On January 20, 2021

Getting down to business

By Rep. Jim Harrison

“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

In this time of dissension and uncertainty in our country, let us all take a moment to reflect on the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, and how to best come together.

The second week of the 2021 legislative session saw passage of the first bill of the year, H.48, which provides several options for towns and school districts to consider for 2021 town meetings. With an increase in Covid cases, the Legislature and governor wanted to give local governing bodies additional flexibility in how voting could be done.

The legislation allows (not mandates) a town or school district to elect to send ballots out to all registered voters, much like was done statewide for the general elections in the fall. The costs of postage and printing are reimbursable by the state if they proceed with all-mail. Additionally, it permits municipalities to change the date of their annual meeting to a potentially safer date later in the year and authorizes the secretary of state to allow supplemental election procedures as was done last fall (drive-by voting for example).

On Friday, the House Appropriations Committee received the administration’s proposed budget adjustment for the current fiscal year. This annual modification is typically done midyear to increase and decrease funding of various programs to account for changes experienced in revenue or expenses. For example, if the Medicaid caseload is up or down, then an additional or decreased appropriation would be proposed. To complicate matters a bit this year, there are also some moving targets with last year’s leftover federal stimulus money as well as potential new federal funds through the recent package signed into law in late December.

The budget proposal includes $6.1 million for business grants (federal money); utilizes $3.5 million (federal money) to cover the retrofitting of the former Macy’s Department Store for Burlington High School; an extra million for last year’s climate bill to hire additional staff and more. Other areas will see savings, such as $6.5 million that had previously been earmarked for Amtrak subsidies now available due to the Covid suspension into Vermont.

All eyes will be on state economists this Tuesday when they are expected to unveil new state revenue forecasts. Revenue is expected to increase over the forecast from last August but remains to be seen by how much. It is on this projection that the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2021 will be based.

On Thursday, the governor issued two executive orders, the first one creating an Agency of Public Service (currently a department and non-cabinet level post for Commissioner Schirling) along with some moving of other state law enforcement branches to the new Agency (DMV officers, Criminal Justice Council, Pittsford training academy). The second order directs major Act 250 development projects to go through the Vermont’s Natural Resources Board to ensure consistency throughout the state.

The executive orders dealing with the structure of state government will take effect in April, unless the Legislature intervenes (which it did two years ago when a merger of the Labor Dept. and Commerce Agency was proposed). At the very least, both proposals will receive scrutiny by several legislative committees in the coming weeks.

Among the early bills introduced, were three firearm restriction measures proposed by Sen. Baruth (D/P-Chittenden District). One, which would ban guns from hospitals, government buildings and childcare centers, may be taken up this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

His other proposals, much like most bills introduced this session, may take a backseat to the more pressing Covid related measures, getting the economy back on track, balancing the state budget and other “must pass” bills, like setting the statewide yield for education spending.

Jim Harrison is a state house representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He  can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.

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