On September 23, 2020

The sprint: Legislative session ends Friday

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Much like the runners entering the home stretch of a race, the sprint to the finish for the 2020 Legislature has begun. House or Senate rules that normally allow for the slow and deliberate process of bills are now routinely suspended to move things along.

Legislative leaders have targeted Sept. 25 to conclude what may be the longest session in the state’s history due to the pandemic. And while meeting remotely, via Zoom, has enabled work to get done, it definitely has its limitations. Glued to the computer screen for extended meetings, like Friday’s 5 ½ hour  House session, can be a challenge.

The main purpose of this rare September session is to pass a budget ahead of Oct. 1, which is when the first quarter spending plan approved in June will expire. The Senate turned around their version of the FY21 budget in just a week. Differences between the House and Senate will likely get resolved in the coming days. It may help that the chairs of the House and Senate budget committees are sisters, Senator Jane Kitchel and Rep. Kitty Toll.

Toll, D-Danville, is stepping down after this session. She is a consensus builder and takes great pride in passing budgets with widespread, if not unanimous approval. The House version, with plenty for individual members to like or dislike, passed earlier 140-4 and the four dissenters were because the budget didn’t increase taxes on higher earners. Her consensus building ability to craft a state budget will certainly be missed.

The biggest differences in the budget between the House and Senate center around the allocation of the federal stimulus funds. For example, the Senate reduced grants going to businesses and increased money to K-12 education.

Much of the news this past week has been centered on H.688, the climate legislation, which was vetoed by Governor Scott over his concern of opening up the state to lawsuits and delegating wide authority to an unelected 23 member climate panel. The House, as expected, overrode the veto on a vote of 103-47 (100 votes needed). The Senate is expected to vote early this week. The measure passed the chamber easily in June on a 23-5 vote, more than enough to override the veto if they vote the same way, which is not always guaranteed.

Other issues of interest:

The Senate sent back the Act 250 significantly scaled back from what the House passed back in February, disappointing both the House Natural Resources Committee and the governor. It remains to be seen how this ends with only a week left in the session.

House and Senate negotiators struck a deal on S.54, the tax-and-regulate system for cannabis. It passed the House on a 92-56 vote on Thursday, Sept. 17, and is expected to pass the Senate on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Scott has not indicated whether he will sign the measure, but did acknowledge the Legislature listened and addressed several of his concerns in S.54, unlike the climate legislation, H.688, where his suggestions were dismissed.

Two policing related measures, S.119 on use of force and S.124, which changes the structure of the Criminal Justice Council, have been advanced to the full House on divided committee votes. The use of force bill, S.119, was called by the Dept. of States Attorneys and Sheriffs, as one of the most restrictive pieces of legislation in the U.S.

The House gave approval to expanding hazard pay to more front line employees, such as grocery clerks. The legislation, S.353, has already passed the Senate.

The House also approved changes to the calculation of the unemployment tax on employers to mitigate some of the increase expected next year in light of the dramatic decline in the unemployment trust fund. It was an amendment to the hazard pay bill, S.353, by members of the Commerce Committee.

A scaled back housing bill, S.237, was approved by the House on Friday. Differences with the Senate will need to be ironed out this week. The legislation makes some zoning changes to allow the development of more affordable housing in certain areas. It also allows towns to regulate short term rentals through municipal ordinances.

In other news, the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, participated in one of the governor’s press conferences and had high praise for Vermont’s success in preventing the spread of Covid-19, thus far.

Addressing the impact of Vermont’s population density on its case trends, Fauci said, “It’s not a question of density or not, it’s a question of what you did or did not do correctly, and from the numbers that I’ve seen Vermont has done it correctly.”

And finally, Secretary of State Jim Condos has announced that ballots for the general election will be mailed to all active registered voters in the state beginning on Monday, Sept. 21 through early October. Any voter who does not receive their ballot by Oct. 1 should contact their town clerk to get one.

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

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