On January 22, 2020

Thinking outside the box

By Jim Harrison

Gov. Phil Scott used part of his State of the State address two weeks ago to remind us all of the growing demographic change facing Vermont. Its impact can be seen in schools with fewer students and a shrinking labor pool.

With the governor’s budget address scheduled for this Tuesday, Jan. 21, it is interesting to note that Scott was eyeing a proposal to exempt 18-26 year olds from the state’s income tax. While the proposal was eventually shelved by the administration because of the cost, it acknowledges thinking outside the box by the administration in order to attract more young people to the state. Arguably it is not much different than a hospital offering sign on bonuses for nurses that may be in short supply or a trucking firm doing the same for individuals with CDLs.

Also attracting attention are the news reports on several new pieces of legislation that have been introduced. With 180 lawmakers (150 House and 30 Senate), you are bound to get a few that may cause you to scratch your head. Sen. Roger, D-Essex-Orleans, received plenty of attention (perhaps too much) with his bill to ban cell phones for those under 21. The bill is not going anywhere and even as the sponsor, Rogers indicated he would probably vote against it if it came up. Then why introduce it, you might ask? Rogers says he was trying to make a point about the time his colleagues spend on restrictions to his gun rights and not the host of issues that cell phones might cause (texting while driving, bullying, social interaction with people, etc).

And then there is the issue of prostitution that has also attracted media attention. My initial reaction was that there is no way the majority of my colleagues are going to vote to decriminalize prostitution. So when media reports and questions from district residents persisted, I checked with a few colleagues on the House Judiciary Committee to find out what was happening.

It turns out they have two bills, one, H.569, introduced by Rep. Coburn, P-Burlington, that proposes to decriminalize prostitution while retaining felony human trafficking laws. That bill is not currently on the agenda in House Judiciary.

However, another bill, H.568, introduced by Rep. Grad, D-Moretown, is under consideration. The bill’s title, an act relating to human trafficking and prostitution, grabs headlines. A closer look at the legislation describes the intent as it proposes to provide limited immunity from criminal prosecution to a person if he or she reports to law enforcement that he or she is a victim of or a witness to a crime that arose from his or her involvement in prostitution or human trafficking. It also creates a study committee for the purpose of examining and modernizing the state’s prostitution laws. The main part of the bill provides kind of a whistleblower protection for those engaged in the sex trade if they witness a crime, which is vastly different than what may garner the headlines on the TV news.

On Friday, Jan. 17, the Senate approved a scaled back paid leave program on a 20-9 vote, enough to override a potential gubernatorial veto. The benefits and corresponding tax for the new plan represent a compromise between the House and Senate, but not with the administration. Scott has argued for a voluntary plan, whereas the legislative leaders want a mandatory one funded by a new payroll tax on all employees.

The legislation, H.107, will now go to the House where it is expected to pass but questions remain whether it will garner enough votes to override a veto. Some of the House members don’t like the compromise, viewing it as watered down too much, and others prefer the governor’s voluntary approach.

Next up will likely be a new version of the minimum wage bill, possibly only going out two years with larger annual increases, but not reaching the magic $15 initially passed by the Senate last year.

Last week also ended with a bit of good news on the revenue front with an upgrade in the forecast for the state. Economists indicated that general fund revenue is up by $18.4 million this year, and expect it to be up $15.5 million in the next fiscal year. The increases are largely due to personal income tax receipts, especially as they relate to gains in the stock market and the ongoing economic recovery nationally.

Early voting for the 2020 presidential primary elections has begun. Vermont voters may now request their ballot to vote early any day leading up to the March 3 Presidential Primary Election Day. Ballot requests can be made with local town and city clerks by phone, email, walk-in or online at mvp.sec.state.vt.us.  Of course a number of things can change in the next six weeks: something to be aware of if you decide to vote early.

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