BRATTLEBORO -- Talk of an "economic bill of rights" -- including guaranteed sick time and a significantly increased minimum wage -- spurs both support and questions among local lawmakers.
In some cases, there is concern that mandates approved in Montpelier will have unintended consequences on Main Street -- especially in Connecticut River towns such as Brattleboro and Bellows Falls.
"These little incremental things that we do can make it that much harder to do business in the state," said Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham.
Others, though, express unequivocal support for measures such as boosting Vermont's minimum wage, which at $8.73 an hour already is higher than the federal rate of $7.25.
"The argument that it will cost jobs is not supported by the evidence," Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith said.
"Decades ago, low-wage jobs were in manufacturing, and these jobs could be moved," Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat, added. "Today's low-wage jobs are in the service sector and are not mobile. You can't flip a hamburger for a Brattleboro customer in New Hampshire."
The push for more economic equality and a "worker-friendly" state has a big local backer in Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat who is vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.
Moran was one of seven House members introducing "economic bill of rights" legislation (H.770) that was referred to his committee on Friday.
The bill, according to its statement of purpose, proposes to "raise the minimum wage to a livable wage (in this case, $15 hourly), provide for paid family leave, provide for paid sick days, change Vermont from an at-will employment state into a just-cause employment state and create a rental housing registry."
Under the proposal, all employees in Vermont would accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 30 hours worked, with a maximum accumulation of 56 hours in a 12-month period.
Moran's committee on Thursday heard testimony from those who support and oppose guaranteed sick time. Detractors worried about "increased costs and administrative burdens" associated with such a mandate.
Trieber says he is "very sympathetic to the issues that are being brought up. People should have a right to call out of of work if they are sick."
But he's also thinking about the impact on owners of small businesses.
"What concerns me is the mandate for businesses, and the fact that there's no exemption for any businesses in the state," Trieber said.
"I don't really like mandates," he added. "I think that different businesses handle things in different ways."
Trieber's district includes Bellows Falls, and he is concerned that the combination of new minimum-wage and sick-leave mandates "could have devastating effects on our towns throughout the Connecticut River Valley" due to the proximity of New Hampshire.
Rep. Mike Hebert is well-acquainted with river-town concerns. The Vernon Republican contends the business community is "scared stiff" about a potentially big hike in the state minimum wage.
"I would think, as a business person, I would have to reduce staff. I'm thinking this would reduce employment levels rather than help them," Hebert said. "I understand the purpose and the desire (of the legislation), but I'm thinking we have to look at creating jobs."
In the Senate, Galbraith and Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Putney, have signed onto legislation raising Vermont's minimum wage to $12 per hour.
That's $3 less than the House proposal. Galbraith said he considers the $12 rate "a fiscally conservative step that gives low-wage workers a much-needed raise and saves taxpayers money."
"A $12 minimum wage means fewer working Vermonters getting the earned income tax credit (a state and federal program that supplements the income of low-wage workers), SNAP benefits (formerly food stamps), LIHEAP and other government assistance," Galbraith said.
"In reality, these programs are a taxpayer subsidy to companies that do not pay their employees enough to live on," he added. "The companies receiving these subsidies include some of America's (most) profitable corporations. Why should taxpayers who do not eat at fast-food restaurants or shop at Walmart subsidize their business?"
In other legislative news with connections to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- Hebert, a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said he was pleased that the House overwhelmingly backed an expansion of the state's net-metering program.
The program allows partners in small, renewable energy projects to send power to the grid while receiving credit on their utility bills for that power.
The bill (H.702), which garnered preliminary House approval in a 136-8 roll-call vote on Wednesday and received final approval via voice vote on Thursday, raises the cap on net metering from 4 percent of a utility's peak capacity to 15 percent.
"I think it's a good bill," Hebert said, adding that his support was contingent on the insertion of provisions safeguarding ratepayers from bearing the cost of a net-metering expansion.
"We're going to get to the point where regular people will be paying for net-metering people's use of the poles and wires, and we don't want to do that," Hebert said.
-- Rep. Mollie Burke said her House Transportation Committee heard from a board that held six public hearings around the state to get input on a variety of transportation issues.
That includes possible ways to raise more transportation funding for Vermont's roads and bridges. There is "support for a vehicle-miles traveled tax when explained as part of an alternative fuel-tax discussion," Burke said, as well as "alteration of the DMV fees to take into account vehicle size and weight."
Burke said participants in the hearings also emphasized simplification of sidewalk grants, with a need for more sidewalks and pedestrian-controlled signals; harsher penalties for impaired driving; concern about excessive speed; and support for intercity bus expansion with more bus and train options.
-- The House Judiciary Committee is taking on some weighty issues, according to Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Weston Independent who represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district.
The committee is working on H.88, an act relating to parental rights and responsibilities involving a child conceived as a result of a sexual assault; S.119, relating to amending perpetual conservation easements; H. 581, relating to guardianship of minors; and H.555, relating to the commitment of a criminal defendant who is incompetent to stand trial because of a traumatic brain injury.
The latter two bills, Goodwin said, "both deal with circumstances one wishes did not exist, but do exist and need well-considered statutes for the good and welfare and protection of the public."
"In circumstances we are comfortable with, children are best cared for in their home, by their parents or parent, but situations arise in which this is not possible," Goodwin said in reference to the guardianship bill. "Accidents happen, illnesses happen and crime happens."
The title of H.555 makes clear its intention, but Goodwin prefers to explain it this way:
"The purpose of the bill is to arrive at a solution to the problem of what to do with people who, due to traumatic brain injury, cannot and should not be convicted of a crime but present a danger to the public and/or to themselves," he said. "I am only going to say that listening to testimony of victims or close relatives, and hearing and seeing the emotion caused, is an emotional experience. There are damp eyes and wavering voices in the committee room."
-- On the House Human Services Committee, lawmakers are "knee-deep in the nitty-gritty of committee work," said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Recent topics have included child-protection services ("how well the new reporting system is or isn't working," Mrowicki said); developmental disabilities ("big-picture work, developing an updated System of Care Plan as mandated every 3 years," he noted); Youth in Transition, which includes foster-care services; and updates on palliative care.
Mrowicki added this general note to Windham County residents:
"Another aspect of our legislative work -- at times the most important work we do -- is constituent service," he said. "Whether you're having trouble with your heat supplier or signing up for Green Mountain Health Care, we can often get answers for you. And when we are in Montpelier for the four months of the session, it's easier to get direct answers."
He encouraged residents to get in touch with their legislators via contact information on the Legislature's website, www.leg.state.vt.us.
Also, the full text of all of the Vermont Legislature's introduced bills can be found by searching via bill number, title, keyword or sponsor at www.leg.state.vt.us/ResearchMain.cfm.
Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Reformer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.