State News

Signs of spring

By Rep. Jim Harrison

Last week there were unmistakable signs of spring around us. Warmer temperatures, area golf courses reopening, crocuses and daffodils blossoming and more. Another sign of spring happens in the Legislature this time of year as well. It is evidenced by the beginning of passage of bills in either the House or Senate chamber that originated in the other body.

Except for a few timely or high priority bills, like the mid-year budget adjustment act, most legislation begins in one chamber, where it may be considered and amended by one or more committees before receiving passage by the full House or Senate in the first half of the session. It then crosses over to the other chamber, where the process starts all over. And sometimes it is not even considered. So as the session approaches the last quarter, we start to see bills pass the other chamber. It does not mean a bill is done or that it is sent to the governor right away, as there may be differences in the House or Senate versions to be ironed out, but it sure marks the beginning of the last part of the session.

One of those bills passed by the House this week was S.18, which originated in the Senate. The legislation limits so called “good time” sentence reductions for offenders convicted of certain crimes, such as sexual assault and voluntary manslaughter. The legislation was a recognition by the Legislature that they went too far with sentence reductions for certain crimes last year. One lawmaker even suggested the oversights of the prior legislation may have been better foreseen if not for the fact of meeting by Zoom last year.

On the Senate side, they passed three bills that originated in the House last week, including H.20, H.149 and H.338. While these bills may be technical in nature and not major policy initiatives, they are a sign that spring is here, and the session should finish in another month or so.

Scott unveiled his priorities on the use of the estimated $1 billion of new federal funds coming to the state from the American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA). While the Legislature shares many of the same objectives for the use of funds, there will be some notable differences in the details on how the funds are spend over the next few years.

The administration’s plan recommends using the funds in five strategic categories:

  1. $250 million for broadband and wireless connectivity
  2. $249 million for housing
  3. $200 million for climate change mitigation measures
  4. $170 million for water and sewer infrastructure
  5. $143 million for further economic development and recovery

On Friday, April 9, the Agency of Education outlined a plan to enhance and expand summertime enrichment opportunities for Vermont students grades K-12. In response to the impact of the pandemic on children, youth and families, Governor Scott, Senator Sanders and other partners are working to ensure that every child, of every age, has access to engaging, enriching activities this summer.

For more information visit: vermontafterschool.org/summermatters.

Other items of interest:
  • The House advanced legislation to require home contractors to register and pay an annual fee to the state. The bill, H.157, exempts landscapers, individuals already licensed like plumbers and electricians, work done on a structure not part of a residence and work for less than $3,500 in labor and materials. Given the fact that the House passage came after crossover, the bill will likely not be taken up by the full Senate until next year.
  • The Senate advanced two proposed constitutional amendments this past Friday. The clarification on slavery prohibition was passed on a 29-1 vote and the right to reproductive liberty, including abortion, on a 26-4 vote. If both measures are approved by the House (likely to be on the agenda next session), they will then go to the voters, who have the final say, in the 2022 general elections.
  • Governor Scott allowed a change in statewide bargaining for healthcare benefits for teachers and school staff to become law without his signature. While he expressed concern over the potential for increasing costs to taxpayers in H.81, his decision to not veto may rest with the fact that both the House and Senate approved the measure by more than the required two-thirds margin that would be necessary to override a veto.
  • The House approved H.225, that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of buprenorphine, which is a drug used to treat opioid dependence. Buprenorphine is currently legal with a prescription, but not without one.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced legislation, S.99, doing away with the three-year statute of limitation for civil lawsuits on claims of childhood physical abuse. The issue gained momentum following allegations at Kurn Hattin School and former St Joseph orphanage. The full Senate is expected to vote on the bill this week.

With the vaccine schedule accelerating, the governor unveiled his reopening plan over the next few months. As a racecar driver, Scott often uses track metaphors as he outlines the plan, “We’re in the last laps of this race and this plan shows how we can finish strong if we all do our part.” For more information visit: vermont.gov/vermont-forward.

Jim Harrison is a State House representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected]

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