The 2020 Legislative Session in Review
In late September, Vermont lawmakers concluded what has been the longest legislative session in Vermont’s history. From fighting for livable wages, paid family leave, and climate action to ensuring a just, equitable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 session was marked by battles won and lost for VBSR. As we near the end of this long, eventful year, we are above all else heartened by the tireless work and compassion of our legislators and the proven power of VBSR businesses as a force for positive change.
Detailed below are just a few of key milestones from the 2020 session. As always, please feel free to contact VBSR’s Public Policy Manager, Jordan Giaconia with any questions, comments, or concerns.
As people across the west flee climate-driven wildfires and hurricanes continue to batter our southern coast, it’s clearer than ever that we as a state have a responsibility to do our part in tackling the climate emergency. While many VBSR businesses have shifted their supply chains; begun gathering energy from clean, renewable sources; and invested in energy efficiency, Vermont has fallen behind our neighbors in tackling the climate crisis with the highest climate emissions per capita in the region—this is thanks largely to our state’s continued reliance on fossil fuels for our transportation and heating.
Recognizing the urgency to tackle the climate crisis and the immense economic opportunities climate action presents, VBSR teamed up with partners in the #ActonClimateVT Coalition to advance a package of future forward bills that aimed to put Vermont on track to not only meet our emissions reduction goals, but create family-sustaining jobs, stimulate local economies, and build community resilience along the way.
The Global Warming Solutions Act
H.688, The Global Warming Solutions Act, sets binding deadlines for Vermont to cut climate pollution and requires the state to create a diverse climate action council tasked with developing a detailed plan to reduce emissions, reduce energy burdens for marginalized communities, and bolster our climate adaptation efforts. After months of testimony and a stellar employee climate lobby day, House and Senate lawmakers passed the Global Warming Solutions Act and later overrode Governor Scott’s Veto of the landmark measure—officially making the Solutions Act law! Read more on this historic victory and the critical role VBSR members played in spurring climate action here.
100% Renewable Electricity Standard
H.267 sought to put Vermont on track to power our state with entirely clean electricity faster than any other in the country. Under our current Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), utilities must acquire 75% of their energy from renewable sources by 2032. There is an additional Tier II requirement that mandates 10% of that energy comes from local, in-state renewable energy projects. S. 267 would have instituted a 100% RES by 2030 and doubled the Tier II requirement to 20% local renewable energy—a change that would’ve not only helped Vermont meet its emissions reductions goals but created good paying jobs and ensured that the communities, economy, and grid infrastructure of the Green Mountain State were more resilient to the impacts of climate change. The bill was the subject of tense negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee, largely due to concerns from Vermont utilities around the upfront cost of expanding Tier II. While VBSR fought hard to advance S. 267, the bill ultimately stalled in committee when COVID-19 struck the state.
The Energy Efficiency Modernization Act
The electrification of Vermont’s transportation and heating are essential to our state’s work to lower carbon emissions and increase energy affordability for Vermonters. S. 337, the Energy Efficiency Modernization Act, creates a three-year pilot program that allows our efficiency utilities, namely Efficiency Vermont and the Burlington Electric Department, to use a portion of their funding to help reduce climate pollution in our transportation and thermal sectors. Previously, these organizations (both proud VBSR members) had been charged solely with increasing electricity efficiency. S. 337 passed through the House and Senate in September and was signed by Governor Scott later that month—marking yet another victory for climate action!
The Transportation and Climate Initiative
The Transportation and Climate Initiative or TCI is a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states as well as the District of Columbia to create a cap and invest system that would place a cap on emissions from our transportation sector and create millions of dollars in new revenue for states to invest in transitioning off of fossil fuels, improving public health, and reducing energy burdens for low-income and rural communities. With the transportation sector accounting for nearly half of Vermont’s carbon emissions, it is imperative that we seize this rare opportunity to decarbonize our region’s transportation by putting a cap on emissions and reinvesting those dollars into clean, affordable transportation options. When the draft Memorandum of Understanding was released detailing its structure and goals, the TCI received overwhelming public support with 91% of public comments backing the program. The final MOU was slated for release in the spring, however the COVID-19 pandemic forced state officials to push back its release to the fall. VBSR is committed to moving the TCI forward here in Vermont and will be calling on businesses leaders across the state to help ensure our state does not miss out on this historic opportunity.
Raising the Minimum Wage
VBSR has long supported developing what we call “livable jobs” – a vision for economic growth centered on the creation of jobs with good wages and benefits. In the face of Vermont’s growing affordability crisis, we spent much of the last session pushing to provide all working Vermonters with a livable wage by increasing our minimum wage to $15 gradually over the next five years. Because of your generous support and the steadfast advocacy of VBSR members across the state, we took a strong step toward that goal and delivered a major victory for working Vermonters with the enactment of S.23, legislation that will raise the minimum wage from $10.96 to $12.55 by 2022.
After weeks of negotiations the House and Senate passed S. 23 with overwhelming support, however a veto from Governor Scott put the fate of the bill at risk. VBSR and advocates across the state immediately began rallying legislators to overturn the Governor’s veto—emphasizing that wage increases would help to tackle income inequality, lift thousands of Vermonters out of poverty, bring in new business, and bolster household buying power. The Senate was the first to overturn the veto by a handsome majority of 24-6. S. 23 had a much steeper hill to climb in the House, who had originally passed the bill by a vote of 93-54, seven votes shy of what was needed for the override. Thanks to the tireless work of House leadership and advocates across the state, Six out of the eight Democrats who opposed the minimum wage increase on the floor in January changed their votes–clenching the vote at 100-4
Paid Family Leave
VBSR believes that the creation of a Universal Paid Family Medical Leave Program in Vermont would give financial security to workers who require time off to recover from an illness or welcome a new child, and to businesses who rely on qualified and experienced workers.
After negotiations on a paid leave bill fell apart at the end of the 2019 session, the Scott administration came forward with a collective bargaining agreement with the Vermont State Employees’ Association that would’ve created a paid family leave benefit for the state’s 8,500 employees. VBSR was quick to point out that the program laid out by Scott was an inadequate solution for all working Vermonters, providing only 60% wage replacement for up to 6 weeks of leave. While this would’ve been an improvement for state employees, we knew that as a universal benefit these wage replacements and leave maximums were inadequate for the average Vermonter – and would’ve made the program inaccessible to low and moderate earners. This set the stage for a renewed fight for Paid Family leave in the 2020 session and created a newfound sense of urgency for our lawmakers to advance a more equitable program before the Administration’s flawed one took hold.
Lawmakers spent the first weeks of 2020 advancing compromise legislation that would grant 12 weeks of leave per parent or eight weeks of family care funded by a payroll tax, they then voted to send the bill to a conference committee. While VBSR supported the legislature in their effort to pass a Family Leave Bill, the compromise measure had some significant pitfalls including the lack of personal medical leave, privatization of the program, and shared, reduced caregiver benefits for spouses, siblings, and grandchildren.
As House and Senate conferees gathered to reach an agreement on paid family leave legislation VBSR elevated the issues with initial proposal and continued to push for an equitable, universal system for Paid Family and Medical Leave in Vermont. What ultimately emerged was a far better bill, one that would’ve provided a mandatory 12 weeks of bonding leave for each new parent and 8 weeks of family leave to care for a sick or injured family member along with an optional 6 weeks of personal medical leave. With support from VBSR and our partners, H. 107 passed through both chambers with strong majorities but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Scott.
In a stunning loss for Vermont families, the House fell one vote short in their attempt to override the veto. The failure to overturn Governor Scott’s veto and ratify H. 107 was a major missed opportunity for our businesses, workers, and the communities in which they live and work. The path forward in the fight for Paid Family Leave is uncertain but VBSR and our impassioned businesses across the state will continue use our voice as a force for this critical, long overdue benefit.
Student Loan Repayment
From tackling student debt to paying a livable wage, Vermont’s socially responsible businesses know that caring for our employees is key to attracting and retaining talent as well as growing the state’s economy.
Last legislative session, VBSR and Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) crafted legislation to make it easier for working Vermonters to pay off their student loans. H. 290, sought to make employer contributions to student debt repayment exempt from Vermont state income tax. The bill saw its first hearing in House Ways & Means during the early days of the session, but like many others the bill was waylaid by the arrival of COVID-19.
Fortunately, Congress included a similar provision in the CARES Act. The Act incentivizes businesses to help their workers pay off their student debt by excluding up to $5,250 in student loan repayment made by an employer from income tax.
From supply chain disruptions to complete business closures, the public health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic created a ripple effect throughout our economy—with impacts going far beyond brick and mortar storefronts and into the very communities we strive to support. As soon as this crisis arrived in Vermont, VBSR quickly pivoted to act as an advocate, educator, and convener for our members; updating our COVID-19 resource page, hosting a series of webinars on the latest shifts in public policy and best practices, as well as giving voice to businesses adversely affected by this “new normal” to ensure a just, equitable recovery.
With Congress’ passage of the CARES Act in late March, Vermont received $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds intended to help our state grapple with the growing impacts of the virus. Legislators spent much of the following weeks wading through a series of documents issued by the U.S. Treasury detailing their vague yet stringent guidance on how they could spend CRF dollars. From there, the legislature began to pass a series of bills detailing when, where, and how the federal aid would be spent. At the outset of this process, VBSR began working with legislators to craft a relief plan that not only recognized the integral role our businesses play in our communities and economies but also one that also seizes the opportunity to create lasting, positive change in the Green Mountain State. Detailed below are just a few of the key initiatives we helped get across the finish line.
The COVID-19 Essential Employee Hazard Grant Program
VBSR was one of the first groups to advocate for hazard pay for lower and middle-income essential employees. From doctors and nurses to grocers and sanitation workers, we felt that we owed it to our frontline employees, who put their lives on the line every day, to provide them with equitable compensation, recognition, and protection. Senate legislators were quick to put together legislation to provide just that. While their original bill, S. 346 would’ve used $60 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds to provide monthly lump sum payments to essential workers, conflicting interpretations of Treasury guidance led the legislature to pass a parred down version of the program that allocated $28 million in hazard pay for nurses, assisted living professionals, nursing home workers, and other care providers at high risk of infection. Later, in mid-September legislative counsel confirmed that the state could in fact cover workers in other sectors and promptly passed S. 353, which expanded the program to grocers, sanitation workers, childcare providers, and other essential workers. Meanwhile House and Senate appropriators allocated an additional $22 million to fund the program. We were incredibly heartened by the chorus of VBSR members that joined us supporting this much-needed, well-deserved program.
Restart Vermont Economic Recovery Package(s)
The process of allocating CRF dollars was a herculean task given immense budgetary pressures and soaring demand for relief from Vermont families, businesses, and community leaders. At the outset of the process, VBSR partnered with Main Street Alliance of Vermont to survey over 200 businesses on their current financial status, their experiences navigating state and federal grant/loan programs, and other key metrics to gauge the needs and overall health of Vermont’s business community. Together, we provided both written and verbal testimony to the House and Senate Commerce and Economic Development Committees detailing our findings. What resulted was series of bills that together provided over $190 million in relief grants for Vermont businesses, $50 million in supports for childcare providers, over $17 million for broadband, and much more.
Women and Minority Owned Business Grant Program
As noted in national data, minority and women business owners have traditionally not been able to access federal programs because of major systemic issues within the banking system. In 2018, the average size loan for women-owned businesses was 31% less than the average size loan for male-owned businesses. Meanwhile, large banks approved 60% of loans by white business owners, compared to 50% of loans by Hispanic business owners and just 29% of loans by black business owners. In a more recent study, 40% of Black-owned businesses and 32% of Latinx-owned businesses reported that the pandemic had forced them to close. The COVID-19 pandemic no doubt exacerbated these challenges and presented several new ones. That’s why VBSR alongside the Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, Center for Women and Enterprise, Change the Story, and Mainstreet Alliance of Vermont joined together to advocate for a set aside of CRF funding specifically for women and BIPOC business owners. Through our combined efforts we secured $5 million to be split between women and BIPOC business owners as part of the Women and Minority Owned Business Grant Program.
The Women and Minority Owned Business Program was a marked step toward racial and economic justice, but it is just one part of a broader effort needed to confront systemic racism here in Vermont. Challenges in implementing this program emphasized a major, longstanding need for our state to invest in additional technical assistance, translation services, data collection, and accountability mechanisms to support BIPOC business owners. Our groups are committed to building upon the foundation we’ve laid with the MWBE Program to support our multicultural marketplace and create a fairer and more welcoming Vermont.
Thank you Legislators!
We know that good news can be hard to find these days, but we here at VBSR found ourselves inspired by what transpired over the 2020 legislative session. Our lawmakers’ work to take strong climate action, raise wages for working Vermonters, and respond to the economic and public health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic made clear their strong commitment to the businesses, communities, families, and environment of Vermont.
How can you join us in thanking them?
- Contact your legislators and say thank you! Policymaking can often feel like a thankless job, but with your help we can change that. Click here to find your legislator and reach out with a message of gratitude for their tireless work.
- Vote! While VBSR is nonpartisan, we are working with business leaders to bolster turn out for the 2020 election. The time is now to vote with your values and make sure our legislative champs return in 2021. Click here for VBSR’s latest voter guidance and resources on how your business can help promote a safe, secure, and equitable 2020 election.