Message from Montpelier

Dear Constituents,

I am sorry that the Town’s Representatives won’t be able to speak with you at Colchester’s Town Meeting dinner this year. I always look forward to the great dinner the kitchen staff prepares and the question and answer session after dinner. Hope all of you are doing well and staying safe- COVID-19 will hopefully be in our back mirrors soon.

Legislating In a Zoom World

Every Tuesday morning  I turn on my computer, click on a Zoom link, enter the assigned password, and return to the world of pomp and circumstance, rules and regulations. I will either be entering into my  Committee (Education) space or onto the Floor where I will be joined with all the other Vermont Representatives.

The Floor Session always begins with a Devotional and then proceeds to the introduction of new bills, then orders of the day, and ends with any announcements from the members. This process occurs every day we are in session. The Floor session can last for a hour or up to 8 hours depending on the extent of the debate leading up to the vote on the proposed Legislation being presented.

Members vote remotely using a secure application on their devices or by a raising their yellow  Zoom hand. Access for the public is streamed live via YouTube: https://legislature.vermont.gov or you can listen in on VPR.

A bill that will be coming to the Floor before Town Meeting is H.81

H.81-This bill proposes to make a technical adjustment to Act 11 which is the statewide collective bargaining legislation that was passed in 2018. Act 11 set up a mechanism for negotiating school employees health care benefits on a statewide basis, removing that responsibility from local school boards and unions. This past year was the first year that statewide negotiations took place. The next round of negotiations will begin on April 1,2021.

H.81 is a technical adjustment that would give  support staff (i.e. para educators, food service workers, bus drivers, and custodians) a fair and equal seat at the table when their health insurance is being bargained. Making this technical change won’t cost anything.

H.81 is a collective bargaining legislation, not health care legislation, and does not address the rising costs of healthcare.

I continue to be extremely concerned about the unsustainable rise of the cost of healthcare in Vermont. I take every opportunity I can to gain understanding about this complex system, the resources needed to operate, efficiencies and inefficiencies, and what are realistic solutions to containing costs while providing access to affordable healthcare. A presentation I attended by Dr. Deb Richer was very informative. See link below: 

https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/track?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:7c8ee3ed-eaa1-4bb6-9e80-6e8d5cd2093b

Bills continue to be introduced on the Floor and then assigned to the Committee of Jurisdiction. If the Chair of the Committee decides to “take up “ the bill, then testimony is  taken from the  stakeholders that would be  impacted if the bill passed  or if the bill didn’t pass. Listening  carefully, asking questions, and reading the testimony presented is, I believe, one of the most important roles and responsibilities of being a Legislator.

The Education Committee

In my Committee a bill is being taken up that I submitted. H.101 is a Literacy bill that would provide grants to Supervisory Unions to build sustainable literacy supports for students who are struggling to meet grade level literacy benchmarks. The intent of H.101 is to implement the recommendations found in a 2017 report written by Nate Levenson (District Management Group) titled ,“Expanding and Strengthening Best Practices for Students Who Struggle” (https://education.vermont.gov/sites/aoe/files/documents/edu-legislative-report-dmg-expanding-and-strengthening-best-practice-supports-for-students-who-struggle.pdf)

Education Secretary French presented testimony to our committee and recommended that the best approach to increasing literacy competencies would be to use a  “prioritized, focused, and systems approach” which would include benchmark assessments for students PreK-3 and an annual monitoring report.

Other bills the Education Committee is taking up

H.209 -An act relating to school construction projects

This bill would create a task force to assess and prioritize the deferred maintenance/capitol needs of Vermont’s aging school facilities. The Education Committee wants to understand what the scope of the work would be and what possible costs might be incurred. So far testimony has been taken from an architect whose area of expertise is in school construction and renovation, and a school facilities manager.

H.54 & H.184 -These two bills both address the Weighting Study Report recommendations. In 2020 a report prepared by several researchers, including Tammy Kolbe, Ed.D (UVM) looked at the current weighting metrics to determine their accuracy in determining the costs to educate categories of students (high school, PreK, ELL, low socioeconomics).The study concluded that the 20 year old formula currently used to determine student weights is outdated, not verifiable, and needs to be updated to reflect the true costs of educating students included in the specified categories.H.54 and H.184 are both written to address the concerns and implementation of the Weighting Study. It is clear that any considerations to address student weighting will be also need to consider the recommendations found in Act 173 that moves the reimbursement model for  funding  special education to a census based model.

Announcements

Are you a Vermonter without health insurance? Starting Feb.16, the State of Vermont will offer a COVID-19 Special Enrollment Period for Vermonters to enroll in a qualified health plan and receive premium and cost-sharing assistance, if eligible. Please apply by calling (Not Online) the State’s Customer Support Center at 855-899-9600, M-F 8am-4:30 pm 

Vermonter’s declared ineligible in the past are welcome to apply again. More details here: https://dvha.vermont.gov/covid-19

PENSIONS ISSUE: 

Full disclosure-I am a retired Vt educator and I receive a pension from the State of VT

I will recuse myself from any vote on any bill related to the State Employee, Teacher, Police Pension Fund.

 There is a need to address the growing unfunded public pension liability. I have been hearing from many Colchester constituents on this issue. I understand that current and future retirees of the  State Employees, VT State Police, and State Teachers are very concerned- understandably so. However, if allowed to increase without an intervention the pension liability will put the secure retirement of thousands of state employees, state troopers, and state teachers in jeopardy in the future.

On Friday I listened to a VPR interview with Treasurer Pearce, a Representative from the State Employees Association, and several Vermont educators. The pension dilemma was discussed and the Treasurer wanted to make clear that no decisions have been made and won’t be until all stakeholders have an opportunity to be heard. This is the beginning of a conversation where options will be considered, debated, and discussed. The reality is that all of the available options to preserve the long-term viability of state employee and teacher pension systems need to be considered. There is no legislative pension proposal on the table at this time.

 The first step is the preliminary testimony that is being taken in House Government Operations. The process involves bringing all stakeholders to the table to solve the unfunded liability challenges in a fair and equitable way. Legislators on that Committee will hear from the unions representing teachers, state employees, state troopers, the Governor, the Treasurer, and many other voices as consideration is given to what steps to take.

Contrary to misinformation that has spread (especially online), whatever additional funding or program changes are made will be phased in and won't create a sudden flip of a switch on July 1.I’ve heard from several vested employees in the system who are rushing to retire in order to avoid an assumed deadline that does not exist. 

Everything will be on table as the conversation about how to address the unfunded liabilities. The end goal is to find a solution (or several) so that the Legislature can keep our commitments to provide dignity in retirement to thousands of hard-working Vermonters. 

The underfunding of the State Pension began decades ago and although past and current Administrations and Legislatures have appropriated millions and millions of dollars to make the fund solvent it has become unsustainable at it’s current projected growth rate.

Additional Sources About the Unfunded Pension Plan

The First of the Joint Fiscal’s Presentations on the Unfunded Pension-How Did We Get Here?

The Pensions 101 Workshop, recorded last Friday, is located here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=FV_hJqGsA-Q)

Treasurer Beth Pearce’s VPR Interview including a Representative from the State Employees and Several Vermont Teachers

https://www.vpr.org/post/state-treasurer-seeks-painful-cuts-retirement-benefits-government-workers

It is a privilege to serve Vermonters. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions, concerns ,thoughts, or suggestions regarding current or proposed Legislation or if you need assistance with accessing local or state services. 

Respectfully,

Representative Sarita Austin

Colchester 9-2

saustin@leg.state.vt.us

285 Crooked Creek Road

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