By Jim Harrison
I have never been much of a poker player, but I do know when my cards could have been better. With an 8-4 partisan split on the House Appropriations Committee and only 38 Republicans in the full House, trying to negotiate a reduction in the $91 million in new spending in the budget adjustment bill was probably a futile effort.
The budget adjustment, H.145, passed out of committee last Monday on an 8-4 party line vote. The continuation of the hotel voucher program without restrictions and $50 million for undefined future housing projects were key areas of disagreement. While investments for housing have bi-partisan support, the money comes out of the next fiscal year budget proposal, and no one knows what will be reduced or cut to pay for it. The governor also voiced concerns over the new spending in H.145 after the committee voted it out.
Hallway conversations continued up until a few hours before the vote by the full House on Thursday, Feb. 2, in hopes of finding a bipartisan path forward. Unfortunately, no changes were made, and the budget bill was approved again on a partisan vote by the full House. Let’s hope we can come together in a better fashion as we begin reviewing next year’s budget on Monday, Feb. 6.
As we move into February, various committees are busy working on their priority bills. A couple of these include:
Senate Natural Resources is almost exclusively reviewing S.5, the thermal heat bill. A similar bill was vetoed by Scott last year, but lawmakers appear determined to move ahead with the initiative this session to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from heating fuels. Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore cautioned about the impact on the cost of fuel oil to consumers (up to 70 cents/gallon) and the estimated $1.2 billion cost of conversion. On the other hand, supporters of the legislation have a more optimistic view of potential price impacts.
Senate Judiciary spent much of the week looking at S.36, which increases penalties for threatening and assaulting health care workers.
Senate Economic Development is focusing on developing a housing bill that could address impediments to housing, such as local zoning restrictions and Act 250 hurdles in downtown areas.
The Legislature’s fiscal office identified several new taxes for legislators to consider if universal school meals are continued, including a new sweetened beverage tax, candy tax, online software tax and increasing the state sales tax (currently 6%).
House General and Housing committee has begun work on H.66, a new paid family leave program funded by a payroll tax on wages.
House Environment and Energy Committee is focusing its efforts on H.126, introduced by the committee chair, which aims to conserve 50% of land and water in the state by 2050. A similar bill was vetoed by Scott last year.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, I often come away with new information and perspective on the many arms of state government. As an example, last week we heard from the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington. It was chartered by the Legislature in 1884 and opened its doors in 1887. The residents of the home were initially referred to as inmates, a term that fortunately disappeared many years ago.
What most impressed me, however, was that the nursing home has earned a 5-star rating, one of just seven homes in that category in Vermont. I am proud we are doing our part to provide quality care for our veterans in their senior years.
Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Chittenden, Killington, Mendon and Pittsfield. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.