The 12th week of the legislature was, in a word, momentous. We passed both the budget, appropriating funds for the state, and the capital bill, which strategically funds, through bonding, state projects and infrastructure that support the implementation of best practices throughout the state.
First, the budget. Notably, we did not raise taxes or fees. Using monies from the tobacco settlement we provided $10 million for the teachers retirement fund, an extra $1.5 million for the state colleges and UVM, $500,000 for buildings and general services and $14 million for substance abuse disorders. We fully restored the Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living budget, and contributed to free clinics for the uninsured. If you are interested in other programs funded, let me know.
Second, the capital bill. The legislature allocated $24 million for clean water initiatives and $4 million for mental health. The latter includes increasing the number of beds for Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, funding the design and construction of the Middlesex Therapeutic Residential Facility, increasing the beds to 25, adding three beds to the Chittenden Correctional facility and 10 beds for the Southern State Correctional facility for therapeutic treatment of inmates.
Education was allocated $4 million with Homeland Security matching $1 million for school safety grants. Schools can receive a $25,000 grant that must be matched at the local level to study and determine how to ensure the safety of the students.
This week, the House passed three important bills dedicated to the safety of our citizens. Their aim is to keep firearms out of the hands of those who should not have them. After 16 hours of debate and multiple amendments, we passed S. 55, which increases the minimum age to buy a gun to 21 years, bans bump stocks, limits the size of a magazine to 10 and requires universal background checks. We also unanimously passed the extreme risk protection bill, allowing law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people deemed to pose an extreme risk to themselves or others. Finally, we passed the domestic violence bill, allowing police to remove a weapon that is in plain sight when an arrest is made involving domestic violence.
The Health Care Committee has been working on pharmaceuticals. We are investigating whether we can import bulk drugs from Canada to decrease the costs Vermonters pay for medications. It would designate a state agency to become licensed as a drug wholesaler. It also removes the gag order that prevents a pharmacist from disclosing the cash price of a medication or from selling a lower-priced medication if one is available.
Let me know your perspectives.
Over the last few weeks the focus has been on gun violence prevention legislation. However, in conversations many ask, “What else are we doing about school safety and about mental health?”
School Safety – The House unanimously approved H.923. This annual bill appropriates funds to infrastructure improvement projects across the state. This year the bill provides $4 million for school safety and security grants with an additional $1 million in federal funds. Schools may apply for grants to implement safety measures such as intercom systems, window coverings, door looks, etc. The governor convened a group to perform security assessments of all schools. Once that report is delivered and the capital budget is signed into law, schools will be able to apply for a grant.
Mental Health – The general fund budget passed by the House allocated funds to provide community outreach counselors to assist people seeking emergency services in communities (including Essex); provide additional funds to make the Pathways peer warm line available 24/7; and provide funding for additional housing and associated supported services in the Rutland County area. All programs have shown a significant ability to divert people from emergency services to provide the right care within the community. The capital budget invests in additional beds for those needing a therapeutic setting but don’t require a hospital level of care. These actions will have the combined effects of keeping individuals out of the ERs and improve the flow of patients between different types of facilities due to more available beds. These investments continue our commitment to increase resources to provide the right care at the right time for all those suffering a mental health illness.
I want to be clear though. I firmly believe gun violence and mental health are two distinct issues. Less than 4 percent of gun violence is connected to a mental health illness. There is a difference between someone suffering an illness such as bipolar, schizophrenia or severe and persistent depression and someone who is socially isolated, angry or resentful and chooses to act out with violence. As a society, we need to appropriately discuss, provide resources and craft effective policy for each population – as the needs and resources for one are most likely not the same in the other.
Recently Reps. Giambatista, Dunn and I held a discussion on early childhood trauma and the long lasting effects toxic stress (i.e. poverty, abuse or neglect, exposure to violence, parental substance abuse) can have on an individual. EWSD held a school safety community conversation. I hope these types of conversations continue. We need to continue learning together.
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