BRATTLEBORO -- As a veteran of the child-care business, Kay Curtis wants to ensure that "Vermont has the best early education system in the country."
The owner of Happy Hands -- A School for Little People, based in Brattleboro, Curtis believes the state Legislature has taken a big step toward that goal by voting to allow unionization of some child-care workers.
"We feel the best way to improve the quality of child care in Vermont is to start by allowing providers to make a livable wage," Curtis said. "The turnover rate of 40 percent in our profession is proof that we have not invested the funding to make the system work for children and their families.
The measure covers small, independent child-care providers, who will be allowed to negotiate for the amount of state subsidies they receive for serving lower-income families. Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to sign the bill.
The state Senate approved the measure earlier in the 2014 session. On Tuesday, just days before the session's expected Saturday adjournment, the House passed the bill by a narrow margin -- 78 yes to 59 no.
Supporters have said child-care providers are poorly compensated, with a typical wage of $18,000 or $19,000 per year. So a stronger state subsidy could alleviate some financial pressures.
But others have questioned the need for a union, noting that the Legislature has the power to raise those subsidies on its own. One lawmaker who opposed the bill reportedly characterized it as "asking us to save ourselves from ourselves: ‘Stop me before I underfund child care one more time.'"
Windham County's representatives voted 9-3 in favor of the bill. Reps. Tim Goodwin, I-Weston; Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington; and Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham were the negative votes.
Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, was among the supporters.
"After several attempts to pass a bill that would allow child-care workers the right to vote on whether to unionize, the Legislature finally managed to pass such a bill," Mrowicki said. "With child-care workers continuing to be some of the lowest-paid workers with the huge responsibility of caring for the young children of working parents, this law allows for workers to vote on organizing for more bargaining leverage."
Vernon-based Rep. Mike Hebert, the local delegation's lone Republican, supported the bill -- but not without reservations.
"I voted for this bill because providers in my district overwhelmingly supported this bill," Hebert said in comments recorded in the official House journal. "However, I still remain unconvinced that this bill will provide the benefits they hope for, nor will the bill add value to our children's education."
Curtis had been deeply involved in lobbying for the bill's passage. When it becomes law, a union will not form automatically: Child-care providers must vote on the matter.
"Providers across Vermont are thankful that we have been given the right to organize as a union. It has taken us four long years of advocacy for our profession to reach this goal," Curtis said in an e-mail to the Reformer. "Now that we have won this right, we will meet with providers and together decide when it makes sense to move forward with next steps. There will be a vote and, if a majority of home child-care providers want a union, we will form one."
There was concern among some lawmakers about "agency fees" -- the fees that child-care providers will have to pay even if they don't join the union.
Curtis said such fees are not a given.
"We have the right to come together and decide what we want to do about agency fees," she said. "We can decide to have them or not have them."
She added that there is a pending U.S. Supreme Court case regarding agency fees in some unions. Until that is decided, Curtis said, there will be no agency fees for child-care providers in Vermont.
In other Legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
-- With the 2014 session and the biennium (the two-year legislative cycle) winding down, lawmakers spent long hours debating big issues. Bills that do not pass by the end of the biennium die, and supporters must reintroduce them in the next biennium.
Goodwin, who represents the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House District, recounted a late night debate and an inconclusive vote that he believes was "good for business in Vermont."
At issue was a bill that, "in its first section, would have established a committee to study the issue of no-fault employment policies. There was generally not a problem with the establishment of the committee," Goodwin said.
A number of lawmakers felt differently about another provision mandating that an "employer, employment agency, or labor organization shall not discharge or in any other manner discriminate against or penalize an employee because the employee has used, or attempted to use, accrued employer-provided sick leave."
Goodwin argued that "passage of this bill would leave employers vulnerable to lawsuits for infractions they were not aware of. This, in turn, might well lead to an inclination by small-business owners to eliminate that risk by eliminating the sick-leave benefit for their employees, a result no one was looking for."
After an amendment proposal led to a rare tie vote, the bill "was returned to the committee from whence it came," Goodwin said.
-- After years of debate, supporters of labeling genetically modified food had cause to celebrate on Thursday when the governor signed the nation's first law mandating such labels.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee and was one of the architects of that legislation. She spoke at Thursday's bill-signing ceremony.
"It was a great day with many people to thank including our staff, other committees and the members of my committee who are thoughtful, brilliant and hard-working," Partridge said. "I am especially thankful, however, for all of the Vermonters who came to our hearing in 2012 and lent us support through the entire process. Their help was critical."
Partridge said her message to GMO-labeling supporters on Thursday was simple: "You have all been with us on the journey, and you have proven that your votes count, your voices can make a difference and, together, we govern."
-- While scrambling to finish their legislative business, Windham County's lawmakers also took time to meet on Friday morning with Noelle MacKay, commissioner of the state Department of Housing and Community Development.
The topic was the potential use of $10 million in economic-development money earmarked for Windham County. That cash is part of an agreement between the state and Entergy, which is closing its Vermont Yankee nuclear plant at year's end.
"The memorandum grants $2 million per year for five years to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development," said Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro. "The fund's purpose is to bolster economic development in Windham County by granting funding to organizations working on economic development projects in our area."
Stuart said other attendees included state Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Miller; Deputy Secretary of Commerce Lucy Leriche; Annie Noonan of the Department of Labor; Fred Kenny of the Vermont Economic Development Progress Council; and Andrew Perchlik of Vermont's Clean Energy Development Fund.
Officials discussed the status of the economic development grant process and also "how to strengthen that process," Stuart said. They also discussed the coming layoffs at Vermont Yankee and how the state is working with employees of the Vernon plant.
For example, Stuart said, the state "is applying for a trade petition to the federal government that would allocate job-training funds for all employees laid off by Entergy."
"I told MacKay and the other heads of the governor's economic development team that making sure the state strengthens the communications loop between Windham County community members (and the state) should be a top-level priority," she said. "It is great news that these moneys are available to mitigate the effect of Entergy's closing on our area."
-- Mrowicki hailed the recent passage of a "bias-free policing" law. It mandates that police collect data on the race of those they pull over.
"This bill will allow for tracking incidents and using that data to inform ongoing training for law enforcement," Mrowicki said. "As minority populations are the only growing demographic in Vermont -- especially in Windham County -- this sets us on the path to better efforts at treating all Vermonters equally under law."
Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Reformer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275. Follow him on Twitter @MikeReformer.