On June 10, 2020

A much different environment

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Vermont has a proud tradition of a citizen legislature. Its 180 members (150 House and 30 Senate), are part time and in my opinion, most serve as public servants in the truest sense of the word. The typical legislative session adjourns in early to mid-May.

However, this year is like no other. The session, through no one’s fault, may end up being the longest in the state’s history. Much of the work in January and February may get cast aside or modified as we find ourselves in a much different environment. Many of us find ourselves as information disseminators more than ever, especially with navigating the changing reopening rules, or with trying to get individual help with the unemployment system.

And then there is Zoom, which has proven to be a lifesaver to enable remote meetings, but has its limits. For example, last Wednesday, the House spent five hours in session and only was able to pass two bills. Just imagine 150 member roll calls when each representative needs to mute and unmute when their name is called to register their vote. Other sessions do go better but some of the discussion and understanding of bills considered can be lacking.

Even agreements previously considered routine, may come under new scrutiny. For example, I am scratching my head as to how do we rubber stamp the state employees’ collective bargaining agreement that calls for $1,400 payments to all classified state employees in July. This is in addition to length of service increases averaging close to 2% in the first year along with overall increases of 4.2% in the second. The total cost of the contract negotiated with the administration pre-Covid, over two years is an estimated $67 million. And yet the latest state revenue forecasts are projected to be down close to $600 million over the next two years.

This at a time when we have over 20% unemployment, a figure not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and hundreds if not thousands of businesses that may not weather the economic uncertainty in which we find ourselves. Additionally, while pay increases for elected positions and various appointed positions in government are frozen for the coming year, how do we increase those salaries for year two, including legislators, as called for in the current bill draft? Does that even look right? Yet, those without a job or who lost business still need to share in the taxes needed to fund pay raises.

Legislative highlights

The House gave preliminary approval to H.961, which establishes a three month budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. It does not reduce spending as the Scott administration proposed, but rather puts those decisions off until August, when the main budget for the balance of the year will be drafted.

H.959, which establishes the statewide education property tax rates, was given final approval by the House and is now in the Senate for consideration. The bill increases the education tax rate as would have been required by locally approved school budgets prior to the state of emergency in March. The bill authorizes borrowing of the deficit in the Education Fund created by declining revenues, which may require school districts to repay it over several years to mitigate some of the immediate impact with either spending reductions or property tax increases.

The Senate approved legislation, S.348, to allow the Secretary of State sole discretion in rewriting election law for this fall’s general elections. The bill comes after the secretary and governor could not reach agreement on when a decision needed to be made on proceeding to sending ballots to all registered voters, which is favored by the secretary (Scott wanted to decide after the August primary).

The Senate’s solution is to remove the governor from the original bill passed in March.

In an effort to advance some of the governor’s economic relief package, legislative committees are looking to approve $70 million of the $250 million proposal, while they continue to discuss the balance over the next few weeks.

After an extended debate and several amendments voted down, the House approved giving Abenaki tribe members free lifetime hunting and fishing licenses (estimated cost $35,000). According to the House Natural Resources Committee, the measure should have previously been enacted as part of a provision of a treaty agreed to in the 18th century.

At some point, legislative leaders need to pause those bills that can wait and be considered in a more deliberate in-person fashion and get the necessary budget and economic bills done…or the session will never adjourn and will cost taxpayers more money in the end.

Racial Equity Task Force

This past week, Governor Scott announced the launch of a Racial Equity Task Force in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. The task force will be charged with:

Looking at the disparities in Covid-19 infection and death rates

Evaluating supports for racially diverse populations

Reviewing current state and federal law on hate speech

Contemplating ways to encourage Vermonters from a range of racial and ethnic groups to run and serve in public office, at all levels.

Scott acknowledged a task force is not the cure-all, encouraging Vermonters to take time to reflect on what role each of us can play to end hate, racism and bigotry. State leaders, including the governor and Attorney General Donovan along with many organizations, including the Vermont Troopers Association, have condemned the killing. I, as well, am heartbroken and dismayed how this could happen. Clearly in my view, a sign that so much more needs to be done to fulfill Dr. King’s dream of true equality.

I will caution, however, that perhaps we should take the necessary time to consider recommendations of the task force and fully discuss potential changes in Vermont as opposed to the immediate reactions some are advocating.

Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the Vermont House. Sign up for his email updates at eepurl.com/gbxzuz, connect with him on Facebook at: facebook.com/harrisonforvermont or email JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.

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