On March 3, 2021

Legislative deadlines

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Let’s face it, we all live by deadlines. It might be April 15 for tax filing or cramming the night before an exam. They cause us to change our priorities when a deadline is approaching.

The Vermont Legislature also has deadlines, however self-imposed. In a normal year, the General Assembly meets for 18 weeks, from early January until mid-May with a week off for a Town Meeting recess. While this year is far from normal, with the ongoing pandemic and response, a mid-May finish is still the goal. Additionally, leaders have announced that the entire session will be conducted remotely on the Zoom platform, which can pose some challenges of its own.

The 18-week session plan sets a deadline to finish our work by May 15. To achieve an orderly flow of work to meet that date, the House-Senate Rules Committee sets what are known as crossover dates. Crossover refers to moving bills over to the other Chamber, i.e. Senate to the House (crossing over).

All bills must be reported out of the policy committee of reference in their respective chambers on or before Friday, March 12. If they need to then go to one of the two money committees in the House or Senate (Appropriations or Finance/Ways and Means), then they must clear those committees by March 19. Of course, there are exceptions to any rule, such as the major money bills (state budget), the transportation capital bill, the capital construction bill, and the fee/revenue bills.

These deadlines are an attempt to instill some discipline into the system, which forces committees to concentrate on their priority issues and give the other chamber time to take up those bills in the second half of the session.

As a result, the week after the Town Meeting break, we will see a flurry of bills coming out of committees ahead of the March 12 deadline. After that we will have a much better idea of what bills are likely to make it to the finish line and those that may have to wait until next year.  Stay tuned….

Other issues of interest:

Legislation to expand Vermont’s bottle deposit system, H.175, appears to be gaining momentum in the House Natural Resources Committee. The bill would increase deposits on each container to 10 cents, increase the handling fee paid to redemption centers and add wine, water, juice and non-carbonated drinks (except milk) to the deposit system. Opponents, including some solid waste districts, believe it will further split the recycling system for containers and increase embedded costs on products (handling fee and costs of pickups by manufacturers).

An amendment to prioritize vaccines for certain state employees, such as corrections officers and state colleges, was withdrawn after members of the House Appropriations Committee expressed concern as to whether the Legislature should be interjecting itself in what our public health officials were doing with the vaccine rollout.

The growing unfunded pension liability for state employees and education staff may be addressed by the treasurer, unions, and the Legislature prior to the end of the session. Despite large increases in the annual appropriations by the Legislature over the past 10 years, the unfunded liability has increased dramatically ($600 million in the past year alone). If not addressed, it could threaten the solvency of the pension funds and further lower the state’s bond ratings.

The Senate Health & Welfare Committee approved S.48, which would allow Vermont to join the Nurse Licensure Compact. Under the compact, nurses licensed in the participating states can practice across state borders without having to get relicensed in each state.

The House Energy and Technology Committee unanimously advanced legislation to improve broadband buildout in Vermont. It establishes the Vermont Community Broadband Authority and provides greater resources and assistance to the work of the Communication Union Districts (CUDs) to bring service to the last mile in the most quick, cost-efficient way.

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs is considering legislation, S.79, which includes the creation of a statewide registry of rental housing units, including short-term rentals. As proposed, the fee would be $35 per unit (the new fee would not apply to rentals in towns that already have a registry).

On an 8-3 vote, a House Committee advanced a charter change to allow non-citizens, who are legal residents, to vote in Montpelier city elections.  A similar change was approved two years ago by the House, but never taken up in the Senate.

The director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, Mark Hughes, testified before a House committee on Friday that Vermont should pass a reparations bill. The General Affairs Committee is considering creation of a truth and reconciliation commission to address systemic racism and discrimination, which Hughes felt doesn’t go far enough as reparations are not in the bill.

The Senate passed legislation to exempt menstrual products from the sales tax. Vermont and Maine are the only states in the region that currently tax menstrual products, according to Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, who sponsored the legislation.

In closing, with the Legislature off this week, the next update will be in two weeks.

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

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