We are in the home stretch of the 2021 Legislative Session. COVID-19 cases are on the decline, Vermonters are lining up for vaccinations, and spring has arrived in Vermont. It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago that we were resigning ourselves to the reality that our somewhat predictable way of life had become uncertain and unpredictable. Schools went on line, businesses shut down, travel halted, and family members sheltered in place. The spigot, as Governor Scott would refer to during his weekly press conference, was closed. The decisions that were being made focused on saving lives and preventing the spread of this unknown virus. Mandates to socially distance, wear masks, and only venture outside the home when essential, became embedded in our psyches. No more family get togethers, going to sporting events, attending your child’s school performance, attending a religious service, visiting a family member in the hospital or a nursing home. For the majority of us, going to work or school entailed logging into Zoom and spending the day looking at a monitor filled with small boxes filled with our co-workers, students, fellow Legislators, or business associates. Sadly, there were 246 Vermont families that lost a loved one during this pandemic and continue to suffer the anguish of their loss. May the understanding that we all share their pain help them to bear their sorrow.
I have always loved the arrival of spring in Vermont. Our winters can be so challenging and I have always believed that getting through winter is a badge of honor that all Vermonters wear proudly. This last winter was a tough one but it is coming to an end. Our days are growing longer, masks are no longer required outside, once vaccinated you feel a sense of relief and gratitude, businesses can slowly begin to open, children can return to their schools, and friends, neighbors, and families can gather and enjoy the very simple pleasure of being with one another again.
This Legislative session has been extremely busy. I introduced several bills this session. My bill to address Literacy was “taken up” by the Chair of the Education Committee (of which I am a member) and my other bill, an attempt to find a solution to address failing waste water systems, is still “on the wall” in the Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife Committee.
S.114 - Literacy
S.114 is an act relating to improving pre K through grade 12 literacy. The House amended this bill to address the ongoing work of improving literacy outcomes for all Vermont students but specifically targets preK-3rd grade reading instruction.
Using Federal ESSER Funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) under the American Rescue Plan of 2021 this bill, through grants and contracts , will address learning loss and ensure that interventions respond to students’ academic, social and emotional needs.
The Agency of Education will use the funds to help supervisory unions improve literacy outcomes, including professional development for teachers based on evidence based best practices. The Agency will also contract with an reading specialist to manage this initiative over the next three years. S.114 also creates an Advisory Reading Council on Literacy and requires a review of teacher preparation programs and licensing requirements to assure that evidence based best practices and assessments are essential components of literacy instruction.
H.449 - The Pension Bill
H.449 is an act relating to the membership and duties of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission and creation of the Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force.
This bill was crafted as a result of public comments from our teachers, troopers, and state employees. It was clear to me, after reading emails, speaking to Colchester constituents, and listening to testimonies made during the public comment sessions, that the Legislature needed to slow down the process. In addition we had to address the governance structure of the pension funds and create an independent Vermont Pension Investment Commission (VPIC). The last proposal that was requested by advocates was to create a Task Force to work together over the summer to realistically look at options, plan reforms, explore revenue sources, and any other sustainable solutions. Once and for all we need to put this system onto a track that is sustainable, affordable, and feasible.
This Legislature is committed to tackling the pension dilemma that has been kicked down the road for far too long. Past Administrations both Democrat and Republican had consistently not paid in the required contributions required to keep the fund whole. As a result past and current Legislatures have been attempting to religiously stick to a plan to pay down the unfunded liabilities. The Legislature does not manage the pension funds or provide any opinions on how the funds should be invested. H.449 amends the makeup and duties of VPIC and establishes an independent Commission. It has become very clear that the current model needs to be revised to include members who have the financial expertise and investment knowledge to make informed and smart decisions regarding future investments.
The Gov Ops Committee agreed with advocates that the voices of pension plan members and beneficiaries be on both VIPIC and the Task Force
The 10 VPIC members proposed by The Government Operations Committee are:
- A total of 3 Employee Members from each of the VMERS,VSTRS, and VSERS boards
- The State Treasurer
- The Commissioner of Financial Regulation
- 2 new Independent financial experts appointed by the Governor
- 1 Employer member appointed by the VermontSchool Boards Association
- 1 Employer member from the towns, appointed by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns
- 1 Chair elected by the other 9 voting members who only votes if there is a tie
The Pension Task Force
The Pension Benefit, Design, and Funding Task Force will begin work no later than June 15 and report back to the legislature no later than 9/1/21 with recommendations on what actions should be taken to address the underfunded pension plan and put it on a sustainable pathway.
Members of the Task Force
- 3 members of the VSTRS participant members (appointed by the VT NEA)
- 3 VSERS participant members (2 from the VT State Employee Association, one from the VT Troopers Association)
- Treasurer’s Office-Director of the Retirement System
- Commissioner of Financial Regulation
- 3 Members of the House (appointed by the Speaker, cannot all be from the same party)
- 3 Members from the Senate (appointed by the Committee on Committees, cannot all be from the same party)
The Legislature will have to approve any recommendations of the Task Force before they go into effect.
The ultimate outcome of H.449 is to provide oversight and best practices to a pension system that has been unsustainable as a result of past underfunding, overly optimistic return projections, lower than anticipated fund performances, and demographic shifts. When combined with healthcare and other retirement costs, the total unfunded retirement liabilities have grown to over $5.6 billion.
The time is now to act on finding a resolution to this dilemma. Due to the current infusion of Federal funds into the State, the Legislature will be able to invest $150 million into the fund. With the revisions to the VPIC Governance Structure and the recommendations of the Pension Task Force, the House is creating opportunities to tackle this problem that has gone on for far too long.
The 2021 Session
This session the House has worked diligently to provide for the health and safety of all Vermonters, make wise, sustainable, and informed investments with the (2020) Coronavirus Relief Funds, the ( 2021) ARPA funds,(2022) General Funds, address racial and social inequities by viewing the policies we create to assure that all Vermonters not only have equal opportunities but equal access to those opportunities. We will emerge from this pandemic stronger, safer, and more resilient. It is important to keep following the Governor’s Guidelines, be smart, safe, and responsible and we’ll be on the “other side” of this pandemic before the leaves fall.
As always, it is an honor and a privilege to serve the citizens of Colchester.
Representative Sarita Austin