On March 20, 2024

March is here!

During announcements on the House floor two weeks ago, I got up and simply said “March is here.” Undoubtably my colleagues knew that I was simply reminding them that the annual State House March Madness friendly basketball competition was coming up soon. While it may not have been my intent to draw attention to another March madness of sorts, but there is another annual ritual at the State House right now. It’s referred to as ‘crossover.’

Crossover is the deadline Legislative leaders set each year when bills in one chamber must pass out of committees to be considered by the other chamber. This year the policy committee deadline was last Friday, March 15, and the deadline for money committees is this coming Friday, March 22. Priority bills of various committees were being fine-tuned and amended at a frantic pace. At one point it was estimated there were over 70 bills on the verge of getting advanced.

Keeping track of all the issues moving through the House or Senate can be maddening. However, without the discipline of crossover deadlines every March, the session would likely get extended to take up various new Legislative initiatives that committees keep advancing. At some point, you need to say we don’t have time for that new bill and maybe take it up next year.

Several of the bills advanced this past week require funding, which means they will need to be reviewed by the House or Senate appropriations committees. Those funding requests far exceed existing revenues, which means they will be scaled back, put on the back burner or taxes will need to be raised. The governor will surely oppose new taxes, especially considering already increasing property taxes due to hikes in school spending statewide.

Meanwhile a war of words and finger pointing has erupted between Legislative leaders and the Scott administration over the changes in the hotel voucher program. The Legislature extended the program until June 30, but allowed the more generous winter rules to expire as scheduled in March. This took effect once the governor signed into law the annual Budget Adjustment Act (BAA), H.839. Once the winter rules end, the hotel program is limited to priority populations, including elderly, disabled and families with children. Transitional shelters were set up last week so that state officials could qualify some of those in the hotel program. Legislative leaders were quick to criticize the use of temporary shelters and said the people should have remained at the hotels.

While the governor did sign the BAA last week, he did take the opportunity to criticize the extra $15 million in spending, which has now caused a hole in the FY25 budget. The House Appropriations Committee is aware of the budget hole and is looking at various expenditures to see what may be trimmed. The committee is scheduled to wrap up its budget discussions by this Friday.

Unlike our March Madness basketball competition, it is not going to be fun!

Other issues of note:

The House Ways & Means Committee is considering extending the sales tax to online software and a new 10% surcharge on short-term rentals as potential new revenue sources to mitigate a portion of the expected double-digit hike in education property taxes.

S.258, which changes the makeup of the Fish & Wildlife board to give the Legislature control of most appointees to the board and bans the hunting of coyotes with dogs, was advanced by the Senate Natural Resources and Appropriations Committees. The measure is opposed by many in the hunting and fishing community.

The full House will take up a major new renewable energy standard bill, H.289, which is expected to add between $150 million and $450 million in new costs to ratepayers over the next 10 years according to the Legislature’s fiscal office. Meanwhile, the Public Service Dept. estimates $517 million to $853 million in additional costs to ratepayers, depending on whether you include the extra investments for transmission lines to accommodate additional local solar and wind generation needed in the legislation.

Legislation to appropriate over $150 million for housing related initiatives, H.829, is not likely to pass as proposed unless new taxes are raised to fund the measures.

The House Commerce & Economic Development Committee approved an 81-page consumer privacy bill on Friday with an 11-0 vote. The legislation aims to create protections for certain categories of consumer data.

A bill to ban most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides in Vermont agriculture is expected to advance to the full House for a vote this week. Neonicotinoids are widely used because they effectively control challenging soil pests, however, also are believed to negatively impact bees. The ban on the treated seeds would take effect in 2029, the same year as the New York ban is slated to go into effect. New York is the only other state with a ban, although neonic treated seeds are currently banned in neighboring Quebec.

The House passed S.18, which bans the sale of flavored tobacco products, such as menthol cigarettes, as it is believed underaged youth are attracted to them. The bill is estimated to reduce state revenues by as much as $14 million annually, although industry members say the lost revenue will be higher.

A potentially controversial Act 250 reform bill, H.687, was approved by the House Environment and Energy Committee. Governor Scott has been critical of the measure as he believes the bill remains too restrictive for new housing development.

A proposal by Treasurer Mike Pieciak to establish a new Baby Bond program for newborn children on Medicaid, was advanced by the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, but reduced to a study on the source and amount of the funds that would be needed.

A bill to continue funding to keep the Salisbury Fish Hatchery open was advanced by the Senate Institutions Committee. The hatchery was slated for closure as a money saving measure.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced S.58, which increases the penalties to persons providing illegal drugs with death resulting.

The House Health Care Committee advanced H.721, which expands the Dr. Dynasaur program (Medicaid) to age 21 as well as some other coverage expansions. It is unclear of the total taxpayer costs of the new benefits will be, so its implementation is delayed for another year.

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

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