James: A cleaner and healthier Vermont
The House of Representatives adjourned last Friday in dramatic fashion. During the final weeks of the session, House and Senate leaders were trying to hash out a compromise on paid family leave and the minimum wage. As Memorial Day weekend approached, and with the General Assembly already one week into overtime, Speaker Mitzi Johnson called a halt and sent us home. Both will be top priorities when we reconvene in January. I'm disappointed the legislature couldn't work out a deal on these important issues, both of which I voted for. But it's not easy — and nor should it be easy — to build policy consensus among 150 representatives, 30 senators and the governor. Meanwhile, I'm focused on what the legislature did accomplish this year. In particular, I'm proud to have voted for a slew of successful bills that will protect our environment and make our communities cleaner and healthier. Here are some highlights:
Getting the Lead Out
S.40 requires Vermont's schools and childcare facilities to test for lead in their drinking water, and provides funding to replace any taps that exceed the action
level. (Lead is a potent neurotoxin that has a harmful, irreversible impact on kids' developing brains.) I served on the conference committee that worked out the final House-Senate compromise — a great opportunity for a first-year legislator.
Tobacco and E-Cigarettes
We took strong steps to protect our kids from the risks of smoking and vaping by raising the legal sales age for tobacco products to 21 (S.86), banning the Internet sale of e-cigarettes (H.26) and taxing e-cigs at a much higher rate (H.47).
After several years of wrangling, the legislature put together a long-term plan in S.96 to provide dedicated, ongoing funding to clean up Vermont's lakes, rivers and streams. From all sources, including federal funds, the state will spend almost $50 million in FY20 on clean-water initiatives. And S.49 will ensure that all public water supplies will be tested (and treated, if necessary) for harmful PFAS contamination.
Plastic Bag Ban
S.113 prohibits grocery stores and retailers from providing single-use plastic carryout bags at the checkout register. Plastic stir sticks and styrofoam food and beverage containers will also be banned, and plastic straws provided only upon request.
Stores can sell large paper bags for 10 cents. This bill takes direct aim at throwaway plastics, which do not biodegrade and can last for hundreds of years in landfills or as pollution in our landscapes and waterways.
S.37, sponsored by Bennington County Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, gives people who've been exposed to toxic chemicals through wrongful conduct a "cause of action" to sue the company for the cost of medical monitoring. The bill sets a high standard of proof and applies only to businesses with 10-plus employees in the mining, manufacturing, transportation and utility fields, but provides some relief for Vermonters impacted by toxic contamination.
Spread across several bills and tucked into the FY20 budget, the legislature provided financial assistance for low-income Vermonters to buy or lease an electric vehicle, upgrade from a gas guzzler to a fuel-efficient car, and weatherize drafty, leaky old homes. In S.30, we also approved a plan to phase out hydroflourocarbons, a class of greenhouse gases that are 1,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
This year, the Climate Solutions Caucus included a record 80 members from the House and Senate. Many were new legislators, like me. We had a lot of passionate voices in the room, all clamoring for action, which sometimes spurred progress and sometimes slowed us down. With that in mind, we're already developing a strategy for 2020, and I've been elected to the caucus leadership team as House co-vice chair. The legislature passed many other important bills during this session. We approved $5.7 million in the FY20 budget (H.542) to help low-income families pay for childcare. We provided funding and tools to help rural communities create broadband solutions (H.513).
We protected women's reproductive rights at a time when those rights are under attack nationwide (H.57). But our most consistent, impressive accomplishments for 2019 focus on creating a cleaner, healthier Vermont for everyone. Earlier this month, U.S. News & World Report released its annual "Best States Rankings." The magazine uses more than 70 metrics to rate each state's overall quality of life, based on factors like health care, education, and the economy. Vermont ranked fifth overall, and seventh for its natural environment.
We are blessed to live in one of the most beautiful states in the nation. I'm proud that the 2019 legislature made protecting our environment—and all of us—a top priority.
Kathleen James represents Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves on the Education Committee and is newly elected as the House co-vice chair for the Climate Solutions Caucus. Follow her on Facebook and sign up for her newsletter at: facebook.com/kathjamesVTstaterep. Email: KJames@leg.state.vt.us.
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