By Rep. Jim Harrison
Last spring there were no fee increases and no tax hikes being proposed (other than for a scaled back family leave plan, which was met with a veto). Last year the governor was proposing to keep education rates down with surplus revenues. This year, the Legislature is likely to utilize new revenue from the online sales tax (e.g. Amazon marketplace) to keep education rates down, whereas the governor had proposed diverting that revenue to child care.
Clearly Gov. Phil Scott’s hand is weakened this year with House Republicans and Independents losing a combined total of 12 seats last fall, making it possible for the Legislature to override his vetoes. Whether the majority party will override a veto on a tax hike is an open question. Everyone wants clean water and a new paid family leave program, but not everyone wants the tax hikes they may entail, or alternatively, cuts to other programs and services to free up the funds.
Will legislative leaders want to own an $80 million payroll tax hike on working Vermonters if the governor vetoes their mandatory paid family leave plan? There could be the desire to override a potential veto on a $15 minimum wage but the Legislature may not have the votes to do so.
Disagreements are not limited to a democratically controlled Legislature and Republican governor. On Friday, we saw the first public disagreement of a House-Senate conference committee that has been working to reconcile differences on legislation, H.39, which gives certain school districts more time to merge under Act 46. The House version was stricter limiting which districts would have the option of an extra year, while the Senate version was more lenient. While seemingly an easy bill to find compromise, the Senate chair made the unusual threat on Friday to disband the committee and ask for one with new conferees.
Lead testing for schools and child care centers has been a session with long disagreement between the chambers over an acceptable lead limit and what percent the state taxpayers should contribute to fix the issue.
A disagreement between the House and Senate is brewing over the issue of exempting older cars from emissions testing. The Senate exempted those vehicles 10 years or older, while the House Transportation Committee has, thus far, been less inclined to even take up the bill.
To tax and regulate cannabis is another issue where there may be major differences. The House appears more amicable to some of the suggestions from the administration in areas of funding for prevention and education, the ability of towns to exert local control and possible roadside testing. With S.54 still in House Government Operations Committee, the biggest question is whether there is the time (or the will) to complete the bill this year.
The House approved changing the tobacco and e-cigarettes age to 21 on a strong vote of 124-14 last week. Once signed into law, Vermont will join 13 other states that have already moved in this direction. And in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced legislation that would increase the national smoking age to 21 as well.
Another bill approved by both chambers, S.49, requires managers of public water supplies to test to ensure levels of five PFAS contaminants are below a combined 20 parts per trillion.
Changing Vermont’s Constitution is not easy, and arguably it shouldn’t be. Every four years, the Senate (and only the Senate) can propose an amendment and then must pass it by a two-thirds vote. It then goes to the House, which needs to advance it by a simple majority. Following the next election and new biennium in two years, the Senate and House need to approve the same measure once again by simple majority.
Once that happens, it will go to the voters for their approval, which will take place on the following general election. Essentially a four year process.
While several amendments have been proposed this session, only two have been put to votes thus far: removing reference to slavery and reproductive rights.
The Legislature is expected to complete its work in the next three weeks. For that to happen, a number of compromises will need to be made.
Reach Jim Harrision at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or by cell, 802-236-3001. Or during the legislative session at 802-828-2228. Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon.