On May 18, 2023

Reflections on the session

 

On my way home from Montpelier after the close of the regular session of the 2023 Vermont Legislature I listened to some Simon & Garfunkel music. As they sang “Bridge over Troubled Water” I couldn’t help but think the title could also sum up some of my thoughts about the session.

Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of positive accomplishments by the legislature this session. Necessary increases in Medicaid reimbursements for health care providers, including our ambulance services, were included in the budget. A major housing bill was approved. Expansion of childcare assistance passed on the last day after House and Senate leaders reached an agreement.

The speaker touted new shield laws for providers performing legal reproductive services in Vermont on patients that come from other states. Others point to the passage of universal school meals as a major accomplishment.

However, the cautious and fiscally responsible side of me prompted me to vote against the state budget, legislative pay raises and the childcare bill. 

The budget’s general fund spending was up 13.3% over last year, which is not even close to being sustainable, even once removing the one-time spending. And it included a $21 million (20%) increase in virtually all motor vehicle related fees (licenses, registrations, permit fees).

I began this year’s session fully expecting to support increased support for childcare. Many families know the challenges of finding affordable care. And while Vermont already does better in terms of support than many states, most agree we need to do better. But how much better is an open question. The governor proposed an increase of over $50 million a year in subsidies to families in his budget proposal without new taxes. Advocates for childcare wanted much more. The result was a new payroll tax on employers and employees, that will cost $4.2 million for the tax dept. to set up and over $2 million annually thereafter. The new tax is expected to raise $82 million annually.

Beginning in 2024, the state will reimburse childcare providers at a rate that is 35% higher, which should enable them to raise wages significantly. The childcare advocacy group, Let’s Grow Kids, was very appreciative of the bill, which includes expansion of subsidies to a family of four making up $172,000 annually, but their CEO indicated more investments still need to happen.

And for the record, I am not against Motherhood and Apple Pie, in voting against the childcare bill, especially as we celebrate Mother’s Day. I just don’t support new taxes so that we can be No. 1 in the country in terms of subsidies.

The budget bill was approved in the House by a 90-53 margin, which is not enough of a margin to override an expected gubernatorial veto. The bill was opposed by Republicans who thought the spending was too high and 17 Democrats and Progressives that thought the spending was not high enough, particularly as it applied to the motel voucher program. If the veto is sustained, leaders will have to decide whether to further increase spending to gain votes on the left or reduce spending to satisfy the governor in a new budget bill.

The first veto by Scott this year, was overridden by the legislature this past week with the Clean Heat bill, S.5. Time will tell if that will be the beginning of a trend with expected vetoes in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the House gave approval to a legislative compensation bill that would double legislators’ pay when fully implemented and make members eligible to receive state health insurance on a 112-34 vote. Being the troublemaker I can be sometimes, I offered four different amendments to make some modifications to the bill. Challenging a committee’s work is not always well received. I batted one for four and ended up voting “no” on the bill. One of the amendments that was defeated would have limited legislative expense reimbursements to actual expenses, not a daily per diem amount, when the pay raise takes effect. If two lawmakers share a hotel room, they shouldn’t each receive the full daily per diem reimbursement ($134), even though their actual costs are cut in half. It is about transparency for me, regarding what is total compensation.

But indicative of how members can put aside differences and get along, the Chair of the committee that advanced the pay bill, Rep. Mike McCarthy, D-St. Albans, signaled me out on the House floor a day later with praise on a different issue. I worked with his committee on some dispatch language that is included in one of my sections in the budget. And here I thought that presenting four amendments on the pay bill might have worn out my welcome.

My updates will be less frequent now that the regular session has ended. But as we will return for a veto session on June 20, I will try to provide information as warranted. Thank you for your interest in these reports and for giving me the opportunity to represent the towns of Chittenden, Killington, Mendon, and Pittsfield at the State House.

Rep. Jim Harrison is the Statehouse representative. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.

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