State News

Relegated to the sidelines

As the session moves along, it seems increasingly clear, at least to this observer, that with increased majorities in the House and Senate this year, legislative leaders do not feel a real need to compromise or listen to objections raised by the Governor. Senate leader Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County, essentially said that this past Thursday, April 13, at a State House rally for childcare promoted by the deep-pocketed advocacy group, Let’s Grow Kids, when he indicated the Senate legislation, S.56, will become law by July. 

While Scott supports increased help for childcare (over $50 million additional subsidy assistance was included in his budget), he has made it clear that he doesn’t support raising taxes to do so, which S.56 does.

Scott, who won re-election in every single town in Vermont and over 70% of the vote statewide, must think that should account for something. But as the big issues of the session move forward, it is not appearing that way.

At his weekly press conference, he even opened it with initiatives that there was some level of agreement on, such as workforce development, school safety, and emergency dispatch. However, he went on to say that he was doing his best to deliver on key legislative initiatives, but without raising fees or taxes on Vermonters. Here is an excerpt from his remarks:

“…And I also know some in the majority party want to frame the debates we’re having on childcare, paid family leave, climate action and others as ‘we’re for it and the governor is against it.’ But that’s simply not the case. And I get it, it makes political messaging a little more complicated when we agree on the goals. But there is a path forward. And for the record, I’m a willing partner, which is why so many of my proposals began with trying to meet the Legislature where they are.

“I firmly believe we can achieve universal access to paid family and medical leave. We can make historic investments in childcare, helping thousands more families access affordable options. We can act on mitigating climate change. We can create housing for homeless Vermonters. We can expand treatment and prevention for opioid addiction and mental health needs. And we can do all of it in a way that doesn’t increase costs on already overburdened and overtaxed Vermonters, and without setting us up for serious and very real fiscal problems in the future. 

“I truly believe we can get the outcomes we all want if we work at it.”

The Clean Heat legislation, S.5, was advanced by the House Environmental and Energy Committee on an 8-3 vote late last week. The bill will make a stop in the House Appropriations Committee this Tuesday and will then be up for a vote by the full House on Thursday. Despite thousands of emails, calls and letters in opposition to the measure, leadership apparently believes the measure will pass handily. 

The legislation is opposed by Scott, who is concerned about the estimated 70-cents per gallon impact on heating fuels and the transition costs to families to purchase more efficient heat pumps. Many environmental groups support the bill, although a few object to allowing continued use of natural gas and biofuels without penalties.

The key question will be by what margin it passes the House. The Senate was one vote short of sustaining an expected veto (approved 19-10). 

Other issues of interest:

The Senate passed a somewhat controversial bill, S.39, to double their pay (phased in over several years) and add the same health insurance benefit state employees enjoy (annual cost to the State of over $25,000 for a family plan). When Scott was asked about it at his press conference, he indicated he was not opposed to raising the compensation of legislators, but there should be limits on the length of the session, like many other states, which could make it easier for more Vermonters to participate in the legislature. When an amendment to do just that was offered two days later, it was rejected by the Senate.

The session’s major housing bill, S.100, moved out of a key House committee on an 8-4 vote late last week. While most elements of the bill enjoy wide support, the contention centers around the lack of Act 250 reforms to allow more housing development. Environment groups oppose any attempt to exempt housing from Vermont’s land use law, while others, including the governor and the organization representing Vermont’s cities and towns, believe there need to be some exemptions for such development if we truly want to increase our housing inventory. The legislation will visit a couple more committees in the coming weeks.

The chair of the Senate Appropriation committee signaled that she preferred to add the 20% increase in motor vehicle fees onto the budget bill rather than the transportation construction bill. The change could be a signal that legislative leaders plan to enact the annual state budget by overriding an expected Gubernatorial veto.

The House gave its approval to a Senate bill, S.3, that will outlaw paramilitary training if they know or reasonably should know that the teaching, training, or demonstrating will be unlawfully employed for use in or in furtherance of a civil disorder. The legislation arose out of concerns about a facility in Southwestern Vermont.

The Vermont House approved allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections in Brattleboro on a 103-33 vote. The change allows 16-year-olds to hold local office, if elected, and execute the responsibilities of that office, including signing contracts for the town. Ironically, on the same day, the House gave final approval to prohibiting those under 18 from marrying.

The Senate advanced legislation, S.60, that would allow every town the ability to add a local 1% sales or rooms & meals tax if approved by the voters. Under current law, only those towns most impacted when Act 60 was instituted and those that received legislative approval through a charter change may institute a local option tax.

Ever wonder how to look up how your legislator voted on a bill of interest to you? Visit legislature.vermont.gov and search for the bill by number or keyword. If there was a roll call vote, the details of that vote can be easily accessed.

Rep. Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Mendon, Killington, Chittenden and Pittsfield. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.

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