On May 15, 2024
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Vermont Legislature adjourns after a contentious 2024 session

Vt legislature adjourns session May 11, 2024

Session was shaped by debates over property taxes, housing shortages, flood recovery and public safety

By Sarah Mearhoff and Shaun Robinson/VTDigger

After a tumultuous day of dealmaking on housing, land use and property tax measures, the Vermont Legislature adjourned its 2024 session in the early hours of Saturday morning, May 11. The Senate gaveled out at 1:18 a.m. and the House at 2:07 a.m.

The session was shaped by existential debates over the future of the state. Lawmakers grappled with projected double-digit property tax increases, a persistent housing shortage, the aftermath of a catastrophic summer flood, an outcry over public safety and more.

The relationship between the Legislature and Republican Gov. Phil Scott at times grew contentious — shaped by Democrats’ theoretically veto-proof supermajority and Scott’s willingness to spurn the bills they passed.

Legislators will have a chance to override any gubernatorial vetoes when they return to Montpelier for a veto session on June 17.

As they adjourned early Saturday morning, legislative leaders said they were proud of how they rose to the occasion.

“This has been a dark year,” Senate President pro tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, said in a closing speech on the Senate floor. “But it has been an amazing biennium.”

Budget

In their final actions of the session, lawmakers signed off on an $8.6 billion state budget, which would take effect July 1. Unlike the intense budget debates of recent years, this year’s negotiations — completed earlier this week — were relatively quiet. Republican Gov. Phil Scott has even signaled a willingness to sign the bill into law.

Property tax increase

When they convened in January, legislators were staring down a projected statewide property tax increase of about 20%. By March, pressure to overhaul the state’s education funding framework — or, at the very least, soften the blow of this year’s hikes — reached a fever pitch when one-third of the state’s school budgets failed on Town Meeting Day.

Lawmakers ultimately approved a yield bill — which sets property tax rates for the following year — establishing an average statewide property tax increase of 13.8%, thanks in part to a $25 million buy-down. H.887 also establishes a committee to study options for a long-term solution to Vermont’s K-12 funding woes.

Though the House and Senate reached a deal in the final hours of the session, the bill is almost certain to be vetoed by Scott, who insisted that the Legislature do more to protect Vermonters from property tax increases. Legislators will have a chance to override any gubernatorial vetoes when they return to Montpelier for a veto session on June 17. To override a veto requires a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Housing

Lawmakers spent much of the session reckoning with the state’s persistent housing shortage. At a January press conference, a number of legislators joined Scott in pledging to work together to overhaul Act 250, the state’s 50-year-old land conservation law, in hopes of easing strict zoning rules governing new housing development.

Over the following months, lawmakers debated how to strike a balance between the state’s dire housing needs and a desire to conserve Vermont’s landscape and natural resources. Late Friday night, May 10, they settled on H.687, which they touted as a grand bargain — though some Republicans opposed it.

In a sarcastic speech delivered to his colleagues early Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin, quipped that constituents were sure to appreciate “how we’ve created fast, easy-to-use solutions to the housing crisis.”

Flood recovery

At the start of this year’s session, many Vermonters were still reeling from last summer’s devastating floods and called on lawmakers for a helping hand — not only to help them emerge from crisis, but to think big and reimagine how the state prepares for future natural disasters.

“We listen when a Vermonter in Barre shares their story of watching their child’s college fund wash away with the flooding that destroyed their home,” House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said in closing remarks to the House early Saturday morning. “Our members showed up at their door — muck boots on, sleeves rolled up, shovels in hand — because that’s how we do it in Vermont.”

“And once those waters receded and the roads were repaired, we focused on our legislative action,” she said.

The Legislature’s most tangible response to last summer’s floods was in the form of state dollars. It allocated $40 million to help communities rebuild, close gaps in municipal budgets, offer interest-free aid to businesses and raise homes likely to flood in the future.

Lawmakers also passed S.310, a bill outlining the role of state government in responding to future natural disasters, as well as S.213, which would establish a new state permitting system for building in river corridors. Vermont not only needs to rebuild from last year’s floods, lawmakers have said, but think ahead to prepare for those sure to come as natural disasters become more frequent and severe.

Crime, opioids

From the outset of the session, Scott urged the Legislature to address widespread concerns over crime and safety. Members responded by passing S.58, a bill that would increase the number of crimes for which juvenile offenders can be charged in court as adults and — at the request of the Scott administration — again delay the next phase of an initiative to increase the age at which nonviolent offenders are referred to family court. The bill would also create harsher penalties for drug-related offenses.

Both chambers also approved S.195, a bill that would increase supervision of people who are accused of crimes before their day in court; H.534, a bill that would create new retail theft penalties; and H.563, which would make it a crime to “trespass” in someone’s vehicle.

“I don’t think it’s a tough-on-crime session,” Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told his colleagues on Friday. “It’s a smart-on-crime session.”

Those bills did not have universal support. Legislative leaders came under criticism from Progressive lawmakers and criminal justice reformers for passing measures that could result in more people being sent to prison.

Simultaneously, lawmakers took a new approach to addressing a stubborn and deadly opioid crisis. H.72 would pave the way for the state to establish an overdose prevention site, to be located in Burlington. At the site, Vermonters with substance use disorder could use drugs and would be offered clean supplies, medical supervision and emergency medication in case of overdose. Visitors would also be referred to recovery services.

Proponents of the measure say such a facility would save lives by offering a safe, sheltered location for Vermonters struggling with dependence, where they are less likely to fatally overdose. Scott remains opposed to the bill, but it appears to have the two-thirds support from legislators required to override a veto.

Governor vs Legislature

Throughout all of the heady policy debates, the 2024 legislative session was punctuated by bitter disagreement between the Legislature and governor’s office. Scott frequently pointed a finger at the Democratic supermajority for plowing ahead with legislation despite his opposition — and that, he has said, of the 71% of Vermont voters who elected him.

Meanwhile, lawmakers repeatedly accused the governor of overstepping his executive authority, impeding on the Legislature’s role as a co-equal branch of government. That critique was especially pronounced last month, when the Senate voted 19-9 to reject Scott’s pick for secretary of education, Zoie Saunders. Within minutes of her defeat, Scott appointed Saunders to serve as interim secretary, circumventing senators’ opposition.

In his final address to lawmakers early Saturday, Scott softened his tone, telling them, “I think most of us want the same thing.”

“Vibrant neighborhoods full of families, breathing life back into communities; healthy and safe kids filling classrooms and reaching their fullest potential; great jobs with solid employers; entrepreneurs from all walks of life in a thriving, growing economy,” Scott said.

“We just have a different vision of how to get there.”

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