Rep. Pajala on lead in water, minimum wage hike

By Rep. Kelly Pajala

As we approach the end of the session it may seem like committee work is winding down, but for the Human Services Committee it looks like we may not get every bill of interest to the House floor before the budget passes both chambers.

This week alone we are dealing with all or pieces of the following bills:

  • S.23 – An act relating to increasing the minimum wage
  • S.54 – An act relating to the regulation of cannabis
  • Proposition 5 – Declaration of rights; right to personal reproductive liberty
  • S.55 – An act relating to the regulation of toxic substances and hazardous materials
  • S.146 – An act relating to substance misuse prevention
  • H.162 – An act relating to removal of buprenorphine from the misdemeanor crime of possession of a narcotic
  • as well as hearing reports on pre-kindergarten and the accountable care organizations.

Smoking age, lead in water

We voted a few important bills out of committee last week: S.86 that increases the age to use tobacco products to 21 and S.40 that makes schools and child care centers test for lead in drinking water and remediate if dangerous levels are found.

I voted in favor of S.86 largely because of the increase in youth using e-cigarettes and vape products. The larger the space between those who can legally purchase and youth in our schools, the less likely young people will have easy access to tobacco products.

S.40 has gone through several incarnations since it was in the Senate but it left the Human Services committee with a 10-1-0 vote and is heading to Appropriations. It is not a secret that even very small amounts of lead will cause both physical and mental issues if ingested at any age but with particularly severe effects on young children.

Most lead enters our drinking water at the faucet, but we can test to determine if it is also in the pipes. S.40 reimburses schools and childcare centers for the cost of testing and new faucets for drinking water if they are needed. The EPA says that an acceptable lead level for drinking water is 15 parts per billion. The Senate wanted to set the actionable level at 3 ppb but since bottled water tests at 5 ppb, the House set the threshold for remediation there.

The Senate proposal was a 70-30 split between the state and schools/child care centers for the cost of new fixture set at a fixed rate. Our proposal has 100 percent state reimbursement of the actual cost, with a cap on the maximum per fixture amount. There are administrative costs associated with this bill and the testing process will not be completed until 2020, so we will be addressing costs for S.40 in this year’s budget adjustment and the next two budget years. It is likely that this bill will go to a Committee of Conference to get it across the finish line.

Minimum wage increase

I have been asked lately about where I stand on the S.23, the minimum wage bill. I have some concerns about it but certain changes could be made to swing me to a hard yes. There is a section of the bill that addresses the benefits cliff in terms of child care subsidy money, although H.531 solves that problem as well so I am not overly concerned about that.

I am concerned that the increase in the minimum wage will have an adverse effect on the state’s long-term care system (home health agencies, adult day facilities, nursing homes and others). The cost of employee wages for these organizations are reimbursed through Medicaid so funds need to be appropriated to cover increases for minimum wage workers.

As of now, that has not been factored into the state Medicaid budget and so agencies would be forced to pay increased wages out of margins that are already razor thin. People who work to care for our older Vermonters deserve to be lifted up in the minimum wage increase in the same way that state employees are.

Please feel free to get in touch with me at anytime for any reason.

Rep. Pajala is an Independent representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor District.

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