By Rep. Jim Harrison
A clear sign we are entering the final days of the 2021 session was the initial meeting on Friday, May 7, of the House-Senate budget conference committee. When the budget is done, the Legislature is done.
A conference committee is made up of three House and three Senate members, whose job it is to negotiate differences between the two chambers and present one package for a final vote by the General Assembly. There is, however, one other person the conferees need to consider in their deliberations before they shake hands on a completed budget package — the governor. A veto of the budget guarantees the Legislature will be back in June to either make changes to satisfy his concerns or override his veto if they have the votes. But as no one wants to return in June, efforts will be made to accommodate some of the objections raised.
The nine-page letter from the secretary of administration and point person for the governor, lists areas of agreement as well as their concerns. As the letter is in response to the Senate version of the budget bill, H.439, it is addressed to the chair of House Appropriations, Rep. Mary Hooper. However, it is also meant for Senator Jane Kitchel, chair of Senate Appropriations, and lead negotiator for the Senate, hence “the Mary Jane letter” as it is referred at the State House.
While two weeks should be an adequate time frame to reconcile the two budgets, it may be a little more complicated this year with objections being raised by Governor Scott on the Legislature’s use of new federal ARPA (American Relief Plan Act) funds. Scott has made it clear that he wants to use the money to make long term investments in broadband, economic recovery, climate mitigation and clean water.
Additionally, Scott took strong objection to the Legislature’s removing the portion of rooms and meals tax that was going to the clean water fund. He may not have said the word veto, but he was clear some changes needed to be made or the Legislature will be back in June. The target adjournment date is currently May 22.
And speaking of adjournment, legislative leaders are finding themselves in a bit of a pickle on what comes after May 22. The first question is whether the Legislature will need to return in the fall to react to a possible federal infrastructure bill being proposed by the Biden administration. Some believe if something can wait until October, it can probably be addressed in January when the Legislature reconvenes, especially if there is a shelf life to any new initiatives.
In 2022 lawmakers want to return to the State House. Most of us are tired of Zooming. While we made it through the pandemic, it has limitations in terms of interactions necessary for a better give and take of ideas and perspectives.
An option proposed by Freeman French Freeman, a Burlington architectural firm, would have only the legislators and staff return in January, with the public, advocates and the press continuing to be remote. While that approach is reportedly favored by some staff, who are uncomfortable with some of the confined committee rooms at the State House, legislative leaders are distancing themselves from that option. The press has also questioned whether it is even constitutional.
Another option might be some type of hybrid approach where limits are placed in rooms with video feed availability, encouragement of remote testimony and a repurpose of some larger rooms for more popular committee hearings. The various options are not likely to be all resolved in the remaining two weeks, but nonetheless decisions will need to be made soon.
Other items of interest:
- The House Commerce Committee removed the Senate-proposed new $50 per week unemployment benefit to claimants with dependents. Committee Chair, Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Coventry, said the time was not right to be adding new unemployment benefits when the unemployment fund has seen a record $300 million in expenses, which will ultimately need to be covered by employers, and the Federal government is already adding $300 per week in addition to Vermont benefits.
- The Senate approved its version of the pension task force bill, agreeing to union demands to remove several of the non-union representatives on the committee that is charged with coming up with a proposal to put the pension system on a sustainable path.
- The Senate Finance Committee is recommending that federal Payroll Protection Program (PPP) forgivable loans be exempt from Vermont income taxes in 2021. This aligns with the governor’s position. The revenue bill, H.436, will need approval from the House.
- The Senate Finance Committee has advanced its version of the broadband buildout legislation, H.360, although its version reduces the money to a total $100 million of federal funds. The House had allocated $150 million while the governor had called for $250 million over four years. As in the original bill, the money would be made available to non-profit communication union districts.
- The Senate approved charter changes for Montpelier and Winooski allowing non-citizen residents to vote on local elections in their communities. While Governor Scott has expressed some concern with the change, the measures may have the necessary two-thirds to override a veto.
- The House unanimously passed S.20, an act relating to restrictions on PFAS chemicals (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl) in four main areas: fire extinguishing foam, food packaging, carpets, and ski wax.
Jim Harrison is the State House representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.