On May 21, 2020

Bruce the Spruce lightens the discussion

By Rep. Jim Harrison

This past Friday, the House gave preliminary approval to H.673, which gives authority to towns to adopt a shade tree regulation plan. The legislation is only enabling and was advanced by the agriculture and forestry committee on a unanimous vote, which usually means quick passage on the House floor.

While the measure ultimately passed on a wide margin, it generated a number of questions during the remote House session. A plainspoken colleague from the Northeast Kingdom, Rep. Brian Smith, asked questions of the bill’s presenter as to how this might impact his favorite tree, Bruce, who is a spruce tree. After he got his questions answered, he said “I don’t think Bruce the Spruce thinks much of this bill.”

Meanwhile, other representatives couldn’t help sharing tree jokes on Zoom’s chat feature as the discussion wore on, for which members received a light reprimand by Speaker Johnson for using the chat tool for other than procedural questions. “What did the tree do when the local bank closed? It grew a new branch.” “Did the tree falling in the woods make a sound if the tree warden wasn’t there?”

The real significance of H.673 may be a return to legislation from pre-Covid emergency. What that means for the coming weeks remains to be seen, but the Senate has begun reviewing climate change bills and Act 250 reforms. Bills with any controversy may be difficult at best, in remote online sessions. Senate Leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, has dubbed it the “turning of the spigot” on non-Covid-19 legislation.

All this begs the question should the Legislature as a whole adjourn and just let the budget committees continue their work and leave other non-essential bills for another day? Some feel it may be best to save some of the ongoing expenses of the session given the budget challenges ahead.

Reopening

This past Friday, Governor Scott extended Vermont’s state of emergency to June 15 with modifications. The “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order is now the “Be Smart, Stay Safe” order, further reflecting the new phase we are entering. The addendum also asks adults 65 and older and those with underlying medical conditions to continue to shelter in place to avoid serious illness.

As the key restart metrics continue to support incremental openings, the “Be Smart, Stay Safe” order also allows the limited opening of campgrounds, marinas and lodging facilities. These facilities can open May 22 (June 25 for state parks) for Vermont residents only, or those who have met the 14-day quarantine requirement, and will be subject to strict health and safety standards and guidance from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Beginning this Monday, May 18, non-essential retail could reopen at 25% of their capacity; or one customer per 200 square feet; or 10 total customers and staff combined, whichever is greater. Operators must post their temporary occupancy limit, and which method was used to determine it, prominently on all entrances. And while not final, the governor has hinted that additional restrictions could be lifted soon, including raising the gathering number to 25 (currently 10).

Vermont continues its positive trends with the virus. In the past week we went from a projection of Covid cases doubling every 12 weeks to now doubling every 40 weeks, second best in the country (New Hampshire by contrast was at a rate of doubling in four weeks). While there are a number of reasons for the positive trends (rural nature of state, initial aggressive measures, reduced visitors, etc.), the numbers should enable additional parts of the economy to open again.

State budget

The Scott administration has directed various state agencies to develop budget plans with an 8% reduction in mind as they get ready to present a first quarter plan to the Legislature for the first three months of the new fiscal year beginning July 1. How that will be received by the appropriations committees and what it might mean to state services, grants and employees is an open question at this point.

The current plan is to adopt a three-month budget by next month and then adjourn until sometime in August, when there is a better picture of what state revenues will look like and whether there will be any additional assistance from Washington for lost revenues. At that point, the Legislature and governor will craft a budget for the remaining nine months.

Education tax rates

Everyone seems to agree that a 14% or more education property tax hike is unpalatable, but solutions remain elusive. Some want to increase other taxes, like the sales tax or rooms and meals tax, while others hope for a federal bailout. The administration has suggested looking at spending for potential savings.

At a meeting of the House Ways and Means Committee, Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin put forth a suggestion that school districts revote their school budgets for the coming year. He argued that budgets, much like the state’s, were put together last winter in a much different environment. Needless to say, the suggestion of starting all over was given a very cool reception.

Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the State House. Sign up for email updates at eepurl.com/gbxzuz or email him at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.

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