By Rep. Jim Harrison
The 2020 legislative session had barely begun when news broke that Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman (D/P) was likely planning to announce his run for governor. In addition to creating a buzz around the State House, it also created a potential open statewide position that others immediately began to eye. Two senators, including leader Tim Ashe (D/P), and others have announced they may seek the state’s No. 2 slot. Other Democrats are considering Ashe’s current spot as Senate leader and/or openings in the Chittenden County senate. All reminiscent of a game of musical chairs.
On the Republican side, there are already two announced candidates for the lieutenant governor’s race, but Zuckerman’s plans could prompt former House minority leader Don Turner to enter the fray. Republicans also have an announced candidate for governor (John Klar) and it is assumed by most observers that Phil Scott will seek re-election, but he has indicated he plans to wait until after the session to announce.
What this all means to the 2020 legislative session remains to be seen. Will those seeking higher office work harder to show differences between them and Scott, or will there be an increased emphasis on bipartisanship?
In what could be a sign of things to come, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 3-2 to attempt an override of Scott’s veto of a medical monitoring bill, S.37. The legislation would put new liability onto businesses for certain monitoring, such as water testing, even if they were not proven to be the cause of any contamination. Last spring, the Senate was one vote short of the two-thirds necessary for an override. No doubt there is a lot of conversation (and perhaps arm twisting) in the Senate right now to reverse one of those votes to reach the magic number of 20.
The high point of the first week of the session is typically the governor delivering the State of the State address to a joint assembly. This year was no different in that lawmakers and the public at large are always interested in hearing about the priorities and views of Vermont’s chief executive. While Scott used the platform to talk about treating one another with respect, finding middle ground and at times, just agree to disagree and move on, his speech was interrupted almost as it began by protesters from the climate Extinction Rebellion group.
Scott patiently waited for the protesters shouting “listen to the people” for an estimated 15 minutes, until it became clear that there were no plans to stop. He told protesters that we listened to them and they should now listen to us and if they did, they could remain in the chamber. The shouting continued and a recess was then called by Zuckerman (presiding officer of a joint assembly) and the activists were escorted out, by state police.
The governor talked about the need to continue work on reversing the state’s demographics, citing 55,000 fewer people under the age of 45 and 44,000 more over the age of 65 than there were in the year 2000. The change is also putting pressure on per pupil education costs where K-12 students are down 16,000 in just the past 15 years.
In reference to some of the climate initiatives, the governor expressed support in the move towards electric vehicles and building on the incentives and charging stations began last year. However, he reiterated opposition to measures that would make it more expensive on Vermonters traveling long distances to work and seniors on fixed incomes filling their gas tanks (not what the protesters wanted to hear).
Scott talked about expanding after school programs, but without new costs to the education fund. It was learned later that future revenues from taxing marijuana might be the source of money to expand this area of our education system.
And speaking of marijuana, a press conference was organized by advocates and a number of key lawmakers to announce that a “tax and regulate” market would be taken up early this session. With House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, publicly expressing some reservations, there could be some interesting politics taking place in the coming months.
Headline issues like paid family leave and minimum wage (currently $10.96 in Vermont and $7.25 in New Hampshire) were not mentioned in the governor’s address directly and were sent to committees of conference by the Legislature. House and Senate leaders will attempt to either find a compromise with the administration or more likely, propose a hybrid plan between the two chambers of the Legislature that may produce enough votes to override a veto. Scott has not deviated in his concern of affordability and a positive business climate.
Financial issues plaguing the Brattleboro Retreat, Vermont’s only nonprofit mental health institution, that have been publicized in the past few weeks, are now under review by several legislative committees. While Human Service Secretary Mike Smith indicated the Retreat cannot just come back to the State every time they need another $2.0 million, but Scott indicated in his address that the institution was too important to the state to let it fail.
Not one, but three bills have been introduced to decriminalize prostitution between consenting adults. Attorney General TJ Donovan was quick to throw some cold water on them in an appearance before the House Judiciary Committee. According to Donovan’s office, we should not be dignifying the profession.
Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon.