On February 12, 2020

A bit of suspense

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last week, the House failed to override the governor’s veto of H.107, paid family leave, by just one vote. Four out of the five independents and four Democrats joined the 43Republicans in supporting Scott’s veto, primarily, but not exclusively, because of the new $29 million payroll tax on employees. Virtually all legislators support the concept of paid family leave; however, the disagreement centers on who pays for it and whether such funding will need to be increased after the program is implemented.

Together, the Democrats and Progressives hold a super majority in the House (102 out of 150 seats) and if they vote in unison, they can override any veto of the governor (two-thirds necessary).

What I find refreshing, however, is that four Democratic members stuck to their original votes on the conference committee report and refused to change for political reasons (Bates of Bennington, Browning of Arlington, Szott of Barnard and Sullivan of Dorset). It is not always easy to stay the course when there are serious persuasion attempts being made by House leaders to change your vote, which continued right up until the roll call. They did manage to change seven votes from the prior week, but couldn’t seem to find that elusive eighth one.

Unlike the Senate, which has had on its calendar another veto override vote since the start of the session (S.37, medical monitoring), House leaders, to their credit, chose to proceed with the veto vote on paid family leave promptly, even when the outcome was unknown. The Senate appears to be one vote short on its veto attempt and most observers believe its leaders are still hoping to turn a vote against the governor sometime in the coming weeks or months.

For the record, I voted to support the governor’s veto. I share the concern over a new $29 million payroll tax on employees and the real potential for increasing that tax in the future. Scott has indicated he plans to proceed with a voluntary plan that employers and employees could opt-in, utilizing a leave plan with state employees as its base. Let’s try it before we go down the path of instituting a new entitlement.

The House Committee on Energy and Technology continues to work through the Global Warming Solutions Act. The bill would put into state law certain greenhouse gas reduction targets and allow the state to be sued if those targets are not met. Proponents of the measure argue that it is the only way the state will follow through as we are not currently meeting prior reduction goals.

Opponents of the measure have raised concern that the new Vermont Climate Council, a 22-member group established by the bill, will be able to institute new taxes and fees, such as a carbon tax, without approval by the Legislature. A committee vote on the measure, H.688, is expected this week.

Meanwhile, the House Committee on Natural Resources is moving ahead with changes to the state’s Act 250 land use law. With a number of moving parts to the bill it is almost impossible to predict what the final version will look like, as well as the corresponding committee vote. If it advances by a wide margin, its prospects for passage will be improved. A close vote could indicate challenges ahead. The next week or two will be telling.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced a measure last week to offer some protection to individuals involved in prostitution to report crimes they witness without necessarily getting themselves in trouble. It is sort of a whistleblower protection act for sex workers. While the committee vote on H.568 was a strong 11-0 vote, there could be some controversy over the bill’s second part, which is a study committee on Vermont’s sex laws.

Earlier this session, the committee looked at another bill to decriminalize prostitution. And to the committee’s credit (in my view), they did not pursue the measure. However, the study they included in H.568, is charged with looking at whether the world’s oldest profession should be decriminalized in Vermont and to make a recommendation to the 2021 Legislature. One may ask if we need to spend the time and money studying the issue, but clearly there are legislators interested in pursuing the idea.

And finally, the State House had one of those rare “snow days” last Friday with a reduced number of committees meeting in the morning and the entire building closing for the afternoon.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon. You may reach him at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us. Messages may also be left at the State House during the legislative session at 802-828-2228.

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