State News

Legislative update: gun control and tax changes

By Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon

Jim Harrison
Jim Harrison

A flurry of activity of various gun related issues highlighted activity at the State House this past week, prior to the Town Meeting recess. The legislature will return to Montpelier on March 13.

Gun control measures advance
In the wake of the horrific shooting in Florida and the threat that was fortunately averted in Fair Haven, the governor and many lawmakers have called for new gun restrictions in Vermont. This past week saw both chambers, House and Senate, approving new measures that only weeks ago seemed like a long shot.

In a rare evening session on Thursday, the House amended an unrelated bill, H.675, with two measures. The first was a slightly different version of the Senate bill, S.221, which would allow seizure of weapons (with a judge’s approval) from individuals considered a risk to themselves or others. The second issue amended was giving law enforcement the ability to seize firearms when called for a domestic abuse incident.

The Senate spent much of its floor time this past week on gun issues. They gave unanimous (30-0) approval to S.221, which was supported by both gun and anti-gun groups. Separately and more contentious, the Senate approved amendments to another bill, S.55 that would require universal background checks (17-13) and increasing the age to purchase firearms to 21 (21-9). S.55 will now move to the House where it will be considered along with other possible amendments following town meeting.

Ed funding changes back on track
Leadership in the Vermont House made it a priority earlier this session to address the way we fund K-12 education. The current system, which was born out of Act 60 about 20 years ago and later amended with Act 68 (increased sales tax to 6 percent to lower property taxes), is confusing. Many believe there is a disconnect between spending and property taxes when an estimated 70 percent of Vermont households are getting some type of income sensitivity and don’t see the full impact of locally approved budgets. Throw in a statewide yield formula, CLA (common level of appraisal) and per pupil spending where not all students are counted equally, and it’s no wonder there are many critics of the current system.

The House Ways & Means Committee has been working nonstop since the beginning of January on changing the funding to one that includes higher income taxes, but with lower residential property taxes. When the committee’s initial proposal failed to win broad support, the legislation, H.911, was scaled back significantly.

The new legislation lowers residential property taxes, retains income sensitivity, raises taxes faster for high spending towns and includes a new education income tax surcharge. The committee approved the measure on an 8-2-1 vote.

The bill also makes adjustments to Vermont’s income taxes to help alleviate an estimated $30 million in Vermont income tax increases that would have resulted from federal changes this year and lowers the income tax on Social Security benefits for low and moderate income residents that the governor had proposed.

Critics of the new education funding formula say it’s merely a rearranging of the deck chairs (higher income taxes with lower property taxes) and few cost containment measures. The issue will move to the full House following the town meeting week recess.

Saliva testing passes House
In the wake of marijuana legalization signed into law in January (effective July 1), the Vermont House Transportation Committee sponsored legislation that would allow law enforcement to use a saliva test when driver impairment is in question. The tests could be used to screen drivers for marijuana and six other drugs.

Opponents of the measure, including the ACLU, argue that the tests are not reliable and may lead to false charges. On Friday afternoon, March 2, Rep. Barbara Rachelson almost had a one person filibuster going with her passionate pleas to change the bill. In the end, the House rejected her amendments and approved the bill on voice vote.

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