By Rep. Jim Harrison
It’s important to have deadlines to help discipline the legislative process. Without them, the session would likely extend longer than it does. Deadlines mean that the House Appropriations Committee must not only finish its work on the budget, but also act on any bills sent to the committee from House policy committees that include a request for money, by this past Friday, March 18.
By the end of the week, our committee voted out 20 bills, some of which we had to review rather quickly, and agree to an overall spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. By late Friday, virtually all the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds were committed as well as money in the state’s general fund.
To say the week was hectic, would be an understatement. It was a frenzy! At one point I ran to my seat on the House floor to respond to a roll call vote when I heard my name coming into the House chamber (members of Appropriations are often excused from the House deliberations unless there is a roll call, or we are reporting on a bill that came out of our committee). At least it served for a good laugh by my colleagues…
Some items of interest:
- The House passed legislation which allows the Public Utilities Commission to establish a first-in-the-nation clean heat standard program for heating fuels. It will regulate heating fuels (oil, propane, natural gas, kerosene, and wood pellets) and require dealers to buy and sell energy credits to do business in Vermont. While the program offers promise of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and help the state meet its goals, no one can tell us what it will mean for costs to consumers at this point.
- I co-sponsored an amendment that would require the elected legislature to sign off on the program next year after the PUC has done enough work on the plan so that we have a better idea of the costs and benefits. Some have suggested significant price hikes in fuel prices, but we don’t know how much. When the amendment failed, I could not support the final bill and let the appointed three member PUC establish a program without a final signoff by our elected representatives. The governor has indicated he also preferred the Legislature and governor should sign off on the program before going into effect in 2025.
- A slightly modified firearm bill, S.4, has been sent to the governor. It attempts to fix the objection he raised when he vetoed a similar bill two weeks ago. The time limit on background checks went from the current three days to seven days in S.4.
- The House Ways & Means Committee is proposing to use the education fund surplus to lower the statewide property tax rate and fund free school breakfast and lunch for all students for one more year. Governor Scott had proposed a rebate to taxpayers rather than set up a potential larger increase in tax rates next year when there isn’t a surplus to utilize.
- The reapportionment legislation that establishes new House and Senate districts is nearing completion after a Senate committee agreed to a plan for the Senate districts. Rutland and Windsor counties will both retain three senators.
- The House advanced legislation, H.518, to help towns do energy upgrades to their heating systems in municipal buildings with grants from federal ARPA money.
- The House also advanced legislation, H.505, that would decrease maximum sentences for drug crimes and establish a board to review existing drug possession legislation. Proponents of the legislation include the group, Decriminalize Vermont.
- The appropriations committee included a working group in the budget to come up with a plan on regional dispatch services with stakeholders. It would look at steps that need to be taken as well as a proposed timeline and costs to towns ($11 million has been reserved for transitional costs). Any proposal by the group will need to be considered by the Legislature next January.
- A proposal to establish a full time three-member truth and reconciliation commission, along with an executive director and staff will be considered by the full House this week. Among the items the commission will consider include changes to Vermont laws that discriminate against certain groups and possible reparations to those groups.
The annual March Madness basketball competition can also be a “frenzy” with unexpected upsets and changes in the leaderboard. It is alive and well at the State House this year with a record 95 participants in our bracket (and a nice diversion). Following the second round I am pleased to report I am currently in third place, which may be my high water mark as the games continue!
Jim Harrison is the State House representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at: JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.