

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