State News

Mixed messages

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last Thursday, April 29, the House approved changes to the Brattleboro charter that will allow 16-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and serve on town boards such as select boards. Additionally, 15-year-olds can vote early or absentee if they will be 16 on election day. The proponents of the measure believe this will help get young people more involved in the political process and increase chances of becoming a lifelong voter (an admirable objective). The argument was also brought forth that they are young adults and should be entitled to vote.

Following the charter approval on a mostly party line vote, less than an hour later, the same House Government Operations Committee brought forth legislation that increases the age from 18 to 19 years old, at which age certain offenses become public record. The argument here was that a 19-year-old was young, and their violations of the law should be protected from the public and treated as juveniles, except in limited circumstances. While the bill, S.107, was opposed by the Vermont Press Association, it passed on 88-36 vote.

A bit of a mixed message… are they young adults or juveniles?

In a sure sign that the end of the session is near was the Senate completing action of its version of the state budget for the fiscal year beginning in July, on Friday evening. Likely a conference committee made up of three members of the Senate and three from the House will be appointed this week to work out the differences between the two versions of the budget. 

While the Senate version of the budget passed the chamber unanimously, Scott continues to criticize the Legislature’s use of new federal funds, including a reduction of his proposed small business recovery grants to just $20 million. Both the Senate and House versions of the budget include $150 million of additional pension contributions by the state, a move that the governor says is premature without an overall plan to tackle the growing unfunded liability.

While some of the governor’s priorities for the nearly billion dollars of new federal money are included in the Senate’s budget proposal, there remain differences in the amounts. Scott has also objected to using some of the federal funds for other initiatives. If the budget is vetoed after the Legislature adjourns, we will need to return in June to make adjustments to satisfy the governor or override his veto to ensure there is a budget in place by July 1.

Other items of interest:

  • Mailing of ballots to all registered voters in future general elections is one step closer to passage following advancement by a key House committee on Friday on a unanimous 11-0 vote. The legislation, which has already cleared the Senate, comes after mail-in balloting is credited to record turnout in last November’s election.
  • The Vermont Dept. of Labor was forced to temporarily close their online system for new unemployment claims last week due to the large number (over 90%) suspected fraudulent claims being auto-filed by computers.
  • After weeks of delay, the Senate approved S.100, which sets up universal school breakfast for all public-school students. The original measure had called for universal school meals but ran into opposition over the price tag and potential added pressure to property taxes. A committee will explore ways to add free meals for all students by the 2026-27 school year. In the meantime, school districts must avail themselves of any federal assistance for school meals.
  • A major childcare initiative, H.171, has passed the Senate. The bill increases Vermont subsidies for childcare and sets up a study on how to eventually lower family costs to no more than 10% of their household income.
  • Administration officials and various advocacy groups, including Legal Aid, have proposed changes to the state’s homeless hotel voucher program. Under the proposal, there will be some changes in eligibility that are expected to reduce the hotel vouchers by about a third on July 1. The estimated cost of the new program is about $40 million for the coming year, still a significant increase over the approximate $6 million cost pre-pandemic.
  • The Senate budget bill included $15 million to provide relief for overdue utility bills caused by the economic hardship of the pandemic. Without the allocation, ratepayers could end up paying the bad debt of the utilities through future rate cases.

Effective last Saturday, May 1, the next phase of re-opening took effect including easing of outdoor masks, which will now be required outdoors only in situations where a 6-foot distance cannot be maintained. The new phase also includes increases in gathering sizes. More information can be found at: vermont.gov/vermont-forward.

The target adjournment date for the 2021 legislative session is May 22.

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

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