State News

The road ahead

By Rep. Jim Harrison

At the beginning of every legislative session, governors give a State of the State address or as in the case of a new biennium like this year, an inaugural speech. Such talks generally offer little in terms of detail, but rather talk about a governor’s vision for the upcoming session and beyond. The specifics, or “the road ahead,” is left to the Governor’s budget address, which was made this past Thursday.

Gov. Phil Scott drew applause and laughter when he started out with an off-script thank you to House Speaker Mitzi Johnson for allowing him to speak in the House Chamber, in contrast to what was happening in Washington during the shutdown. And later on in his speech, he spoke of the need for civility, only to be interrupted a few minutes later by a protester who was booing in the back of the Chamber. As the protester was being escorted out of the House, Scott quickly rebounded with, “Now let’s return to the section on civility.” It’s no wonder, that even with disagreements in his policies, Phil Scott maintains high likability.

His goals for the budget included expanding the economy and state revenue by reversing Vermont’s demographic trends, increasing the number of Vermonters in the labor force and transforming the state’s education system into the very best in the nation.

Some of his specific proposals included:

• New voluntary paid family leave program

• A focus on reversing Vermont’s declining labor force with $2.5 million toward marketing to attract and find people likely to relocate for jobs in Vermont

• Support of growth in communities that are currently shrinking by modernizing Act 250

• Additional $7 million into our child care system to make it more accessible and affordable for low-income and working families

• $3.2 million more to Vermont State Colleges, which will stop a planned 3 percent tuition increase on Vermonters this coming school year

• $8 million of Vermont’s estate tax to clean water, coupled with an increase in the current tax exemption from $2.75 million to $5.75 million over four years (Vermont is one of only 12 states that have this tax at all.)

• Elimination of Vermont income taxes on veteran retirement benefits by next year. (Vermont is only one of seven states that fully tax military retirement.)

• Elimination of the land gains tax, which was implemented in the ’70s to halt rapid development and housing speculation

•Increased payments to outstanding liabilities for state employee and teacher pension and retiree health benefits

Some of these initiatives will be funded by increased revenue projections, a current surplus, updating online sales tax collection law and several fee increases.

It will now be up to the Legislature, especially the money committees, to dissect the administration proposals and adjust as they put their own stamp on tax and spend priorities. No doubt there will be some key differences in the coming months.

H.57 as introduced, proposes to recognize as a fundamental right the freedom of reproductive choice and to prohibit public entities from interfering with or restricting the right of an individual to terminate the individual’s pregnancy. Vermont currently has unrestricted legal abortion, as a result of common law backed up by court decisions. However, with a change in the makeup of the US Supreme Court, groups like Planned Parenthood and others believe it’s time to put those protections into state law. There is also a constitutional amendment being proposed.

Currently proposed legislation does not preclude late term or partial birth abortions and in addition a fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.

The House Human Services Committee has been taking testimony on the issue last week and may vote it out soon. It is unclear whether House leadership will schedule an open public hearing to allow supporters and opponents an opportunity to speak on the issue.

Not once during last fall’s campaign, was I asked about abortion. I didn’t give the nuances of potential legislation a lot of thought before the session. I am, however, troubled by how far H.57 goes with its unobstructed legalization of abortion in the bill’s current form. With a majority of the House  on the bill already, I may not have an impact on its outcome.

Jim Harrison is the state representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon.

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