State News

Eureka!

By Rep. Jim Harrison

That must have been the feeling of the special pension task force when they found a path forward to a plan to address the growing pension funds liability. Initial indications suggest it was very much a compromise reached by all on the special committee last Monday (three Democrat and two Republican legislators, one administration official, two state employee union members, one state police union member and three teacher union members). The task force was set up by the Legislature last session when efforts at finding a solution, based in part of proposals floated by the treasurer, failed.

No doubt there are areas where some members thought the plan went too far or not far enough, but in the end, all came together to help preserve the funds for future retirees. With the 9-0 committee vote, the proposal is expected to receive the full support of the Legislature. It is expected to reduce the pension and retirement healthcare benefit liability on the books by nearly $2 billion of the total $6 billion.

There are no changes to current retirees or those achieving full retirement age by this July. The state will increase its contributions annually as well as make a $200 million one-time state contribution to the funds ($150 million had been previously set aside). Covered employees will see their contributions rise (phased-in) and adjustments to the CPI allowance when receiving benefits.

“Eureka” may not exactly be what came to mind for some members when the House Rules Committee advanced the proposal for returning to the Statehouse in-person this week. The plan continues with Zoom for floor sessions and in-person for committee deliberations (with Covid related exemptions, such as quarantining and risk exposure to yourself or family).

The measure passed but not before some members voted to remain all remote for another two weeks. Continuation of being all remote failed on a 30-112 vote.

The Senate will continue to meet remotely, although their rules do allow for a hybrid approach.

Other items of interest:

The Senate Health and Welfare Committee is discussing imposing a statewide mask mandate and they may vote on it this Tuesday, Jan. 18. The measure, to date, has been opposed by Governor Scott, who has preferred to let individual towns decide.

The House began the process of remapping the state’s legislative districts on Friday, but not before rejecting the recommendation of the appointed tripartisan Legislative Apportionment Board (LAB). They had recommended moving to all single-member House districts. While the process has a way to go, the House action signaled that leadership prefers a mix of two-member and single-member districts, like we currently have in place.

The House Appropriations Committee included planning funds ($1.5 million) for future State House expansion in the annual budget adjustment bill advanced on Friday. The governor does not agree with the need for expansion.

House Appropriations also included the administration’s proposal for significant new investments in housing in the budget bill. The legislation will be taken up by the full House this week.

The Senate Economic and Development Committee is taking another look at increasing unemployment benefits after a proposal to increase them by $25/week was denied by federal administrators last year, based on the way it was structured. A House committee is also looking at proposals to increase benefits, which are funded by employers. The Vermont Chamber expressed concern about increasing taxes on businesses as the ongoing impact of the pandemic and labor shortage continues.

The Legislature has approved three bills relating to upcoming municipal and school meetings due to Covid concerns. One allows towns with traditional town meetings to change to Australian ballot; another eliminates the petition requirement for town or school candidates and the third allows public meetings to be held electronically without a physical presence. All measures are only for 2022 and expected to be signed into law.

State economists have revised state revenue forecasts upward for the current fiscal year by $44 million and $26 million for FY23 ($18 million increase if you remove expected cannabis revenue). State revenues in FY24 decrease if you remove cannabis, as the impact of federal spending winds down. They also cautioned that inflationary pressures would remain well into 2022 and 2023, which may minimize some of the impact of higher revenues.

Spending and tax proposals will be front and center as Governor Scott delivers his budget address to lawmakers on Tuesday, Jan. 18. He has hinted at some tax relief. Meanwhile, the Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee is proposing a bold (and expensive) new refundable childcare tax credit. Also on the table could be a modest proposal I put forth with 30 bipartisan co-sponsors to raise the income threshold to exempt social security benefits from Vermont income taxes.

Even though November seems like a long way away, candidates are announcing or considering their intention to run for higher office. Chittenden County Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale plans to compete in the August primary for Vermont’s lone Congressional seat against Senate leader Becca Balint and Lt .Governor Molly Gray. For the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Patrick Leahy, former U.S. Attorney Christina Nolan is exploring a run as a Republican against Vermont’s current Congressman Peter Welch, a Democrat. Names are also being floated for the spot, being vacated by Gray.

In closing, with the rising Covid cases, and hospitalizations we are now seeing, it will create additional needs. Please do your part and practice measures to minimize the spread. Stay healthy and safe!

Jim Harrison is a representative in the state House for the towns of Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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