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Vermont Legislature reconvenes for new session

Flood recovery, opioid addiction, housing, and several other key issues marked the start of Vermont's legislative session on Wednesday.

Recovery from the catastrophic flooding that hit Vermont this summer, climate resiliency, improving public safety, tackling opioid addiction, and creating more affordable housing are among the top priorities of the legislative session that kicked off Wednesday, legislative leaders said.

The legislative off-session was not a normal one, said Senate President Pro Tempore Philip Baruth, and a range of critical issues need lawmaker’s attention this year.

"We had emergencies of various kinds around the state," the Democrat-Progressive told colleagues. "So our range of choices are going to be little narrower this year than they were last year. And yet we’re going to have to think bigger about how to avoid and mitigate climate change and flooding, we’re going to have dig deeper and we’re going to have to balance the budget, which we always do."

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Multiple bills are being introduced with different strategies to tackle flood recovery and improve climate residency, said House Speaker Jill Krowinski.

"There’s not one magic bill that’s going to solve all of our problems when it comes to the flood recovery and so it’s going to be a combination of things," she said in an interview. "It’s support for families and small businesses that have been impacted, looking at ways to help deal with the water that comes through, through our rivers and dams, and looking at different policies around that."

The session opens as federal COVID-19 relief funding has ended, which means spending is returning to pre-pandemic levels. Most of the federal money has been committed and there's still a bit that needs to be designated and get out the door, Baruth said.

"For the first time in the last three or four years, we are going to have to make tougher choices about where to put our money," he said.

The one-time federal pandemic funds, Krowinski noted, were used for one-time policies and projects.

Concurrently, the state is grappling with rising opioid overdose deaths each year. The number jumped from 111 in 2019 to 237 in 2022. As of September 2023, there were 180 opioid overdose deaths in the state, with three months remaining to tally, according to the latest data from the Vermont Health Department.

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Communities experiencing opioid misuse have had problems with needles discarded in public places like parks and greenbelts, said Baruth. "We have to act on that."

Legislators will look at a harm reduction bill that will include programs to gather in more needles. They will also consider starting a pilot program — in communities that are receptive to it — for overdose prevention centers, which include safe injection sites — places where people can use heroin and other narcotics under the supervision of trained staff and be revived if they take too much. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has opposed the idea.

Baruth said that like many people, he was skeptical in the past about safe injection sites. However, he said the current rise in overdose deaths and the use of drugs in public needs to be managed and supervised.

"If they’re going to use let’s control where they use, let’s help them keep the needles safe — and let’s get them services, wraparound services, while they visit with that site," Baruth said.

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