On August 11, 2021

Summertime reflections

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Unlike earlier this summer when daily Vermont Covid cases were declining and often in the single numbers, they are now significantly up due to the more contagious Delta variant. Last Friday, there were 88 new cases despite over 84% of Vermonters aged 12 and older having at least their first vaccine shot. What may be more concerning is the rise in hospitalizations lately, including eight in the ICU at the end of the week.

If this spike is prolonged, will it mean the return to more restrictive measures? Will those still unvaccinated reconsider and get the shot(s) or will vaccines be required at more places of employment? Will it derail the economic recovery?

Like most, I have enjoyed the reprieve this summer from masking in most environments and ability to move about and socialize more freely. In my view, Vermont has done an excellent job minimizing the overall impact of the pandemic compared to other states. Much of the credit belongs to the governor and his health officials, including Dr. Levine and Secretary Smith.

Contrary to what some may think at times, legislators do not have all the answers. I, for one, will put my faith in our public health officials, and follow their advice as they steer us through the remaining stages of this pandemic.

We have come too far to let up now.

The Vermont Legislature has been adjourned since May 21, except for a brief return in June to take up a couple of vetoes by the governor. Likely, the full Legislature will not return until next January.

Scott vetoed three bills following the May 21 adjournment, which prompted the virtual session on June 23. Two of the bills will allow legal resident non-citizens in Winooski and Montpelier to vote in local elections. The Legislature overrode the governor’s veto on both.

My position was like the governor’s, in that whatever the rules for voting are, they should be uniform throughout the state. The change is also at odds with what our constitution defines as “voters” in state and federal elections.

The other bill vetoed had to do with keeping confidential certain criminal offenses for those under 20. Perhaps rethinking its position or understanding it didn’t have the necessary votes for an override, the Legislature did not act on this one.

The brief veto session gave the Senate enough time to give final passage to a rental registry bill, S.79, which has also subsequently been vetoed by Scott. Under the legislation, a statewide registry of all rental units, including short term rentals, would be established. Property owners would pay a registry fee for each unit annually. In his veto message the governor indicated a concern with government overreach requiring homeowners renting out a room in their home or a camp to register and meet new standards. It is unclear if legislative leaders will dig in on S.79 or seek compromise with the governor.

While the full Legislature is not meeting this summer, there are several summer study committees meeting in hopes of coming back in January with recommendations on various issues. Some of these include:

  • Making changes to the State House to safely accommodate members of the public when the Legislature returns next winter.
  • Addressing the growing deficit in the state employees and teachers’ retirement funds.
  • Putting a plan together to implement a new student weighting formula, which would look at factors, such as district poverty levels, in determining state funding.
  • Ideas to revitalize the state’s dairy industry.

And finally, state economists recently gave the governor and chairs of the legislative money committees a bit of good news with positive revisions to the state’s revenue forecast. The continued influx of federal money has caused them to again increase the revenue projections for the next two years.

As state economist Tom Kavet wrote in his report regarding the federal stimulus spending the past year and half: “We are in the midst of an epic economic experiment, with unprecedented fiscal and monetary intervention in the nation’s economy…The long-term impacts of these measures may ultimately be transformationally beneficial or disastrous, but the near-term impacts on the state economy and revenues are incontrovertibly positive.”

Overall increases across all funds are expected to be $240 million in FY22 and $265 million in FY23. With unfunded pensions, broadband, school construction needs, affordable childcare, housing and more, there will be no shortage of claims to the extra revenue.

Assuming we get back on track with getting the pandemic behind us, I hope to return with “office hours” (a.k.a. Dump & Donuts) this fall to get your ideas and begin preparations for the 2022 session. In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer and stay safe.

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

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