Gov. Phil Scott on Monday signed eight bills into law, including legislation advancing how the state criminal justice system assesses the mental health of persons facing criminal charges.
Kelly Carroll, a Bennington resident whose 26-year-old daughter, Emily Hamman, was killed in downtown Bennington this January, testified before the state Senate and House of Representatives this year in support of S.3.
She found out that Gov. Phil Scott has signed the bill when the Banner reached out to her for comment Monday afternoon.
“I’m very, very happy to hear that the governor signed it ... I’m happy that people are thinking about mental health and what to do with that small percentage of violent offenders, Carroll said. “I’m hoping the dialogue continues, and I hope to be part of that ... There’s a lot more to do, but it’s a start.”
Carroll was confident Scott would sign the bill.
“I have spoken with [Agency of Human Services Secretary] Mike Smith a while ago, and I knew that it had his support .. and with Senator [Dick] Sears and [state Rep. Mary] Morrissey, the way that they advocated ... I’m hopeful that it’s going to improve mental health services locally. Had it been in place a couple of years ago, I think Emily would still be with us.”
Darren Pronto, the Pownal man charged with first-degree murder in Hamman’s death, has reportedly been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Scott, who has been working through a backlog of bills passed in the final days of the 2021 legislative session, also signed reforms to the state’s “tax and regulate” cannabis law, a summer legislative study affecting local education funding, and a bill making the mailing of ballots for general elections permanent.
On the voting bill, S. 15, Scott asked that the Legislature return to the topic next year and add primary elections, local elections and school budget votes to the list of ballots sent to registered voters by mail.
“I’m signing this bill because I believe making sure voting is easy and accessible, and increasing voter participation, is important,” Scott said in a news release. “Having said that, we should not limit this expansion of access to general elections alone, which already have the highest voter turnout.”
The cannabis bill, S. 25, creates a “Cannabis Business Development Fund,” with the goal of providing loans and grants to “social equity applicants” — people who were historically and disproportionately hurt by cannabis prohibition. It also requires an affirmative vote by the voters of a municipality to issue a retail cannabis permit.
Also signed into law was S.13, a bill setting an implementation plan for per-pupil weighting factors used in determining education property tax capacity.
The bill establishes a legislative task force to draft legislation putting the new weights, developed for a 2019 University of Vermont report chartered by the Legislature. That report found that the existing weights were not based upon empirical data, and produced new weights addressing the higher costs of educating rural students, new English language learners and students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.
The eight-member task force will be comprised of two members each from the Senate Finance and Education committees, the House Ways & Means and Education committees. The members are to be appointed by House Speaker Jill Krowinski and the Senate Committee on Committees, and are not to all be from the same political party.
Its charge includes that it “shall recommend to the General Assembly an action plan and proposed legislation to ensure that all public school students have equitable access to educational opportunities, taking into account the report.”
Marc Schauber, executive director of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, said the coalition is grateful for Scott’s signature and “glad he fully endorses the work of this task force.
“We look forward to working with the task force as this work is important and can’t wait any longer.”
The legislation also directs the Agency of Education, under the task force’s direction, to create a user-friendly simulator that models the impact of the new weights for taxpayers in districts across the state. The existing simulator is a spreadsheet and uses 2018 financial data and pre-Act 46 consolidation district boundaries — both now outdated.
Schauber offered a note of caution on how that simulator can and should be used — as a tool to educate residents on the potential tax impact. “I want people to remember that the correcting the per-pupil weights is about equity in educational opportunities, not about fixing a tax system.”
Bennington Banner reporter Tiffany Tan contributed to this report.