On February 16, 2022

Butting heads

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last week saw the first veto of the session by Governor Phil Scott. The legislation was H.157, which creates a new registry for home contractors. Given some of the bills headed his way, this may not be the only veto this session. And with Republicans only holding 46 seats in the 150-member House and 7 in the 30-member Senate, veto overrides are possible (51 votes in the House and 11 in the Senate are needed to sustain a veto).

The governor believes the new registry for contractors will favor larger builders over smaller ones and potentially raise costs to consumers. Proponents of the legislation see it as a consumer protection measure. In addition, H.157 initially creates new positions in the Secretary of State’s Office. An override vote could be held as early as Feb. 15.

Another area likely to fuel friction between the legislative leaders and the governor is a new version of a rental registry bill, S.210, which was modified slightly from a bill vetoed last June over concerns of growing the size of government and adding new fees to owners of rental properties. Last week, the Senate added a new housing initiative (Vermont Housing Improvement Program) favored by Scott (and lawmakers) as a potential carrot for him to agree with the new bill.

More highlights:

  • The House and Senate completed work on a new gun control measure, S.30, which adds a new fine for guns carried into hospitals and expands background checks. Scott hasn’t indicated whether he will sign the bill or not but has said he doesn’t think we should be adding new firearm restrictions right now, given the various measures he signed into law a few years ago.
  • On Friday, Feb. 11, the Senate gave preliminary approval to an amendment to the Brattleboro Town charter allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections. This would make them the first town in Vermont with this provision. The governor has previously expressed concern over different voting rules in different towns. The state constitution requires voters to be 18 for statewide elections.
  • The House advanced a new child tax credit of $1,200 for each child up to age 6 for families with up to $200,000 in annual income. Also included in the tax bill was a slight expansion of the tax exemption on Social Security benefits. Not included in the bill were some tax reduction initiatives proposed by the governor, including tax credits for nurses, an increase in the state’s earned income tax credit for lower income families, exempting military pensions from Vermont income taxes and a much broader exemption for social security benefits.
  • The Senate Agriculture Committee is reviewing legislation, S.188, which would exempt small cannabis cultivators from local zoning regulations and add it to the state’s right to farm law. When a regulated market for cannabis was approved two years ago, it was purposely not considered an agriculture product as it would allow growers to operate in areas zoned residential. S.188 changes that and allows cannabis growers in residential areas.
  • The Senate and House Appropriations Committees held two joint public hearings last week with over 100 individuals requesting additional funding over and above the administration’s proposed budget, primarily for various support organizations.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee continues to pursue legislation to end qualified immunity for law enforcement, a measure backed by Senate leader Becca Balint and the ACLU. Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling has expressed strong opposition to the measure, something he believes will make it even more difficult to recruit new officers. According to some reports, the committee appears divided on the measure.
  • The Senate added an amendment to its version of the budget adjustment bill that will require construction projects paid for by the new federal ARPA funds, comply with prevailing wage requirements. Under prevailing wage, contractors must show that they meet the calculated average wage in the region for each position plus additional compensation equal to 42.5% of their wages in benefits or pay. The administration opposes the measure, believing it will drive up the cost of projects, including housing and broadband initiatives and result in fewer contractors willing to participate because of the new requirements on them.
  • The House approved Proposal 5, the reproductive rights and abortion amendment to the Vermont Constitution. It will now go to the voters in November for their approval or rejection. If adopted, Vermont would become the first state to add reproductive rights to its constitution.

Additional signs that the Legislature continues its path towards normalcy, the House recognized the outgoing group of 8th grade pages on Friday for the first time in nearly two years and on Thursday, the body honored 95-year-old retired Lt. Colonel Enoch “Woody” Woodhouse by welcoming him to the State House. Woodhouse was a member of Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first all-Black combat flying unit, whose job was to protect Allied bombers during WW II. Meeting this American hero was truly an honor for me!

And while the Senate continues to do its business via Zoom, there are indications they, too, will return to in-person meetings beginning March 8.

Jim Harrison is a 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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