By Rep. Jim Harrison
File it under “be careful what you divulge in a public forum.” As I began some remarks in a House session last week, I started with a short childhood story to make a point where my mother would say, “Jimmy, you must clean your room.” Well, I have gone by “Jim” my entire life, except to Mom. As soon as I was done with my floor remarks, the good-natured text messages from colleagues started coming… “Jimmy.”
I confessed that I would just sweep the dust under the rug, like kicking the can with the pension issue (I wonder if Mom was ever aware of my shortcut.)
The House passed H.449, which makes the Pension Investment Committee more independent and sets up a task force to figure out a plan to make the pension funds sustainable. The task force arose after ideas floated by House leadership ran into stiff opposition from the unions. Even a task force having no power to do anything other than make recommendations, ran into opposition by union leaders. The measure passed 125-22. Just saying “no” to the growing pension deficit is no longer an option.
The governor and legislative leaders continue to have disagreements over how the new federal funds (American Rescue Plan Act or ARPA) are allocated. Scott has said legislative leaders have indicated his plan does not take care of human needs enough and he has countered his priorities will help better prepare Vermont for the future.
Earlier this month, the governor rolled out a plan recommending using the funds in five categories over the next four years:
- $250 million for broadband and wireless connectivity
- $249 million for housing
- $200 million for climate change mitigation measures
- $170 million for water and sewer infrastructure
- $143 million for further economic development and recovery
Another disagreement brewing is over the potential taxation of business Payroll Protection Plan (PPP) loans. The legislature waived Vermont taxes on the forgivable loans for 2020 but have not done so for 2021. Several key senators, however, have expressed an openness to making them tax exempt. No word yet from House leaders.
Other issues of interest:
The House approved legislation, H.265, that would setup an independent child advocate office like what most other states already have in place.
The House General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee appears to be close to advancing S.79, which sets up a statewide rental registry, including short term rental units, such as homes and condos offered through Airbnb.
A measure to increase tourism funding for the upcoming year, which was passed by the House last month, now appears to be facing a cut by the Senate. The $2.5 million increase, which I had initiated, is now proposed to be reduced to $1.25 million.
Governor Scott has announced that the work search requirement for those receiving unemployment benefits would be reinstated in May.
The Senate approved H.218, which expands where farms can sell raw milk to farm stands or through CSA organizations.
The expanded bottle bill, H.175, passed by the House, has been sent to the Senate, where it is likely to stay until next year as it didn’t meet the Legislature’s crossover deadline.
Republican Governor Phil Scott and Democratic Lt. Governor Molly Gray issued a joint statement calling for the elimination of the tax on military pensions. Vermont is one of just a few states that tax military pensions. The House approved a partial exemption but included it with a tax on cloud software that Scott opposes.
A sign that the end of the session is near was the announcement that Senate morning committees will stop meeting in another week. Unlike the House, senators serve on a morning and separate afternoon committee. The change frees up time for the afternoon money committees to finish the necessary budget related measures. The new target adjournment date for the session is May 22.
Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at: JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.