Home stretch?

The Vermont legislature is entering the last two weeks of its scheduled 18-week session. Legislative leaders and most lawmakers believe two more weeks is feasible. However, with several major issues unresolved, some are beginning to cast doubt on the May 12 target.

Meanwhile, the speaker is now holding two House sessions daily to allow committees to review legislation coming over from the Senate and potentially act on them the same day. Additionally, morning committees in the Senate will stop meeting in another week to allow for longer Senate floor sessions, and for the afternoon committees, including appropriations and finance, to have more time to meet.

The first veto test of the session could take place as soon as this week. Governor Scott indicated on Friday, April 28, he would veto the controversial S.5, the Clean Heat bill. He does not believe it is a “study” as some proponents argue, but rather actual implementation with new state employees, that will put Vermont on the path to higher heating fuel prices. The Senate had just enough votes to override the governor when it gave final passage to the measure last week, however veto overrides can be a bit unpredictable. Meanwhile, House Speaker Jill Krowinski issued a statement accusing the Governor of misleading statements about S.5, which Scott dismissed as politics.

In an interview with one of the local TV stations, I said Phil Scott is a reasonable person and that legislative leaders, from my perspective, should find a way to compromise on such an important piece of legislation that could impact Vermonters with higher prices or costly upgrades. It will also likely reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, an override could poison the opportunity to reach accommodations on the State budget, childcare funding, paid family leave and more. In my view, just because you can enact legislation by override, doesn’t mean you should.

On the issues of childcare and paid leave, the House and Senate are potentially at odds and both chambers are on a different page from Scott because of the Legislature’s willingness to raise taxes for both initiatives. Senate leader Phil Baruth indicated last Thursday that there were not enough votes in the Senate to pass the expansive paid family leave program that the House overwhelmingly approved earlier in the session.

Meanwhile, the House Ways and Means Committee continues to review an across-the-board hike in personal income taxes as well as making Vermont corporate taxes the highest in the nation. The tax increases would be used to fund its version of childcare subsidies and pay hikes for providers.

The state budget, or Big Bill as it is referred to at the State House, was approved by the Senate on a 24-5 margin, more than enough to override a potential veto. Scott for his part, has been vocal about the increased spending in the package and reliance on motor vehicle fee hikes of about 20%. The bill, H.494, will now go to a committee of House and Senate members to work out differences between the two chambers.

A major housing package is still under review by the House Environment and Energy Committee. Depending on what changes the committee makes, there could be amendments offered by members of the rural caucus to exempt some housing development from Act 250 jurisdiction.

Legislation to increase lawmakers’ own compensation did not make the Legislature’s own crossover deadline to pass over from the Senate this session. Despite missing the deadline, indications are that the House may nonetheless take it up in the remaining two weeks. An exception to its own rule perhaps?

The Senate approved controversial gun control legislation, H.230, by a margin of 21-9, enough to override a possible veto. The legislation, which has some constitutional concerns, imposes a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases and imposes new storage requirements. The measure was introduced as a suicide prevention measure.

Another gun bill, S.4, which is seen as non-controversial and largely follows federal law, appears on its way to final passage. I was baffled to learn last week that the lobbyists for the Vermont Federation of Sportsman’s Club opposed a simple amendment I offered to the House Judiciary Committee, that would clarify that a town governing body could prohibit firearms in their own town offices. Any private business open to the public can prohibit the carry of firearms into their business, as can the state. The State House, for example, does not allow firearms except for law enforcement officers. Yet under current law, municipalities are seemingly forbidden to ban them in their own town offices, if they choose. As the result of their opposition to this modest enabling language, the committee chair withdrew support for the amendment because of concern that it would split the overall committee support for S.4.

Some of the other issues that will need resolution before legislators go home include:

Setting education statewide property tax rates (and whether universal school meals continue)

A pause or continuation of PSB testing of schools.

A possible pause or change in reappraisal triggers given the large number of towns falling below the current threshold that requires the undertaken (due to rapid increases in home values the past few years).

S.94, which extends the timetable to TIF districts in Barre and Hartford, and a related look at the state’s economic development incentives.

A smooth and orderly completion of the 2023 legislative session may be wishful thinking…but we can always hope.

Rep. Jim Harrison is the Statehouse representative for Mendon, Killington, Chittenden and Pittsfield. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.

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