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Vermont advocate: Not a bad legislative session

A leading advocate for low-income and disabled Vermonters says despite a tight budget year it was not a bad session at the Vermont Legislature.

Vermont Legal Aid lawyer Christopher Curtis says a curb on drivers’ license suspensions, a bill banning employers from asking about criminal records on job applications and another requiring paid sick days for workers were important achievements.

Curtis also points to a partial restoration of a benefit cut enacted previously. That affects families with a parent who receives Social Security disability benefits who also get help from the state’s Reach-Up welfare-to-work program.

And he says a bill creating a new class of dental therapists will help low-income Vermonters get the dental care they need.

Can the state do more to help Vermonters in poverty?

Anti-poverty advocates tout this legislative session as one for the ages, but a senior lawmaker [Rep. Francis "Topper" McFaun, R-Barre Town] says Vermont took good steps when it needs to leap. ...

"Huge changes that are going to make dramatic improvements for Vermonters," said Chris Curtis, Vermont legal aid advocate.

Curtis is an advocate and co-chair of the Governor's Council on Pathways from Poverty. He says there's always more on the menu of ways the state can help, but praises lawmakers for helping the poor in a tight budget year. Next year, he'll push again for a fee on rooms and meals to fund homeless and affordable housing.

"There are lots of things the state of Vermont can do to address the problems, let's get to work, let's make progress," said Curtis. ...

McFaun says that means tax incentives for employers willing to bring good-paying jobs to Vermont, an education system designed to cater to poor students who start well behind their more affluent peers, and drug treatment projects to prevent addiction from tearing apart families. The representative concedes what he's proposing would carry massive costs, but argues it's affordable

DLS reform bill offers lifeline to thousands of Vermont drivers

Among dozens of bills passing at the end of the 2016 Statehouse session is one low-income advocates say is nothing short of a lifeline.

H. 571 reforms penalties for driving with a suspended license ... and allows those Vermonters who are simply unable to afford to pay old tickets to wipe the slate clean.

"We have 60,000 Vermonters whose license to drive is suspended. Of those, 32,000 are for their inability to pay the fine," said Chris Curtis, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid. "We have a system that's totally broken that low-income Vermonters cannot navigate because they just cannot pay the fines. It's trapping people in poverty."

Curtis pushed hard for H. 571, which will offer motorists an opportunity to erase many unpaid civil penalties and tickets for $30 each.

Legislative Wrap: New health care accountability, reform ideas emerge

Lawmakers spent the session providing oversight on Gov. Peter Shumlin’s ambitious health care goals, and most of the new reform ideas came from the lawmakers themselves. ...

In October, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont was the first to request an independent technical review. Vermont Legal Aid joined the call in January, when the backlog of changes to be made to customer accounts exceeded 5,000. Republicans then called for any review to be divorced from the control of the Shumlin administration. ...

The final version of H.812 directs the Green Mountain Care Board to regulate accountable care organizations — the intermediaries between doctors and insurance companies that the Affordable Care Act allows as a method for changing health care payment.

Much of the regulation is designed to protect consumers as health care payment reform moves forward. Provisions require public notice periods for certain accountable care organization functions and give Vermont Legal Aid the right to review an organization’s budget.

BanThe Box Bill Preventing Criminal History Question On Job Applications Signed Into Law In Vermont

A bill that bars employers from asking about a person’s criminal history on a job application form has become law in Vermont. ...

Vermont Legal Aid AttorneyChristopher Curtis is co-chair of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council. He calls the law a fair second chance for Vermonters who made a mistake in their past.

Curtis says Ban the Box is one of the most important elements of criminal justice reform. “The question about a prior conviction on initial application may even apply to simple misdemeanors. And a lot of times if a person enters into a plea deal for a lesser sentence a simple misdemeanor may be the thing that ends up on their record. And they may not even be aware that they're going to have to in the future answer questions on initial applications about a prior conviction. So this is going to open up the doors to opportunity for many, many Vermonters. And we think that one of the key things you can do to prevent poverty, prevent recidivism, is for Vermonters to be able to have a good job.”

Top official says state not frustrated with exchange contractor

Gov. Peter Shumlin’s chief of health care reform testified Wednesday in the House and challenged the veracity of a VTDigger story that said the state has been unhappy with its current Vermont Health Connect contractor and is negotiating with another company. ...

Lawmakers are still considering how much money to devote to an independent review of Vermont Health Connect and whether to continue the power of the Department of Vermont Health Access, which oversees Vermont Health Connect, to make emergency rules.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, MVP Health Care and Vermont Legal Aid all oppose the original extension. The Department of Vermont Health Access supports extending its power.

‘Ban the Box’ bill becomes law in Vermont

In order to help people with criminal convictions find employment and build successful lives, Governor Peter Shumlin has signed a bill to remove questions about criminal records from the very first part of job applications in Vermont. “Banning the box” will give those with criminal records a fair chance at a good job and reduce the risk of recidivism and incarceration. The law follows a 2015 Executive Order signed by Governor Shumlin to implement a “ban the box” hiring policy for state jobs. ...

Christopher Curtis, Co-Chair of the Governor’s Pathways from Poverty Council and Attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, has made “Ban the box” hiring policies a priority.

“This legislation will allow many qualified workers to get a foot in the door to employment – it’s a fair shake and a second chance for many applicants who might otherwise find their applications in the recycle bin as a result of a prior conviction. This only results in Vermonters not being able to keep their housing or meet other important obligations,” said Curtis. “Ban the box’ can help open up new job opportunities for Vermonters.”

VLA Consumer Rights Attorney Receives National Award

Vermont Legal Aid attorney Grace Pazdan received the prestigious Henry J. Sommer Scholarship for the 2016 National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA) Annual Convention to be held in San Francisco May 19-22, 2016.

Grace works in Vermont Legal Aid’s Montpelier office, defending clients throughout Vermont against foreclosure and advocating for consumer rights.

According to NACBA, Grace was selected from a large field of accomplished consumer bankruptcy attorneys to recognize her “achievements and dedication to serving low-income, elderly and disabled consumers facing foreclosure and debt collection.”

A 2006 summa cum laude graduate of American University Washington College of Law, Grace was selected in 2008 to serve as the first Vermont Poverty Law Fellow. During the two-year fellowship, which was based at VLA, she drafted and advocated for legislation that resulted in Vermont enacting a mediation program for homeowners facing foreclosure.  

“Vermont Legal Aid is very fortunate to be able to attract smart, talented attorneys like Grace who graduate from top law schools and are passionate about helping the most vulnerable people in Vermont with legal problems that threaten their rights, their home, their job, or their health,” said Vermont Legal Aid’s Executive Director, Eric Avildsen. “This award not only provides Grace the opportunity and resources to elevate her practice, it also provides independent validation of the high quality of representation our clients receive.”

NACBA is a national organization dedicated to serving the needs of consumer bankruptcy attorneys and protecting the rights of consumer debtors in bankruptcy.

Senate pares down, moves on special ed bill

A bill before the Senate Appropriations Committee, H.859, could lay the groundwork for reform of the state’s special education funding system. ...

Marilyn Mahusky, a lawyer with Vermont Legal Aid and a member of the Two Rivers Supervisory Union executive committee, ... [said she] had heard that while the results of similar pilot projects had been positive, administrators had been stymied in implementing reforms by the current spending formula.

“We need to figure out what the funding formula is and then I think it does make sense to do these pilot projects. I think it’s also critically important that if we do the pilot projects, that the funding be there for the schools that need it the most,” Mahusky said. “Schools that are underfunded are probably the ones that need the most support — they’re the ones that are least able to afford it.”

So-called liberals

The Senate has a chance to rectify a damaging and unjust cut in benefits to the poorest Vermonters. ...

The Senate Appropriations Committee is in a good position to right this wrong, especially since the Reach Up program has enjoyed $4 million in savings because of caseload reductions. This means that there is no longer any semblance of a budget justification for the cut in benefits. ...

Vermont Legal Aid challenged the state’s benefit cut, but a federal judge ruled the cut was permissible. That doesn’t make it wise. It only drives some families deeper into poverty while allowing the Legislature to tell middle class and wealthy Vermonters that it has steered clear of harmful tax hikes. It is baffling sometimes how a legislative body dominated by Democrats who conceive of themselves as liberals can be persuaded that it is in the interest of the state to punish the poor. The Senate is in a position to make sure it doesn’t happen.

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