It was an interesting week in the legislature: from the Governor’s Budget Address, to the Health Care Access public meeting, to the passage of the House Transportation Committee’s Highway Safety Bill and finally to the “Brain. Science. Addiction. Lets Talk!” community conversation.
The Highway Safety Transportation bill passed by a voice vote of 133-7. Highlights of the bill include: creates civil violations for license suspensions that may be imposed prior to any criminal proceedings for persons under 21 including establishing minimum penalties for using portable electronic devices; enhances penalties for driving under the influence with minors in the car; and establishes primary seat belt legislation. Primary seat belt legislation means police may pull someone over for not wearing their seat belt, even if that is their only violation. In the last four years Vermont highway fatalities have risen steadily from 44 to 69. Last year 52% of fatalities were unbelted. Current Vermont seatbelt use hovers around 85%. With this legislation we expect the percentage to increase by at least 5% based on other states data. Based on Vermont statistics this could save 3 to 4 additional lives and 15 serious injuries each year moving forward. Millions of dollars in medical costs, life insurance premiums, disability payments and lost wages could be avoided, not to mention the physical and mental stress placed on those injured and the family and friends around them. We do know that racial profiling occurs with traffic stops and this caused many legislators to pause on their vote. In Vermont we have Fair and Impartial Policing policies - police must track the race of everyone stopped. That information is made public and reviewed by several committees of jurisdiction. We need to ensure state and local police are eliminating racial profiling while protecting the lives of all Vermonters.
The House and Senate Health Care committees heard testimony from 51 witnesses Tuesday night at a joint public hearing on access to health care. The call from more than 400 people who attended, primarily from the Vermont Workers Center, was for implementing Act 48 with universal health care, with some witnesses urging universal primary care as a next step. Witnesses shared stories of healthcare hardships from being underinsured or not being able to afford premiums. Many people put off going to doctors until there is an emergency. This hearing was a reminder that what we do is not theoretical- Vermonters lives are at stake.
The Governor’s budget address Tuesday proposed total spending for next year at $3.86m which is an increase of $82m reached without raising any new taxes or fees. Just a few of his proposals include: phased in elimination of income tax on social security benefits for low and moderate income seniors, $3.2m to attract people to Vermont by targeting those most likely to live here, $400k to a ThinkVT innovation fund to help small business expand and $625k in incentives to help renovate and upgrade existing housing stock. What is not discussed in the budget address is what programs are proposed to be reduced or eliminated to afford these new or expanded programs. For instance Agency of Human Services has proposed $16m in reduced spending. We need to understand what programs are impacted and whether Vermonters will be better off. All committees of jurisdiction have begun diving into the details with an expected final budget by mid-March.
Lastly, a highlight of my week was the conversation Brain. Science. Addiction. Let’s Talk! Parents and community members came together to discuss substance use disease. We learned how science in the brain both impact and are impacted by substances. I had two big takeaways – youth will seek out risky behavior whether it’s rock climbing or substances. We need to keep our youth engaged in activities that fulfill that need. Also studies show the later you start using substances the less likely one will develop a substance use disease. This correlates directly with the development of the brain. We also heard about the 8th grade curriculum on substances, Howard Center’s First Step and statistics of use in our schools and prevention tips. I look forward to finding a way to continue this important conversation.
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