House member surveys federal threats to funding, policy

MONTPELIER — As the administration of President Donald Trump settles in, one Vermont lawmaker is attempting to survey the landscape and determine where the state could be harmed by changes in federal policy and funding.

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, a former House majority leader, is attempting to create a rapid response plan if the president’s policies have a significant impact on Vermont. So far, however, there are still many question marks about what the Trump administration is planning.

“There’s nothing rapid about it so far because right now a lot of what I’m doing is trying to get a handle on the landscape — what do we hear might be coming down from Congress, what do we hear might be coming in the form of executive orders,” she told the Vermont Press Bureau.

Copeland Hanzas is keeping in touch with the state’s congressional delegation to stay abreast of what could be coming.

“People are joking that I’m acting as the minesweeper because I’m out there in this foggy landscape where we don’t really know what’s going on and I’m looking for craters or potential craters,” she said.

“The threats come in two major categories and the first one that we can all think of immediately is funding,” Copeland Hanzas added. “The other thing that is harder to figure out is where are there places where federal law protects Vermonters. Think of some of our environmental laws or consumer protection — both in terms of the foods and consumer goods, but also in terms of food and insurance and securities and insurance.”

Congress has repeatedly tried to repeal the federal Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, and the president has indicated that he, too, wants to repeal the landmark health care reform law and replace it with something else. That could have a disastrous impact in Vermont and other states, according to Copeland Hanzas, because of federal subsidies used by Vermonters.

“In 2016 we got $80 million in premium tax credit and cost subsidies coming into the state to help Vermonters pay for their health care. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, that is $80 million out of the Vermont economy, and you can bet that the money that Vermonters saved by not having to pay those parts of their premium went right back into the Vermont economy. This is a huge threat. It’s a threat to us as a state and its a threat to us as individuals and families,” she said.

There is also concern in Vermont and other states that the Republican-led Congress and the Trump administration will attempt to turn Medicaid into a federal block grant program, which could mean a cut in Medicaid money. The state would be hard-pressed to backfill the state-federal program which has an annual cost of about $1.5 billion in Vermont. Vermont could find other states to partner with and push back against harmful federal policies, Copeland Hanzas said.

“We should be able to create some unlikely allies. We have a Republican governor, 32 other states with Republican governors, many of whom expanded Medicaid and have functioning insurance exchanges that are serving their people, and their people are getting significant help paying their premiums through those exchanges. I’ve got to think that this governor could, and very well should, be working with his governor colleagues to advocate,” she said.

Meanwhile, Copeland Hanzas is also reviewing areas where the state may need to pass legislation to protect Vermonters if federal regulations are rolled back. She noted that “forward-thinking people” in the Legislature foresaw that the cleanup of Lake Champlain — mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency — could be in jeopardy if the presidency changed hands, so lawmakers codified the cleanup agreement in state law. State lawmakers might attempt to do that in other areas, as well, Copeland Hanzas said.

“It was understood that the way Congress was acting and the way they were standing in opposition to everything President Obama wanted to do, if they ever got a Republican president that some of our environmental standards would be relaxed and that more pollution would be allowed by a number of different sources,” she said. “That’s what we need to do in places where there might be stopgaps that we need to put in place.”

On example is a federal overtime rule implemented under the Obama administration that was set to take effect last Dec. 1 until a court order in Texas stayed implementation of the policy while it is being appealed through the court system. The new rules called for increasing salary thresholds for overtime pay, allowing salaried employees under the new threshold to receive overtime pay. That could be an area where state lawmakers might want to adopt the rule in state statute, Copeland Hanzas said.

Her review also includes exploring areas of federal preemption, which would prevent the state from enacting statelevel laws.

Any significant cuts to federal funding will likely be known only after the Legislature adjourns for the year. That means Gov. Phil Scott will need to determine if any cuts can wait to be addressed until lawmakers return in January, or if a special session might be needed to adjust the state budget.

Copeland Hanzas said it is prudent for lawmakers to begin determining how best to respond to any threats to the state budget and to the well-being of Vermonters.

“Given the erratic way that this president behaves, I don’t know whether they will decide to go after us,” she said.

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