On January 26, 2022

Golden opportunity

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last Tuesday, Jan. 18, Governor Phil Scott began the week with his annual budget address to the Legislature. In that speech, he called on lawmakers to work with his administration to pass a budget that was transformational by strategically using the federal funds from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

The ARPA money coupled with an increase in the state’s revenue forecast should allow for fully funding current programs, meeting pension obligations, reducing some of the state debt and making strategic long-term investments for a better, brighter future, according to Scott. In other words, it marks a golden opportunity.

In some respects, it was a continuation of his call for investments in climate measures, connectivity, housing and increasing our workforce. He also called for some tax reductions, including:

  • Exempting military pensions from Vermont income taxes
  • Return half of the estimated $90 million surplus in the education fund to property taxpayers
  • Increase the income threshold by $30,000 to exempt more Vermonters from taxes on their social security benefits
  • Increase the earned income tax credit to benefit working lower- and moderate-income families
  • Expand the child and dependent care tax credit
  • New tax credits for nurses and childcare workers

House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate leader Becca Balint indicated they were supportive of a lot of the governor’s priorities, but have different ideas on tax relief. With inflation pressures impacting all, Scott is proposing breaks across the spectrum. The legislative leaders, instead, have indicated a preference to focus reductions primarily to those families with childcare. No doubt it will be a conversation that will be front and center over the next few months. Another key money bill, the annual mid-year budget adjustment, received unanimous approval by the full House this past week. The legislation, H.679, began as an administration proposal to adjust for spending during the current fiscal year and then was modified by the House Appropriations Committee. Overall spending was up approximately $358 million (4.9%) in state and federal funds. Some of the extra expenses included $68 million for Medicaid, $50 million reserved for pensions, $18 million to the Dept. of Labor to help unemployment claims backlog, $75 million for housing initiatives, $6 million for childcare staff retention, $9.7 million for the state college critical occupational scholarships (such as nursing), and $60 million for healthcare staff retention.

Other items of interest:

The Senate Judiciary Committee has begun taking testimony on S.254, which removes qualified immunity for law enforcement. Under current law and court precedence, all public officials, from school board members to fire fighters and snowplow drivers rely on qualified immunity to protect them from personal liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right. S.254 would remove law enforcement officers from that protection. The legislation is a priority of Senate leader Becca Balint and the ACLU. It is opposed by law enforcement groups and the organization representing municipalities.

A Senate committee advanced S.210, which establishes a statewide rental registry and attempts to address some of the concerns Scott raised on a similar bill, S.79, that he vetoed last June. The new bill exempts properties rented for fewer than 90 days each year, owner-occupied residences with three or fewer units and those in towns with similar registry programs in place.

Prop. 2, a clarification amendment to Vermont’s constitution prohibiting slavery and indentured service, has advanced from committee and will be before the full House in the coming week.

Senate leader Becca Balint indicated that she did not see a path forward for a statewide mask mandate at this time, given the opposition from the governor. The Senate Health & Welfare Committee had been scheduled to vote on the measure last Tuesday, which was later cancelled.

A new registration requirement for home contractors, along with written contract requirements for planned work with homeowners, is on its way to final passage following a House vote on Thursday.

Last week marked the first full week for House members to return to the Capitol in-person, albeit in a hybrid fashion with allowances for members to continue remotely. There were some technical issues with floor sessions, as well as a few members having trouble finding their mute buttons at times, but overall, the return went smoothly. An estimated 98% of House members and staff are fully vaccinated and 100% complied with the mandatory weekly testing if they were not. The Senate, meanwhile, extended their schedule to stay fully remote.

Public Hearing, Proposal 5: Proposed Amendment to the Vermont Constitution Regarding the Right to Abortions and Personal Reproductive Freedom.

The House Committee on Human Services will hold a public hearing on Proposal 5 on Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2022, from 6-8 p.m. in the House Chamber and on Zoom.

Please register to testify at legislature.vermont.gov/links/proposition-5-public-hearing. You must specify if you intend to testify in person or by Zoom. You can also submit testimony via email to testimony@leg.state.vt.us.

Please indicate in the subject line Proposal 5 Public Comment.

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

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