By Rep. Jim Harrison
In the not-too-distant past, Vermonters would call the State House and leave a message for their legislator, which would then be hand-delivered by a page. Additionally, the State House had advocates for most sides of any initiative that could share information or answer legislators’ questions. Of course, there were emails, but not the extent there are today.
Email it seems, is the preferred method of interaction, especially in the current virtual Zoom world of the Legislature. And many of the emails generated by followers of various advocacy groups come from sophisticated electronic action portals. As an example, I received over 100 emails last week from educators and state employees titled “Fairness and Balance” about the makeup of a pension task force. While each of the emails were generated with a person’s name, the return email on most was, email@example.com. Only a couple of them were from our district.
Another campaign came from VPIRG (Vermont Public Interest Research Group) as part of their campaign to expand Vermont’s bottle deposit program. The emails came from everyactionadvocacy.com and each had the exact same message. If the intent is to generate quantity, simple robo-emails might count for something, but if you are looking for quality, individually composed messages may be more effective.
Even when we go back to meeting in person, I suspect the sometimes-quick ability to generate automatic emails may be here to stay. However, I am not convinced they are necessarily the best means of interaction.
The above-mentioned bottle bill was advanced by the House last week. H.175 expands the deposit system to wine, orange juice and all other beverages from V-8 to Gatorade, teas, water and all sizes of those cranberry blends. Milk, fresh cider, and certain plant-based beverages, like soy milk, are exempt. Given that it is late in the session, the Senate may not take up the issue until next year.
Vermont, which passed its original legislation nearly 50 years ago, is one of just 10 states with a bottle deposit system. While the 5-cent deposit is reimbursed back to the consumer when empties are returned, what is often not realized is the handling fee and other costs may be embedded in the price of the product. Under this legislation, the distributor or manufacturer must pay the retailer or redemption center 3.5 to 5 cents for each container returned in addition to the 5-cent deposit. The manufacturer or distributor also often pays a third-party pickup service to pick up and account for the empties. Border communities could also see an uptick in beverages purchased in New Hampshire (no deposit) but fraudulently redeemed in Vermont.
In 2012, Vermont enacted a mandatory recycling law, one of the most comprehensive measures in the country. In the eyes of many, mandatory recycling should make the container deposit system obsolete. If it is already the law to recycle, why must we add a new deposit and corresponding costs? For that reason and the likely potential for increased consumer prices, I opposed this expansion.
Two weeks after Democratic leaders in the House backed off plans to take up pension reforms, legislation creating a task force comprised of members representing unions, legislators, the Treasurer’s office, and administration officials is moving through the process. Despite the high volume of emails from educators and state employees objecting to the makeup of the task force, the House Committee on Government Operations felt there was appropriate representation of all parties and advanced the bill on a 9-2 vote. House Appropriations is expected to approve the measure on Tuesday, which will send it to the full House for a vote later this week.
The legislation, H.449, also adds members to the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC), including the commissioner of financial regulation. VPIC is the entity that oversees the investment of the pension funds.
On a combined basis, Vermont’s debt and net pension liabilities as of Fitch’s 2020 State Liability Report (dated October 2020) totaled 11.5% of 2019 personal income, compared with a U.S. states median of 5%. Speaker Krowinski has stressed the need to tackle the pension issue as it was now approaching 13% of the state’s general fund annual budget and could soon force reductions in state services and/or tax increases.
Other items of interest:
- The House approved S.53, with a variety of tax changes added to the Senate’s sales tax exemption on feminine hygiene products. Provisions added include exempting the first $10,000 of military pension income from Vermont taxes; adding the sales tax to cloud software; increasing mutual fund fees; and changing the calculation of corporate income taxes that may make it more attractive for larger businesses to expand in Vermont. The overall impact of the bill is an approximate $10 million increase in revenue, which has caused the governor to express reservations about the tax increases in the bill.
- Another measure passed by the House on Friday, S.88, included a provision separating the small group and individual health care markets for rating purposes. Thanks to new federal credits, the expected outcome of this division may be to lower premiums (or at least minimize) increases in the small group health insurance market.
- Governor Scott allowed a spending bill, H.315, to become law without his signature. In his letter to lawmakers this past weekend, he indicated it includes policy and spending choices that suggest he and the Legislature have very different opinions about how best to deploy the federal recovery and economic stimulus funding. Additionally, Scott objected to the potential taxation of the federal PPP loans to businesses designed to save jobs and help them through the pandemic.
All Vermonters ages 16 and above are now eligible for the Covid vaccines. To sign up, visit: healthvermont.gov/MyVaccine. Following CDC guidelines, Vermont has paused the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine until April 23 as this goes to print.
If the Legislature stays on track, we may be entering the final four weeks of the 2021 session. The target adjournment date is May 15. The Legislature could return in June if there are any vetoes by the governor that need attention.
Jim Harrison is the State House representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.