On August 26, 2020

Unfinished business

By Rep. Jim Harrison

The Vermont Legislature officially returns for a continuation of its remote sessions on Aug. 25. The No. 1 task will be to adopt a nine-month state budget for the balance of the fiscal year which began on July 1. With so many unknowns this year in terms of needs and expected revenues during the pandemic, the administration and Legislature chose to pass just the first quarter budget in June and then adjourn until this week when a clearer picture might be available.

The session is expected to last about a month, at which time the part time legislators will adjourn what most will consider a very unusual, if not historic, year. Following elections in November, a new legislature will be sworn in come January.
While the focus will be on the nine-month budget and Covid-related economic and relief packages, there will likely be a push to pass major bills that various committees had worked on earlier in the year. Some of these could cause a division between lawmakers who want to focus on the must-pass bills and adjourn, and those that want a more activist approach by approving major initiatives before the biennium ends.

All bills not passed by adjournment will die and must be re-introduced in the 2021 Legislature.

Then there are the politics. The Legislature has not met this close to the fall elections in recent history, if ever. State representatives and senators could be voting on major bills at the same time the ballots for their re-election are being sent out from the Secretary of State’s Office. Will that have an impact one way or another?
Senate leader Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden County) lost his nomination bid for Lt. Governor to political newcomer Molly Gray. Potentially a lame duck, will that change the direction of the Senate? Maybe not given Ashe’s determination to get bills done and Senator Balint, the current majority leader, poised to become the next Senate leader next session.
With an increase in approval ratings for his handling of the pandemic, will Governor Scott be in a better position to shape some of the legislation likely coming his way in the coming month? A major climate bill may be a test given his stated opposition to the lawsuit provision in the bill, H.688.
Thanks to a lowering of the deficit projection, the governor’s budget proposal does not include any tax increases or program cuts. Overall, most agency budgets are down about 3% from earlier requests.
In the past week, the administration unveiled a plan to use the remaining federal CARES funds to help individuals and businesses, especially the hospitality industry. The legislature had put aside approximately $200 million of the federal funds in hopes the rules on how the money could be spent were modified by Congress. To date, that has not happened, so Scott has proposed several economic initiatives that will need approval by the Legislature. The measure includes:

$50 million to Vermont households to be spent at local businesses ($150/family)

$50 million for hospitality industry grants

$23 million in economic recovery grants to small businesses and some non-profits

$10 million to promote tourism in the fall and winter

Here are a few other bills to watch:

Act 250

Last spring (pre-Covid), the House passed major changes to the state’s 50-year-old land use law. In June, the chair of Senate Natural Resources tried unsuccessfully to attach major parts of the bill to other legislation for purposes of expediency. Senate leader Ashe has indicated he expects a narrowed version of the bill to pass the Senate.

Policing

Prior to adjourning in June, the legislature passed S.219, which bans chokeholds and mandates the use of body cams by state police. Two other bills, S.119, the use of deadly force and S.124, various law enforcement provisions, are both now under review in the House Government Operations Committee.

Cannabis

A six member House-Senate conference committee has begun meeting to bridge differences on S.54, which sets up a tax and regulated market for recreational marijuana. Before passage last spring, the House added an unrelated provision to allow for primary seat belt enforcement, which could prove to be a non-starter for the Senate. House Speaker Johnson has indicated a willingness to walk away from the bill if the Senate does not move in the House’s direction.

Education

With K-12 schools re-opening Sept. 8 and a reluctance of some groups to have any in-person classes, there could be discussions among lawmakers. Whether the Legislature will choose to get involved or not, is anyone’s guess.
Additionally, the nine-month state budget is certain to bring up a discussion on what is appropriate for state college bridge funding. Scott has included $30 million of federal CARES funds, which may not be allowed as current rules do not allow filling budget gaps.

In closing, I want to thank the voters in Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon for your support in the August primary elections. In addition to winning the Republican primary, I was also declared the winner on the Democratic ballot through write-in votes. I will appear on the November ballot under both parties and hope to earn your vote.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Killington, Mendon and Chittenden.

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