By Jim Harrison
At this point, we generally have a good idea of what the major issues will be for the new legislative session. But this year is different in so many ways. At least the first two months will be conducted remotely (and potentially the entire session), which may make tackling complicated or contentious issues difficult at best. In addition, the state financial picture remains a big question, especially with new aid to the states scrapped from the latest federal stimulus package.
The Legislature will have new leaders with Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, as Speaker of the House, Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, as Senate President pro-tem and Molly Gray, D-Burlington, as the new Lt Governor, who presides over the Senate. This assumes there are no surprises in terms of other candidates for the Speaker and Senate leader positions prior to opening day on Jan. 6.
There is some optimism with the approval of two vaccines that hopefully will put Covid behind us in the coming year. While it will take time, at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Additionally, state revenues are running ahead of the projections revised back in August, although still significantly below a year ago. And while details are a bit sketchy as we write this, it appears the new stimulus package will extend unemployment benefits that were set to expire this month.
While some budget belt tightening was done for the current fiscal year, major reductions were averted thanks in part to extra federal money. Next year could be a different story.
Major initiatives, like Act 250 reforms, can wait another year if necessary, but other issues must be dealt with. This past year the Legislature added close to $25 million extra to the Vermont State Colleges in bridge funding. This coming year the VSC system is looking for another $45 million in bridge funding, raising the specter of will other budget cuts be necessitated when revenue is already short? Will some advocate for higher taxes? Or will campus closings become inevitable?
Other budget pressures will include increased pension contributions of some $30 million over and above the current contributions for state employees and teachers, as well as funding the second year of the two-year state employees’ union contract at approximately $25 million for the agreed on pay raises. Even with above average stock market returns and increasing state contributions, the pension fund liability to the state has grown the last two years.
Statewide property tax rates for education must be set every year. The Tax Commissioner’s letter projected a 9% average increase based on anticipated increases in local school budgets. No one wants such a large increase but shifting money around in Montpelier may not be an option this year. With declines in some revenue sources that supplement the education fund, like rooms and meals taxes or sales taxes, more pressure could be thrust upon property taxes.
The remote learning and working caused by the pandemic have accented the limited availability of high-speed Internet in many areas of the state. Lawmakers of all parties appear to be united in their pledge to make improvements, but again, it takes money. Affordable childcare is another popular priority; however, it also requires taxpayer dollars that are in short supply.
Legislation to allow towns and school districts to conduct town meeting votes by all-mail balloting, as was done in the fall for the general election, may be one of the first bills to pass in January. The automatic mailing of ballots in the fall because of the pandemic is credited for the record voter turnout in November.
There are two constitutional amendments that must be voted on by the Legislature, but both could wait until next year if necessary. One involves the right to abortion and the other clarifies that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited in any form.
In closing, I want to wish everyone a happy and healthy holiday season and a better 2021. My regular updates will resume with the new session beginning in January.
Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected] or facebook.com/harrisonforvermont.