State News

Kicking the can

By Rep. Jim Harrison

In my column last week, I gave House Speaker Krowinski kudos for taking on the very difficult issue of pension reform this year. In the ensuing week of pushback from the state employees’ and teachers’ unions, the speaker announced last Friday, April 2, that doing pension reform was no longer a priority for this session. Instead, a committee would be formed to come up with a plan.

She also indicated the committee would look at possible revenue sources as well as plan and benefit changes to fix this problem.

Scott has indicated taxpayers have already been paying increasing amounts each year and should not be asked for more.

In addition to the outcry from union members, the speaker’s fellow Democratic leaders in the Senate, Lieut. Governor Molly Gray and Senator Becca Balint, came out against the proposal floated by the speaker’s team in the House.

With the increase this year of $100 million in contributions from the state, another year delay will be expensive and possibly no easier to reach consensus. Even a very modest proposal to begin putting new employees on a defined contribution (401k) plan by Rep. Samantha Lefebvre (R-Orange) was apparently not acceptable to union leaders.

In her comments, the speaker also criticized the governor for not coming forward with a pension reform proposal of his own. For his part, Scott said he has been stressing the need to address the issue for the past four years and legislative leadership has thus far been reluctant to take it up.

The blame game continues. In the meantime, the $5.7 billion problem keeps growing.

Switching gears, the House appropriations committee advanced changes to a supplemental budget bill, H.315, on Friday afternoon on a 10-1 vote. I was the one on the island by myself. For me, the addition of $23 million in new spending above and beyond what the House had previously spent was too much. That coupled with the announcement by the speaker that morning to kick the can down the road on pension reform this year will only lead to more challenges in the future, in my view.

Not that my one “No” vote will change the course of the spending bill, but the appropriations committee typically works hard to reach consensus and routinely votes out budgets unanimously. However, I was out of my comfort zone with the extra spending with this one and at the end of the day, I am the one that must live with my vote.

Other items of interest:

The Senate has scheduled votes on two constitutional amendments, one clarifying that slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited, while the other ensures the personal reproductive liberty of every Vermonter. The announced votes mark a change from earlier comments by Senate leader, Becca Balint, who had previously indicated the votes could wait until next session when the legislature will be meeting in person.

Legislation formally allowing the federal pass-through of Vermont income tax exemptions for the first $10,000 of unemployment benefits and PPP loans for the 2020 tax year, is on track to be sent to the governor this week.

Expanding Vermont’s bottle bill to a wide range of beverages, including wine, orange juice, water and noncarbonated drinks was advanced by the House Ways & Means committee on a 7-4 vote. The committee lowered the deposit back to 5 cents (from 10 cents in the original proposal) and exempted certain types of packaging, like boxed wine. The ultimate fate of the legislation is still uncertain.

Following a review of the House education committee of the constitutionality of allowing non-citizens to vote on Winooski school budgets, the House approved the change to Winooski’s charter on a 99-44 vote. Concern had been raised whether it was appropriate to have different rules as to who can vote on education spending in one community that is essentially part of a statewide funding system. The measure now moves to the Senate.

The House gave unanimous approval to a resolution to apologize for the eugenics movement in Vermont nearly 90 years ago when more than 250 residents were sterilized for what was considered human betterment at the time.

The House commerce and economic development committee will now review legislation, S.10, passed by the Senate that extends the sunset for employees to voluntarily leave their job for Covid-19 related reasons and adds a $50 per week dependency benefit for unemployment. The bill also delays an expected tax increase on employers.

The House committee on human services is considering legislation, H.225, that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid dependence, even if obtained without a necessary prescription.

The Legislature has completed two thirds of its normal 18-week session. It’s hard to know if the mid-May target will be met this year given the pandemic and allocating of the new federal funds.

Best wishes and hoping for spring to come…the golf course is waiting.

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

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