By Rep. Jim Harrison
Last Friday was the last day for the second group of State House pages. The eight students were recognized before the House and Senate and given a standing ovation for their six weeks of service at the State House.
Serving as a page is both an honor and a great experience. Each year, a small group of eight grade students are selected from as many as 150 applicants from around Vermont. The last legislative page from our district was Otto Nisimblat from Killington. If you are interested in learning about the opportunity, please feel free to reach out to me or check with your civics teachers (in my district, Barbara Drufovka at Woodstock Union Middle School or James Gallagher at Barstow Memorial).
It also signifies that the Legislature is entering the final third of a normal 18-week session as the final group of pages will join us on Tuesday, April 5.
What happened last week?
- Legislation that would have enabled 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in Brattleboro local elections and serve as local officials there, ended when the Senate failed to override the governor’s veto. While the measure originally passed with the necessary two-thirds vote, several Democratic Senators switched their position to support Gov. Scott and his interest in uniform voting requirements throughout the state.
- The Senate gave unanimous approval to a pension reform bill for teachers and state employees that mirrors an agreement reached by a pension task force of legislators and union members last fall. The plan includes small increases in contributions by union members and more funding by the state, as well as some modest benefit changes to future retirees to reduce the overall pension liability. What is not included in the plan is an option for new employees to select a defined contribution plan, like a 401(k), instead of the current defined benefit plan. Most private businesses have transitioned to 401(k) defined contribution plans. The task force did not include that because of union opposition. Scott, however, favors having that option for new employees.
- Understanding they cannot always override a veto, legislative leaders are taking note on other pending legislation they wish to enact this year. One example may be the case with a housing bill that the Senate attached a previously vetoed measure to require home contractor registration. Scott had earlier referred to the contractor registration as a potential poison pill. However, this time the backers of the registration system have attempted to meet his earlier objections by raising the threshold of $3,500 per job requiring contractor registration to Scott’s recommended $10,000 per job.
- Another bill to watch is the Clean Heat Standard, that passed the House two weeks ago and is being discussed in a Senate committee. An amendment I offered to require the legislature sign-off on the program next year after the costs and implementation were better understood (amendment failed), might have satisfied the governor’s objection of handing over all authority to an appointed three-member panel. The Senate, however, could decide to add a similar amendment to their version of the bill, if they want to avoid a potential veto.
- A conference committee of House and Senate members will be sorting out some tax reduction measures, including a partial income tax exemption for military pensions and corporate tax changes. In a separate bill, not yet passed by the Senate, is a House-passed new $1,200 child tax credit and a slight increase in the income threshold to exempt social security benefits (from $45,000 to $50,000 for singles and $60,000 to $65,000 for joint returns). The governor had proposed a $30,000 increase in both income categories for exempting social security benefits.
- The House Education Committee may advance legislation this week that would provide free breakfast and lunch for all students. Although the federal government has provided funding for universal meals during the pandemic, that program will be ending soon. Normally, only those students or communities that meet income guidelines qualify to receive the benefit of free school meals. S.100 would provide free meals for all without having to qualify, with new taxes to pay for the expenditure (estimated to be $35-40 million annually). Under consideration is a new sweetened beverage tax, a candy tax, and a new sales tax on cloud-based software. Increases in property taxes could also be considered. It remains to be seen how the Governor will react to tax increases, especially when he has been advocating tax reductions this year, given the current surplus.
- The once-every-decade House and Senate district realignment received final passage and has been sent to the governor for his signature. Chittenden, Killington, Mendon, and Pittsfield will become the new Rutland-11 House District. Bridgewater will join Barnard, Pomfret, and West Hartford in the new Windsor-4 District. On the Senate side, Pittsfield will be part of the Windsor County Senate District, along with Bridgewater. Chittenden, Killington, and Mendon will continue in the Rutland County Senate District.
- Additional signs that the State House continues on a path to a post-pandemic normal is reflected in a new policy adopted last week with masks recommended, but no longer mandatory.
In closing, I want to offer my congratulations to Killington principal, Mary Guggenberger, on being named Principal of the Year, by the Vermont Principals’ Association.
Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at: JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.