By Rep. Jim Harrison
Since returning in person two weeks ago, our committee began a daily ritual of sharing a riddle just prior to the official start of our deliberations. One of my favorites from last week was “Why do seagulls live at sea? Well, if they lived in the bay, they would be baygulls (bagels).” Committee colleagues almost always get a laugh from our exchanges, although sometimes because the joke or riddle shared wasn’t even close at being funny.
You might ask what is the relevance of our daily ritual? To me, it’s a reminder that legislating is best done in-person. Sharing a laugh together is another part of building relationships, which hopefully leads to better give and take when we are reviewing various proposals before us. The opportunity to share a little levity or just laugh at ourselves, can go a long way toward improving communications.
Beginning on Tuesday, the House will take the next step to legislating in-person when floor sessions return to the House chamber (which has been virtual thus far). Members who need to stay away for Covid-related issues will still be able to participate remotely. Covid protocols will continue at the State House (masking, vaccination requirements, testing, social distancing).
While the measure to return to mostly in-person was approved by a voice vote on Friday, not all members were on board. Some have legitimate Covid exposure concerns and didn’t know if the guidelines gave them enough flexibility to participate remotely, while some, I suspect, may just like the convenience of working from home.
In the few weeks that House committees have met in person, I have been able to meet newer members, ask others their perspective on different issues and get updates from colleagues on other committee work.
Meanwhile, the 30-member Senate continues to meet all remote, with no plans to return in-person until at least March.
Items of interest:
- The Senate approved changes to Vermont’s patient choice end-of-life law, that would allow for telemedicine and a shorter waiting period to obtain the necessary prescription.
- The Senate Economic Development Committee is looking at increasing the minimum wage to $15 and resurrecting a proposal to offer employees paid leave funded by a new payroll tax. Both measures have been previously vetoed by the governor. However, the new paid leave proposal may be optional for employees to participate in, which may address Scott’s prior objections.
- Two constitutional amendments will be up for consideration in the House this week. The first is clarifying language on the prohibition on slavery and indentured service, which had passed the passed the Senate last session on a 29-1 vote and is expected to pass again in the House. Vermont’s slavery prohibition is already superseded by the U.S. Constitution. The second one deals with reproductive rights, including right to an abortion, will likely be more controversial, but is expected to pass. If both clear the House, they will be on the ballot in November for the voters to accept or reject. A key House committee is reviewing a proposal to institute a $1,200 tax credit for each child under 6 years of age. The credit is estimated to cost more than the governor’s proposed tax reduction package, which includes help for seniors, tax credits for nurses and childcare providers, military pensions, relief for low-income Vermonters and some assistance for childcare. The question facing lawmakers will be a narrower, but higher tax break for a smaller group of Vermonters or smaller breaks to a larger group of people. The Senate approved changes the House made on legislation, H.157, to require home contractors to register with the state, carry certain levels of insurance and utilize written contracts for each job project. The governor’s position on the bill remains unclear, after the legislative proponents of the measure ignored his suggestion to raise the dollar threshold of who would be required to register.
- The House expanded a gun control measure, S.30, which had proposed banning guns in hospitals, to add changes to background checks. It would extend the period before firearms can be sold from the current three days to 30 days if there is a delay in getting the federal background check back. S.30 will return to the Senate for consideration of the changes. Firearms are already prohibited by most, if not all hospitals in Vermont, but S.30 would add a potential $250 fine.
- Scott issued what is often referred to as the “Mary Jane” letter to appropriation committee chairs, Rep. Mary Hooper and Sen. Jane Kitchel, on the administration’s objections to the House-passed budget adjustment bill. The major concern, raised by the governor, was the House use of federal ARPA funds that could take away from other longer-term investments, such as housing, broadband, clean water, climate initiatives and workforce development.
Jim Harrison is a state house representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at: JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.