By Rep. Jim Harrison
Last Wednesday, Jan 9, marked the beginning of the new legislative biennium. Voters returned all statewide office holders, including Gov. Phil Scott, and the Legislature voted to have House Speaker Johnson and Senator Ashe head up their respective chambers again. What is different is the overall makeup of Legislators with majority Democrats gaining 12 seats in the House, potentially comprising a bloc with Progressives to override gubernatorial vetoes.
How this all plays out remains to be seen. However, if the governor’s inaugural speech is any indication, it was more conciliatory and cooperative in its tone than perhaps in the past. No doubt there will be differences between the administration of Phil Scott and lawmakers, but there may also be more cooperation as well. Or, buoyed by stronger majorities, legislative leaders could downplay proposals from the administration and concentrate on their own priorities.
Last year, Scott vetoed labor bills like a $15 minimum wage and new employee funded paid family leave program. Perhaps recognizing just saying “No” is not the answer, he plans to propose a voluntary paid family leave plan. Senate Leader Tim Ashe, however, expressed skepticism on how a voluntary program could meet its financial obligations.
Scott also indicated that his administration would propose some Act 250 changes to make it easier to develop in downtowns, a proposal that could be in line with one of the Act 250 study commission’s recommendations. However, he did not mention the climate change or forest fragmentation criteria that were also part of the commission’s recommendations that are likely to engage more controversy.
Regarding more funding for clean water, the governor indicated he would propose using a current revenue source and not new taxes. Legislative leaders have advocated for new funding sources.
The governor emphasized the demographic crisis facing Vermont and how it impacts everything from economic opportunities to the funding of our schools and our social programs. He reiterated that in the past decade Vermont’s workforce has declined by 15,000. In addition, student enrollment is down significantly. For example, Rutland and Windsor counties have lost 25 percent of their students in the past 14 years.
He indicated his budget proposal will again advocate for a labor force expansion package that targets those likely to move and a regional sales team approach to close the deal. He shared what a Burlington business owner told him on the campaign trail, “We don’t need more taxes—we need more taxpayers.”
Scott also expressed support to keep the promises we made to our state employees and teachers to pay their pensions and healthcare costs.
In closing Scott summed up a new relationship with the Legislature. “We must look for common ground instead of highlighting or exploiting our differences, and view consensus and compromise not as a weakness, but as a strength.”
In related news, Scott has returned to the Top 10 on the nation’s most popular governors list, now at number 6 with 59 percent approval according to a survey by Morning Consult. Top on the list was Charlie Baker of Massachusetts at 72 percent, followed by Larry Hogan of Maryland at 68 percent. Interesting to note all three are Republicans in decidedly blue states.
On day one of the session, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson announced a number of changes in committee assignments with seven new chairs. Of particular note was the change in House Transportation where longtime Republican chair, Pat Brennan of Colchester, was replaced by Burlington Democrat, Curt McCormack. McCormack is a former chair of the Natural Resources Committee and has a strong environmental record. Coupled with other changes on the committee, some speculate an increased emphasis on public transportation and alternatives to gasoline powered transportation.
You may reach me at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or my cell, 802-236-3001. Messages may also be left at the State House during the legislative session at 802-828-2228.