By Rep. Jim Harrison
With the Nov. 6. Election Day coming fast, it may be time to take a look at potential issues that may be before the Legislature next January. No doubt, the ones listed are just a sampling of topics. There are also inevitably “sleeper” issues that seem to pop up each session that may not have been on anyone’s radar beforehand. In addition the annual budget plan and spending priorities always garner a lot of debate. Here are a few to keep your eyes on:
A special commission has been holding meetings around the state to gather input on priorities of Vermonters with the Act 250 land use law. Recommendations to update the 50-year-old law are expected to come before the legislature in January.
The governor has made affordability in Vermont a key political issue since the campaign in 2016. The conversation will continue and will definitely be part of the undercurrent for most issues before the general assembly in the coming year. Scott has made it clear in the past two years that he will take a dim view of new tax and fee proposals.
Several groups are expected to push hard for enactment of a new carbon tax (or as some now refer to it, carbon pricing). Included in the recently enacted budget for this year was also an appropriation of $120,000 to study the issue, which will bring recommendations back for consideration by lawmakers.
The Joint Fiscal Office of the Legislature contracted with Resources for the Future (RFF), to complete a study of policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Vermont. RFF will examine four decarbonization policy approaches (including the much publicized ESSEX Plan) and will provide qualitative analysis for other options to reduce carbon.
I do not support a new carbon tax in Vermont that would increase the price of gasoline and heating fuels.
Clean water funding
Everyone supports clean water, except perhaps when it comes time to pay for it. Scott has indicated he might favor redirecting a current state tax to fund clean water programs, while legislative leaders and a number of advocacy groups want new taxes or fees rather than reduce state spending in other areas.
With recognition that the state’s dairy farmers continue to struggle with low milk prices, there will likely be discussions on how to help support this important segment of our state. However, with milk pricing policy coming from Washington and with an estimated 90-95 percent of Vermont’s output going out of state, solutions are often evasive. Meanwhile, state officials are hopeful the new trade deal with Canada will open up some new markets for Vermont dairy products.
Drugs and opioid addiction
Discussions will continue on how the state can best curb to the drug addiction problems and build on some of the current work being done.
While the Legislature attempted to spend some time on solutions for the economic divide that is apparent in Vermont between the more populated areas of Chittenden County and the rest of the state, it is clear much more needs to be done.
I hope to be working with our state commerce officials to propose support for our small businesses that want to grow and creative new ways to market Vermont through social media and the ThinkVermont initiative. Additionally, more emphasis needs to be placed on the importance and opportunities at our trade schools to prepare for a number of well-paying jobs.
With Vermont’s system of state funding determined by local budgets, lawmakers grapple every year with how best to contain the growth of per pupil costs while ensuring quality education for our students. Another look at the funding formula and resulting taxes is also expected, although finding consensus is difficult. Compounding the challenges of high per pupil cost is the changing demographics in Vermont, which is resulting in fewer students and therefore smaller schools. The cost of pre-K to 12 education now approaches $1.8 billion and is the largest line item in the overall state budget.
Depending on the makeup of the new Legislature, there could be new proposals for gun restrictions beyond those passed this year.
Following the legalization of recreational marijuana in Vermont this past summer, there appears to be growing interest in a “tax and regulate” market for cannabis. Additionally, impairment while driving could be revisited. Last session a proposal for saliva testing passed the House but was rejected by the Senate.
Another debate on increasing Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 over several years from the current $10.50, which is indexed to CPI, will be on the docket. Scott vetoed the measure last year, citing an estimated 2,800 loss of jobs in Vermont as well as the impact on small businesses and consumer prices.
The city of Montpelier will have a referendum on the ballot this November that would allow non-US citizens living in Montpelier to vote on local matters. If approved, it would need to also be sanctioned by the Legislature, which could prove to become a politically charged issue.
Paid family leave
Gubernatorial candidate Christine Hallquist and Democratic leaders have renewed the call for a new paid family leave program funded by a payroll tax on employees. Governor Scott vetoed the measure this past session because of the new tax on workers.
You may reach me at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or my cell. 802-236-3001 or at harrisonforvermont.com. I am a candidate for a new term this fall and hope to earn your support.
Rep. Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon.