On September 9, 2020

Legislature is teeing up to discuss key bills, budget

By Rep. Jim Harrison

As Victor, one of my favorite brothers-in-law, would say, you need to tee-up the ball properly before attempting your drive in golf. In similar fashion, various legislative committees have been working the past two weeks to tee-up bills for action by the full House or Senate. Only a few bills saw passage since the return on Aug. 25, but a number, including the budget, will be on the agenda this week.

The rare August-September session is scheduled to last only five weeks and adjourn by Sept. 25. The rush will be on to get
it done.

The House Appropriations Committee gave a tentative unanimous approval on Friday to a nine month budget to complete the 20-21 fiscal year. The full House will act on the budget recommendation this week.

It appears the committee was able to fulfill a promise for bridge funding of an additional $24 million to enable the Vermont State Colleges to keep the doors open. A report on recommendations for the restructuring and sustainability of the VSC system is expected to come out later this fall.

More issues being teed up:

Hazard pay for certain groups of employees, like grocery store and hardware store staff dealing with the public, has been resurrected by the Senate. The new scaled back proposal, S.353, comes after the Legislature approved hazard pay in June for certain health care and emergency response personnel.

S.54, which sets up a tax and regulate system for retail sales of recreational marijuana, appears to be close to a deal between House and Senate negotiators. While the Senate has agreed to go with the House’s version on roadside saliva tests (with warrant), it is not clear whether that will satisfy the governor’s road safety concern or not.

The Senate changes to H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, are under review by the House Energy Committee, which may recommend concurrence in the coming week. The administration remains concerned about the lawsuit provision in the bill, which allows anyone to sue the state if certain greenhouse gas reductions are not met. The Agency of Natural Resources also objected to the lack of additional financial resources, which were removed by the Senate because of new budget restraints created by Covid.

Given the time constraints of the special session, the Senate Natural Resources Committee may narrow the Act 250 reforms this year to outdoor recreational trails and forest block fragmentation.

The House budget writers increased Scott’s proposed $2 million program for stimulus money to migrant workers and others without social security numbers to the $5 million requested by advocacy groups. Under the program each eligible adult would receive $1,200 and each eligible child $500.

The House Commerce Committee completed its work of a CARES funded economic package. Utilizing unspent federal funds from the federal stimulus package, the committee added $88 million for additional business support. New guidelines will give the Commerce Agency more flexibility in awarding the funds, including eliminating the prior 50% revenue loss threshold. Maximum grants were also increased to $300,000.

The Senate approved S.254, an act relating to union organizing for public employees by a unanimous vote, after the committee amended the bill to address concerns voiced earlier in the session.

A key policing reform bill, S.119-use of deadly force, was moved to the House Judiciary Committee to balance committee workload. The House Government Operations Committee, which had S.119, has begun work on a miscellaneous  law enforcement bill, S.124. Meanwhile, Governor Scott issued an executive order on a variety of policing reforms that includes some of the provisions under consideration by the Legislature, in addition to recommendations for next year’s General Assembly.

H.99, which has been sitting on the House calendar since March, may be coming to life soon. The legislation would prohibit the trade in Vermont of certain animal parts, like ivory from elephants and rhinos, as a way to reduce illegal hunting of certain animal species.

In closing, all eyes will be on the reopening of schools this week. Guidelines issued by the Agency of Education have come under criticism from the NEA, so any bumps in the road could garner media attention. Let’s all hope the reopening goes as smoothly and safely as possible.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington abd Mendon he can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us, facebook.com/harrisonforvermont and harrisonforvermont.com.

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