On March 22, 2023

March Madness!

By Jim Harrison

We think of March Madness as the college basketball NCAA tournament and the many friendly bracket competitions that take place among family and friends. The State House is no different with a record 99 participants playing this year in the men’s games and 17 in the women’s. 

Well, there is also a March Madness of sorts that comes to the legislature when the mid-March deadline arrives for policy committees to get bills voted out of committee (March 17). The deadline can cause a flurry of activity as advocates and legislators scramble to get their priority initiatives moving. And if those policy bills have funding involved, they need to advance from one of the money committees by March 24. 

No doubt, Appropriation Committee members will have many long days ahead (and several new friends in the hallways as supporters of various bills ask about their status), as they strive to make the numbers in the overall state budget bill work.

There are a couple of notable bills, which might signify some differences in priorities between the House and Senate. One is the childcare bill in the Senate, S.56, with an estimated price tag of $190 million annually. Senators have not yet indicated which taxes will be raised to pay for the measure. The legislation also includes a pared down parental leave benefit for Vermont employees. 

The House, on the other hand, is advancing an up to 12-week family leave benefit, which would be one of the most generous in the country, if enacted. That bill, H.66, has projected startup costs of $117 million and ongoing costs of over $100 million annually, including the hiring of over 40 new employees for the Treasurer’s office. It is proposed to be funded by a new payroll tax on employers and employees.

The governor is likely to oppose both measures as proposed, as they both require new taxes. He included a significant increase in childcare subsidies in the budget, but not to the tune of what the Senate would like and a voluntary leave plan, not a taxpayer funded program the House wants.

Other bills moving this past week from a fairly long list include:

The House Education Committee voted out legislation that will establish new requirements on independent schools that accept public tuition payments from school choice towns.

Senate Government Operations Committee advanced S.32, which would allow municipalities to institute ranked choice voting and explore how the state could adopt it for state and Federal elections in Vermont.

Senate Government Operations also advanced, S.17, which would add health care and childcare benefits to legislators and review their compensation.

Universal school meals, H.165, was advanced by the House Ways & Means Committee. The estimated $30 million annual cost will be covered by the Education Fund, which will likely increase property taxes.

Senate Judiciary wants to study the concept of eliminating cash bails in S.27.

Sports betting, H.127, was advanced by a second House committee last week and is expected to reach the House floor (if approved by House Appropriations) in the coming week. Vermont is currently the only New England state that doesn’t allow online sports betting. It is expected to net the state between $4 and $10 million annually.

The House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to address concerns raised by the hospitality industry on the difficulty in finding affordable liquor liability insurance. The bill, H.288, amends the state’s dram shop law.

Expanding Vermont’s bottle deposit law to juice drinks, water and wine, H.158, has been approved by two House committees thus far.

Senate committees have advanced a bill, S.36, that increases the penalties for assaults against health care workers.

Two labor protection bills, S.102 and S.103, were advanced by the Senate Economic Development Committee quickly on Friday.

The House Government Operations Committee advanced H.270, which includes doubling the THC limit in cannabis products.

Housing legislation, S.100, is moving in the Senate. The Senate Natural Resources Committee removed some of the ACT 250 exemptions the Senate Economic Development Committee had included to reduce barriers to housing development.

The legislature has completed 10 weeks out of its normal 18. The March Madness segment of the session will hopefully be over soon!

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

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