On February 21, 2023

The big red truck

By Jim Harrison

Last Thursday, Feb. 16, we had a joint assembly of the House and Senate for purposes of re-electing the Sergeant at Arms and electing three trustees to the UVM Board. I had the honor of seconding the nomination for Rep. Tristan Toleno (D-Brattleboro) for one of the trustee positions. I began my very brief remarks with:

“…I have had the opportunity to serve with Tristan as a member of the House Appropriations Committee. It may not surprise you to learn that we look at various issues and priorities before us with a different lens and may at times vote differently.  However, he has a big red pickup, which gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, he has a Republican side to him?”

What does that have to do with anything you might ask? I could have listed more of his resume and life experiences, which was the focus of other nominating speeches. With a captive audience of 30 Senate and 150 House members, I chose to make my remarks short and light. And yes, Tristan did win the election in spite of my unorthodox nomination.

There will be many issues this session where my colleagues and I will disagree. However, it’s important we get along and not take things too personal. Perhaps that will help us find that sometimes elusive middle ground?

With the 2023 session now eight weeks old, several high-profile bills are beginning to advance from their original committees. Of those, the Clean Heat Standard (renamed the Affordable Heat Act this year), which was vetoed by Governor Scott last year, was approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on a 5-0 vote Friday morning. While the committee had a strong unanimous vote, it’s important to recognize the political makeup of their members do not necessarily reflect the Senate as a whole (no Republicans or moderates for instance).

The measure continues to be supported by a host of environmental organizations, except for groups like 350 Vermont and Standing Trees. In an email to lawmakers, a former Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, James Ehlers, referred to the bill as the“Unaffordable Heat Standard.”  The bill is also opposed by most of the state’s fuel dealers and the Governor over concerns on the potential fuel price impacts. We expect the scrutiny of the legislation to heat up (no pun intended) in the coming weeks.

Other issues of interest:

• The House General & Housing Committee advanced the paid family leave bill, H.66, on a 9-3 party line vote. The measure would offer each employee up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 100% of their wage (capped at $1,135/week) for a list of qualifying events. It proposes to be initially funded by a 0.55% payroll tax shared between the employer and employee. The Governor opposes the new tax, and some business groups worry about exacerbating the shortage of employees with the new time-off benefit. Advocates of the legislation believe, however; it will help attract new workers to Vermont.
• Unlike the House, the Senate on Friday approved the mid-year budget adjustment bill, H.145, on a unanimous 30-0 vote. The Senate Appropriations Committee removed the House passed $9.2 million subsidy to organic dairy farms, reduced the appropriation to the Housing and Conservation Board by $25 million and made a modest adjustment to the hotel voucher program.
• The Senate approved a measure that would ban paramilitary camps that train people with “the intent to cause civil disorder.” S.3 passed on a wide 29-1 vote. The bill was prompted by reports about Slate Ridge in West Pawlet and harassment of its neighbors.
• House Government Operations advanced, H.127, which would legalize sports betting in Vermont, on a 9-3 vote this past Friday. The bill will now be reviewed by the Ways & Means Committee. An estimated 35 states now allow sports betting.
• Rep. Mulvaney-Stanak, P-Burlington and 28 House members introduced H.281, which would dramatically increase the annual compensation of legislators from approximately $14,600 to $33,000 and add health insurance and childcare reimbursement. Currently lawmakers receive $811 for each of the 18 weeks they are typically in session and do not receive any benefits. In my view, being a legislator is about public service, not about a 125% salary increase and benefits for a seasonal position.
• Two vastly different approaches to illegal drug usage may soon appear in bills. One expected to be introduced by Rep. Nicoll, D-Ludlow, would decriminalize drug possession of “personal use amounts” of otherwise regulated substances. The other, by Rep. Peterson, R-Clarendon, would dramatically increase the penalties, including minimum jail time, for dispensing cannabis to a person under 21 years of age and to increase the criminal penalties for possession, dispensing, and sale of cocaine, LSD, heroin, and fentanyl.
• H.67, designed to require manufacturers to help with the funding of household hazardous collection programs, received unanimous approval in the House Environment and Energy Committee. 
The next few weeks will see many more bills advance from their originating committees. 

I look forward to seeing district residents at the Chittenden, Killington and Mendon town informational sessions on March 6 and the Pittsfield Town Meeting on March 7. You may reach Vermont house Rep. Jim Harrison at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.

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