By Rep. Jim Harrison
While the 2022 session was scheduled and budgeted for a normal 18 weeks (May 13), House and Senate leaders are pushing for an adjournment on May 6. There is plenty of motivation to get done early with campaigning to do by several key Senators and House members that are running for higher office. Whether May 6 is feasible or not, remains to be seen.
When the House returns on Tuesday, May 3, there will be no fewer than 27 bills up for action. Some will be routine and move quickly. Others may require more discussion. For example, there is the issue of a Burlington charter change that repeals the city’s authority to regulate “houses of ill fame.” The bill would remove the city’s authority to punish prostitutes, although the profession would remain illegal under state law.
Another charter change likely to see some discussion is one advanced by Barre City voters that would limit which flags that can be flown on city property to the American, Vermont and POW flags. The proposed limitation was the result of ongoing local debates over requests for BLM and pro-police flags.
Other issues on the move:
• The Senate completed its work on H.715, the Clean Heat Standard. It’s the first of its kind for regulating heating fuel dealers. A system of tradeable credits for heating efficiencies and potentially higher prices for heating fuels will be designed and regulated by the Public Utilities Commission. The Senate version includes a key provision that the Legislature and governor approve the final plan in 2024 before it can go into effect (similar to an amendment I unsuccessfully offered in the House).
• The Legislature has given unanimous approval to the public pension reform legislation and has sent the measure to the governor. Scott has expressed concern that the agreement with the unions did not include the option for a 401(k)-type plan (defined contribution) for new hires and some type of risk sharing provision to ensure long term stability of the pension funds.
• The House Commerce Committee is poised to send back to the Senate a package of workforce initiatives the House previously approved in March. In the new bill, S.11, the Committee also included several programs the Senate had advocated, including forgivable loans for businesses hurt through the pandemic and shared reimbursement with participating employers for Covid sick pay. A $15 minimum wage and study on paid leave, championed by the Senate, were not included in the House package.
• A package of Act 250 reforms will be taken up by the full House this week. Included in the legislation are changes to environmental board and governance that are opposed by the administration.
• A major expansion of the bottle deposit system resurfaced in the Senate last week when it was advanced by the Natural Resources Committee. Their version is quite a bit different from the House-passed bill from last year and would not take effect until 2025. Wine bottles were removed from the expansion and a provision to exempt small stores from having to accept empties was added.
• Governor Scott signed into law changes to Vermont’s medical aid in dying statute that will allow the use of telemedicine calls to request a life-ending prescription for any patient with a prognosis of six months or less to live. Previously, those requests had to be in person.
• The House Education Committee advanced S.139 on a 7-4 vote, which would set up regulations on what schools can have for mascots through adoption of new policies. The legislation is believed to have been triggered by the ongoing debate in Rutland over the use of the Raider mascot, which some feel improperly depicts indigenous people. Others feel that it should continue to be a local decision and not the state’s.
• The House gave preliminary approval to legislation that would more closely regulate coyote hunting with dogs in Vermont through a limited permit system through the Dept. of Fish & Wildlife.
• The Senate trimmed the tax reduction package, H.510, by nearly a third from what the House passed earlier in the session. While the bill has been sent to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate, they will need to get a signal on where a budget deal will end up before any tax bill is finalized.
• One of the few “must pass” bills before adjournment is the budget for the upcoming fiscal year beginning July 1. The governor has been vocal lately with his concerns over H.740, which is currently in a conference committee working out differences. Without an agreement on the final package between the legislature and governor, the legislature will need to return to satisfy his concerns or override a veto of the bill.
In closing, I hope we can get our work done and adjourn early, although I’m a bit skeptical. However, as the saying goes, “Where there is a will, there is a way,” perhaps with some long days and willingness to compromise, we can finish this week?
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.