By Rep. Jim Harrison
While the first week of the return of the Legislature may have seemed quiet, at least in terms of bills approved by the full Senate or House, virtually all committees were meeting on everything from budget details and Covid-related stimulus funds to legislation left unfinished in June.
In the House, two bills were advanced on Friday, Aug. 28. One made a change in statute to allow the expansion of child care centers as proposed by the administration to help provide additional capacity when school begins. The other makes it easier to transfer your professional license to Vermont from another jurisdiction.
With the latter bill, S.233, I had the honor to represent our committee and explain the initiative on the House floor. Essentially, the legislation applies a standard of three years of licensed experience in another state as qualifying for that same Vermont license if you move here (some exceptions are possible). Overall the bill is expected to make Vermont more attractive to licensed individuals, from plumbers and educators to medical personnel.
A review of committee schedules gives some insight as to what are the priority bills with just a few weeks of session time. Senate Natural Resources Committee, for example, spent the entire week taking testimony on various parts on the House passed Act 250 reform bill, H.926.
The House General and Housing Committee has begun taking up S.237, which is intended to promote affordable housing. It includes some elements of statewide zoning, which may cause some concerns with the legislation.
House Government Operations is going through S.220, the annual legislation updating some of the provisions governing the office of professional regulation and various licenses it administers. The legislation includes a provision to require registration of massage therapists, although some in the profession prefer full licensure requirements, as opposed to just a registry.
With the increase of homeschoolers expected this fall due to Covid concerns, the House Education and Ways & Means committees are looking at the potential impacts on the school funding formula on various districts.
Other bills, that have not already passed either the House or Senate, may run out of time, unless they are Covid- or budget-related measures. One apparent exception to that may be a Senate bill, S.254, governing union representation for education and government employees that was taken up again by a Senate Committee on Friday.
A few potential areas of conflict are beginning to emerge in the budget deliberations. The largest may be the estimated $26 million of state college system bridge funding to get through this school year. The governor included funding; however, he relied on federal Covid money, which may be restricted. Legislative leaders want regular budget dollars for VSC, but that begs the question as to what gets cut in the rest of the budget — or do some taxes get raised? Another difference is assistance to those in Vermont without social security numbers. The governor proposed $2 million to those that didn’t qualify for federal stimulus checks due to their lack of a SSN. The Migrant Justice group and many lawmakers are advocating for $5 million.
While it may not play out in the current budget negotiations, the Scott administration has asked the state employees’ union to re-open contract negotiations as the Legislature only funded the first year of the two-year contract that was negotiated last winter, pre-Covid. The union, thus far, has rejected any calls for a second look at the contract and indicated “a deal is a deal.” With lower revenues projected for the next two years, the administration could resort to furloughs if necessary savings are not found.
Covid levels remain low
Meanwhile, Vermont continues to do well overall with the incidence of Covid, with consistent low positive test results (if not the lowest) compared to other states. Governor Scott and Health Commissioner Levine remain vigilant against opening everything up too soon. In a related concern, Dr. Levine is considering whether flu vaccines should be mandatory this fall, similar to action taken recently in Massachusetts. Last year, only 43% of children ages 5 to 12 and 35% of our 13-to-17-year-olds received the vaccine.
In other news, the governor announced that the state has applied for, and received, an initial grant award of $35.8 million from FEMA for the Lost Wage Assistance (LWA), program. The LWA program provides an additional $300 per week to eligible individuals filing for unemployment insurance. The first round of funding from FEMA covers the initial three weeks of the program beginning with the week ending Aug. 1. The additional assistance was offered through the president’s executive order following Congress’s failure to reach agreement on a new stimulus package
The Legislature hopes to wrap up its work by Sept. 25, and possibly sooner if a necessary budget package is agreed upon prior to then.
Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected]