By Rep. Jim Harrison
This past Friday, the House gave final approval to S.348, which removes the governor from the decision on how the elections are run this fall and allows the secretary of state to establish any new rules. Secretary Condos has indicated he plans to mail out ballots to all registered voters for the November election over concern on spreading Covid-19.
Back in March, with so many unknowns about what Covid-19 would look like and whether the Legislature would even be able to meet, legislation was approved that would delegate the ability to make changes to the way elections are run this year to the secretary and governor. In the interest of full disclosure, I played a key role in getting the governor into the bill as I felt it looked better if the decisions were made by a Democratic secretary and Republican governor together. The optics might appear more appropriate if a plan, whatever it may be, was bipartisan.
Fast forward to now and the two have not been able to agree on the timing of a decision to send out ballots to all voters. The Legislature, at the request of the secretary, moved to remove the governor from the election decisions. However during discussion of the bill on the House floor, several amendments were proposed and defeated over the course of two extended sessions.
One, in the interest of health, would have prevented political groups from going door to door to collect ballots. Another would have prohibited candidates, their family or campaign staff from collecting ballots (after all they cannot at polling locations). Both were defeated.
So why were arguably good amendments rejected? Politics…the secretary and others wanted the bill enacted ASAP and did not want the legislation to make a trip back to the Senate.
Last Tuesday, June 9, the House Government Operations Committee advanced the biannual Pay Act, which appropriates money to fund the collective bargaining agreement with the state employees’ union and adjusts salaries of elected officials and various appointed positions. In a normal year such a bill is non-controversial and generally passes with broad support. This bill, H.964, passed out of committee on a 7-3 vote (yes, I was one of the three “no” votes).
Normally, I would be the first to say we should honor our agreements. However there are several issues from my perspective with this legislation:
The union contract was negotiated last fall when state revenues were running ahead of projection and the economic lookout was much different than today.
Average pay increase (including one-time $1,400 payment on July 1) across classified state employees is approximately 8.5% over the two years of the agreement when you add the value of the new paid leave benefit.
Elected officials and appointed exempt positions, while frozen for the coming year, will receive a 4.15% increase in year 2.
Legislators in year 2 and beyond will receive the same percent increase as full time constitutional officers, such as the governor. This is potentially an increase from the current cost of living adjustment in current law.
The total cost of the bill over its two years is approximately $66 million, up from $42 million the last time a Pay Act bill was approved in 2018.
I had suggested in committee that we postpone advancing the Pay Act legislation until we return in August when we would have a better idea of state revenues, federal funds help, etc. And we could make it retroactive back to July 1 if the state finances looked better. That suggestion was rejected.
This is all at a time when the latest state revenue forecasts are down over $500 million over the next two years and we currently have record unemployment not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s along with hundreds, if not thousands of businesses in danger of closing.
Does this look right?
While I support honoring agreements, I didn’t negotiate this contract, and was not sent to represent the district as a rubber stamp for the governor or the union lobbyists. How can we expect to shell out $66 million more at the risk of raising taxes on everyone else, including those unemployed? Will it cause significant furloughs in the year ahead?
Stay tuned on this one
The House gave final approval to an economic package, S.350, this past Friday, June 12, but only providing about a third of what the governor had requested from federal Covid funds. The $70 million includes $50 million of grants to businesses down a more restrictive 75%-or-greater in sales for at least one month since the pandemic emergency began and $20 million to state and local economic development organizations for grants.
The legislation also includes $23 million for grants to nonprofit housing partners and service organizations as well as for shelter facilities.
While additional economic recovery legislation is expected, Scott has indicated dismay over the significant downsizing of his administration’s proposal. He is concerned that without assistance, many businesses will not survive this year, which will further hamper Vermont’s economic recovery efforts.
Help for farmers is also expected, but again at a lower level than proposed by the administration.
Information on the grants will be distributed to businesses through their online tax registration, myvtax.vermont.gov.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is taking the lead on potential changes to policing and use of force guidelines in hope of getting a bill completed in the next two weeks. It is possible the House may have to wait until it returns in August to consider the legislation, which may help with additional reflection.
This was given new priority following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests.
Legislative leaders have set a target of June 26 to adjourn and return sometime in mid- to late-August to complete the 2020 session. It is expected at that time that there will be a clearer picture of state revenues and whether Congress will grant any additional funding to states.
In closing, I want to congratulate all of our district’s graduating seniors! This has certainly been a graduation season like no other.
Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the state house. To sign up for email updates visit eepurl.com/gbxzuz or email him at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.