By Rep. Jim Harrison
Under Vermont law, the governor can make certain changes to how the executive branch is structured through an executive order by Jan. 15 in the first year in a new term. The Legislature then has 90 days to intervene if it chooses. If the Legislature takes no action, then the restructuring takes place.
Last month, Scott issued two orders restructuring part of the executive branch.
The first restructured the Natural Resources Board to be comprised of three full-time professional members, to increase predictability and uniformity with other state regulatory programs. This might be characterized as “one-stop” shopping for major Act 250 projects.
The second established an Agency of Public Safety, which would then comprise the current Dept. of Public Safety (including state police), motor vehicle enforcement, the E-911 center, the Criminal Justice Council and training facility, and the Division of Fire Safety and Emergency Management.
The first order with the Act 250 changes were rejected by the full Senate on a 22-8 vote on Thursday – Strike One. On Friday, the full House rejected the reorganization of Public Safety on a 108-40 vote – Strike Two!
Perhaps it is fortunate the governor didn’t go for three….
A bit of partisanship was evident during the House floor debate when a Republican member reminded us that Scott received 68.5% of the votes last November and we should trust him enough to make certain changes to the executive branch. That was countered by a Democratic member who indicated Vermonters also put twice as many of one party (Democrat) as another (Republican) in the Legislature. A bit of an olive branch was included in the House resolution offering to work with the administration on some of the proposed public safety changes through legislation.
Meanwhile, the Vermont Dept. of Labor announced that thousands of 1099 forms that were sent to those receiving unemployment benefits last year, may have contained other claimants’ information. Several steps were quickly taken by the administration to address the breach of personal information, but most of the damage was done. Within a day of the announcement, a Senate committee brought in Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington wanting to get answers. Separately, the governor has asked the auditor’s office to investigate the cause and has appointed his deputy chief of staff to oversee improvements and appointed a new deputy commissioner for the Dept. of Labor to assist Commissioner Harrington.
The department has issued a mass recall of the 1099-G documents. They will be mailing claimants instructions (including a prepaid self-addressed envelope), so claimants can mail back the documents they erroneously received. There will also be credit monitoring services offered to impacted claimants at no charge. A list of FAQ can be found at: labor.vermont.gov/document/1099-incident-faq-2521
Other issues of note:
Human Services Secretary Mike Smith announced that vaccinations for homebound Vermonters is beginning. Vaccinations will be administered through a partnership between local Home Health and EMS agencies.
Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Sophie Zdatny requested $81 million in state funding for the coming year, up from the normal annual state appropriation of $30.5 million. The Scott administration had proposed an additional $25 million above the $30.5 million for the coming year, so a gap exists between that and the $50 million extra requested by VSC.
Senate leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, indicated that the Senate did not support the governor’s plan to legalize Keno to help pay for additional childcare, but was supportive of legalizing sports betting, another of Scott’s proposals. In the past, House leaders have been dismissive of any gambling expansions.
The House Appropriations Committee may jumpstart legislation utilizing some of the expected federal funding passed in December and the state’s current one-time surplus for pandemic related needs.
The Senate Appropriations Committee completed its work on the budget adjustment bill, which will need reconciliation with the House version, assuming it passes the Senate this week.
The Legislature is now entering week six of what is typically an 18-week session. I hope to be able to participate in each district town’s upcoming virtual informational town meeting sessions and look forward to seeing you there.
Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at [email protected] or facebook.com/harrisonforvermont.