Local News, State News

Home stretch

With a bit of luck and some pragmatic approaches to unsettled proposals, the Vermont Legislature should adjourn for the 2021 session this coming Friday or Saturday, May 21-22. Differences between the House and Senate, and at times, with the governor, will need to be remedied on key bills, like the state budget. Other bills may have to wait until January, when the gavel falls to open the second half of the biennium.

The Legislature reserved June 22-23 for a possible two-day session, in the event there are any gubernatorial vetoes that happen after the current session ends. Likely, leaders would only call lawmakers back if vetoed bills were of prime importance, such as the state budget. Other vetoes could always wait ‘til January for override votes or adjustments to satisfy the governor’s concerns.

The House and Senate budget conferees have been meeting twice a day in an effort to come up with one final version of the state budget. Failure to reach agreement by Wednesday could jeopardize adjournment this week. The biggest obstacle may be whether they can satisfy Gov. Scott’s priority to have a plan for the new federal funds, rather than to use it to fill budget holes (as he has characterized). The Legislature allocated some of the federal money to free up state dollars for additional pension contributions.

Speaking of pensions, the House and Senate are working out differences on the makeup of a special task force to come up with plan recommendations. The unfunded liability of $5.7 billion, including post-retirement benefits (primarily healthcare), could put the retirement system in jeopardy if not addressed soon.

There are a number of bills aiming to get completed this week, with rules being routinely suspended to move legislation quickly back and forth between the chambers. If something is controversial, it risks not having rules suspended (a three-quarter vote is necessary to suspend rules) and may not make it to the finish line this week and carryover to next year.

In what might be called, “try, try again,” a transfer tax surcharge on property sales over $1 million is once again being proposed by the House Ways & Means Committee. Up to 75% of those transactions are commercial sales. The committee (and full House) advanced the measure on another tax bill earlier in the session, but the Senate has not taken it up. So, the committee is back at it, attaching it to another bill moving through the process. The tax hike will certainly tempt a veto by the governor if it makes it to his desk.

Legislation establishing a new rental registry, including short term rental units, continues to advance after passing out of the House Ways & Means Committee on Friday. The legislation, S.79, still needs a stop in House Appropriations before going to the full House for a vote. The measure also includes some additional criteria to allow landlords to seek evictions during the state of emergency.

A miscellaneous alcohol related bill, H.313, has passed the Senate. The measure includes a provision allowing “alcohol to go” for restaurants to remain in place until July 2023.

The House passed a joint resolution, J.R.H.6, declaring racism as a public health emergency on a 135-8 vote, citing a variety of statistics, including a higher incidence of Covid-19 for non-white Vermonters. The measure now moves to the Senate.

While it is late in the session, key Senate committees advanced H.157, which sets up a new biannual registration requirement for residential contractors. The measure had passed the House a few weeks ago. The registration fee is set at $75 for individual contractors and $250 for multi-employee businesses. Both fees will be phased in over a couple of years.

A compromise of sorts was reached on the unemployment tax issue to allow legislation to move forward. The compromise removes the experience of 2020 from the calculation that employers pay in unemployment taxes. While employer rates are still slated to rise in July, the increase is somewhat mitigated. A provision the Senate had championed with a new $50 per week dependent benefit was dropped in exchange for an increase of $25 per week in benefits after the federal $300 extra payment ends in the fall.

Expansion of vote by mail in future general elections received approval by the House with a strong 119-30 vote. The House Government Operations committee added some safeguards based on lessons learned last year, but not enough to satisfy all. Once differences with the Senate version are worked out, it will go to the governor, who is expected to sign the measure.

In another clear sign that Vermont is moving to a more normal post-pandemic life, Scott lifted mask mandates for vaccinated individuals and moved to Step 3 of the reopening plan two weeks ahead of schedule. Note that businesses may still have different masking restrictions to protect employees and the public as they see fit. The change also does not apply to schools and healthcare facilities. Step 3 increases gathering sizes and removes all travel restrictions around quarantine and testing requirements. More information can be found at: vermont.gov/vermont-forward.

The state’s reopening plan continues to be tied to the vaccine rate of Vermonters. While it is hoped all restrictions can be lifted prior to July 4, it will depend on more people getting vaccinated, especially the younger age groups. To make appointments, visit: HealthVermont.gov/MyVaccine. Parental/caregiver consent is required for those under 18.

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

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