Local News, State News

Differing priorities

By Rep. Jim Harrison

The 2022 Vermont legislative session was gaveled in on Jan. 4. The first week provides the governor with an opportunity to give his State of the State address, where he outlines some of his priorities. Legislative leaders also utilize the first week to share their agenda for the session as well.

As should be expected in any democracy, there is overlap and agreement, but also definite differences. Heck, even in our own family, Pat and I are not always on the same page with household priorities…

Workforce

Scott has put this up on the top of his list. It’s the same for Senate leader Becca Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski. It seems every employer, public or private, is experiencing a shortage of staff. Fewer people are working today than before the pandemic, despite record low unemployment numbers.

The need is especially acute in some areas of health care, particularly nursing. Solving Vermont’s staffing shortage will not be easy, but all are committed to taking on the challenge of finding both short- and long-term solutions.

Housing

Intertwined with the workforce issue is the need for more housing. A shortage of housing has led to higher prices and often hampers employees from moving or staying in Vermont to take jobs. Additionally, declines in our overall workforce threaten to hamper the state’s economy. Again, this is a priority with legislator leaders as well.

Abortion

Advancing a constitutional amendment to voters that will guarantee a right to an abortion was on the leaders’ list, but not Scott’s. Perhaps not surprising as the governor does not have any vote in amendments to the state’s constitution.

Climate Change

Investing in climate change is another area that all three (governor, senate and house leaders) have identified. What is less clear is what steps each is willing to take. The appointed climate council (23 members) released a list of over 230 action items to meet our greenhouse gas reduction targets, some of which need legislative action. The four “no” votes from the council were all members of the Scott administration, citing concerns over costs to Vermonters.

Tax Relief

The governor also hinted at tax relief given the surplus funds Vermont currently enjoys. Speaker Krowinski seem to dismiss that suggestion unless it was only focused on families with children. More details on Scott’s plans will be unveiled as part of his budget address on Jan. 18. Especially telling will be plans for the $90 million surplus in the Education Fund. Expect the governor to propose lowering property tax rates, while others may have different ideas, including possible transitioning into a new funding formula.

Covid

One item seemingly absent from the Scott’s speech was much mention of the pandemic (other than helping our health care system). Leader Balint indicated they would likely advance a statewide mask mandate, even though the governor could do that on his own by declaring another state of emergency (which he has been reluctant to reinstate).

Pensions

On the list for Krowinski and Balint was coming up with a solution for the growing deficit in the pension funds for educators and state employees. While the Governor appears to let legislators take the lead with union conversations, he has made it clear he would not support new tax increases as the solution.

Policing

One area that the leaders and Scott are not likely to see eye to eye is on Senator Balint’s call for removing qualified immunity for law enforcement officers in Vermont. The initiative, promoted by ACLU, could make it more difficult to attract and retain police officers in Vermont according to Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling.

Broadband

There was not a lot of mention of expanding broadband last week, although it is an area where there is widespread agreement. It may be due to the work done last session to set up the Vermont Community Broadband Board and significant allocation of federal funds to get the ball rolling. Now we need the workers to help us with the buildout.

Mental Health

The Governor also emphasized the need to invest in safe and healthy communities, committing to fund additional support for mental health systems and to further address the overdose epidemic. These are more areas of likely common ground with the legislature.

Other

There were a variety of other issues mentioned by Scott, Balint or Krowinski. The Speaker, for example, highlighted dismantling systemic and institutional racism and advancing racial and social equity as an overarching goal in every policy area. Not that Scott wouldn’t agree with that, but it wasn’t mentioned in his speech.

Governor Scott highlighted expanding and strengthening afterschool programs, early care and learning and trades training, while working to address learning loss caused by pandemic restrictions. Again, leaders may agree with this, but they weren’t necessary in their remarks.

In closing, the Vermont legislature prides itself for civil and congenial discussion of varying issues and points of view. While the session began remotely for two weeks given the uncertainty of the latest Covid surge, let’s hope we get back in person very soon. Legislating is a peoples’ business and not something that lends itself well to computer screens.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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