On March 17, 2021

Looking under the hood

By Rep. Jim Harrison

The passage of the American Rescue Plan in Washington was welcome news to state leaders and many Vermonters. Thanks to small state minimums, Vermont will once again receive over a billion dollars in federal funds. Over $2 billion will come into the state when you include the $1,400 stimulus payments to individuals and the continuation of an extra $300/week in unemployment benefits.

The magnitude of those dollars will surely have a positive impact in Vermont’s economy in the near term. The downside is that it is all borrowed money, which will need to be paid back at some point by U.S. taxpayers, most likely our children and grandchildren. And failure to get a grip on the escalating federal debt could eventually lead to higher inflation in a few years.

What is not known at this point are some of the details and potential restrictions that come with the money.

It reminds me of car shopping to some extent. I feel an urgency to look under the hood to see the engine that makes everything go. And quite honestly, I’m not always sure what I am looking at and how to figure out how it all works. Isn’t that why we have people like Charlie Dorr [Service Center in Chittenden]?

The same can be true of the latest federal package. We know the money cannot be used for state pension liabilities as the legislation specifically says that. We also learned that there was language added that the funds could not be used to lower taxes at the state or local level.

However, there may be an opportunity to make investments in areas that have previously been unaffordable, like broadband buildout and certain one-time infrastructure needs. The challenge will be figuring all that out with the trained eyes of a good mechanic, like Charlie (or fiscal analysts in this case). Are there unrelated provisions included, as some critics have suggested?

This will take time and legislative leaders have already indicated trying to figure out how and where these funds should be spent could extend the current session or require a special convening in the fall. Most of the state assistance can be spread out over a couple of years, fortunately, so hopefully a thoughtful and careful approach will take place on the proper investments.

Legislation on the move

With the deadline for bills to move out of their initial committees to be considered this session, there was a great deal of activity on priority items last week. One exception is work on pension reform by a House committee, which will come later.

Here are a few other noteworthy moves:

  • A Senate committee advanced legislation increasing maximum unemployment benefits in Vermont on top of the current $300 extra provided by Washington. Additionally, the committee added a new $50/week benefit if the unemployed claimant has dependents. Labor Commissioner Harrington expressed concern to the committee that making that change could cause issues for the department’s decades-old computer system. The state Chamber, which represents businesses, which pay the taxes to support the unemployment insurance fund, indicates the benefit increases could cost $50 million in the coming year and provide new incentives for some to not seek return to work anytime soon.
  • The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee advanced S.79, which establishes a statewide registry for all rental housing, including short term rentals. The fee to register rental housing would be $35 per unit unless the owner has registered the unit with a municipality that operates a rental housing inspection program.
  • The House Judiciary Committee advanced some changes to last year’s “use of force” by law enforcement, including clarifying that police can utilize a chokehold only for self-defense.
  • A Senate committee advanced legislation that would ban corporate contributions to political candidates but continue to allow corporate contributions to PACs or political parties, which could then contribute to candidates. A similar measure stalled in the House in the past session, in part because it masks those contributions.
  • Senate Health & Welfare approved a ban on flavored tobacco and vape products on a 3-2 vote. The inclusion of a menthol ban could doom the bill’s prospects going forward.
  • Several bills are causing angst among gun rights groups, including a confiscation measure in certain abuse situations, H.133, which passed the House Friday, and S.30, which bans firearms in hospitals, which was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • For the second time in two years, a measure to allow non-citizens to vote on town issues in Montpelier, was advanced by the House. Two years ago, the Senate never took up the issue. A similar measure for Winooski is up for a House vote this week.
  • Legislation requiring the registration of home contractors has passed out of a House committee.
  • Universal free school breakfast and lunch has been advanced by the Senate Education Committee. The measure is expected to cost the Education Fund up to $40 million annually.
  • A major childcare initiative, H.171, has passed the House Human Services Committee. It remains unclear how the proposed subsidies in the bill will interact or duplicate new childcare credits in the just passed American Rescue Plan.

The friendly and spirited March Madness college hoops after-hours competition at the State House, is off and running. As one of the organizers of this little diversion, I will try to provide a brief update over the next few weeks. Then again, if I forget, it may just be my picks are not doing too well…

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

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