On March 4, 2020

Legislature moves on several bills before Town Meeting recess

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last week saw a significant amount of floor time in the Vermont House, including a rare evening session, as major legislation was debated and/or amended ahead of the Town Meeting week recess.

First up on Tuesday, Feb.25 was a vote to override the governor’s veto on increasing the minimum wage to $12.55 an hour over two years. The measure was essentially the same trajectory of last year’s $15 wage proposal, which the House and Senate couldn’t reach agreement on. The override succeeded by one vote after six Democratic members and one independent changed their vote to support the bill. Earlier in the session, the House failed to override a gubernatorial veto on the paid leave bill by just one vote, so it’s now one for two. And as we saw on both, every vote counts!

Also the House passed S.54, which lays the groundwork for a tax and regulate market for marijuana (or cannabis as it is now called in the bill). The bill was approved on a 90-54 vote.

The House version differs significantly from the Senate’s plan, which was passed last year. S.54, as passed by the House, includes a 20% tax; bans cannabis advertising; requires that municipalities affirmatively vote to allow any cannabis retailers in their town; requires training on the health effects of cannabis for retail employees; insures that local zoning is followed; allocates 30% of the future tax receipts to prevention efforts and more. S.54 will now go to a conference committee between the House and Senate to work out differences in the two versions, as well as potentially engage the governor to address his concerns.

The end of the week was occupied with changes to Vermont’s Act 250 land use law. The measure passed the House on Friday, Feb. 28 by a vote of 88-52. Under the bill, projects in designated downtowns and some village centers could be exempt from Act 250 review, while other projects may have to meet new climate criteria.

Before passage, a plan proposed by the administration and VNRC, a leading environmental group, to streamline major projects through one professional board instead of the current district commissions, was removed. According to at least one source in the governor’s office, that removal could jeopardize his support of the legislation. Other changes on the House floor included a future exemption for certain trails on private land and a return to the current law elevation of 2,500 ft. that I sponsored along with representatives Gannon, D-Willington, Sibilia, I-Dover and Brownell, D-Pownal.

The Natural Resources Committee had recommended that Act 250 be triggered for any project above 2,000 feet of elevation. That would have meant that a homeowner that lives between 2,000 and 2,500 feet elevation, would have had to go through the Act 250 process for even a simple addition of a shed or garage to their property. The entire town of Woodford, for example, is over 2,000 feet elevation, which would have meant any and all future projects in the community would have been subject to Act 250. The lowering of the elevation trigger generated significant debate when first presented on the House floor Thursday, Feb. 27 in the afternoon/evening. Our amendment, subsequently, passed easily when offered on Friday morning to return to the current law of 2,500 feet.

Another change made by the committee would have defined water vapor as a greenhouse gas under Act 250. The implications of this would have been enormous. The definition change was picked up by Rep. Heidi Sheuermann, R-Stowe, who then successfully offered an amendment to take that new definition of water vapor as a greenhouse gas out of the bill.

In other news, a key Senate committee chair has indicated they will not be advancing a constitutional amendment to change the governor’s term to four years. Vermont and New Hampshire are the only states that still have a two year term for the office.

Note: The legislature is off for the Town Meeting recess this week and returns to the State House the week of March 9. A welcome week off for all!

Jim Harrison is the state rep for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and 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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