By Rep. Jim Harrison
No, it’s not the sound of a toy car, like the one we gave our son, Ben, many years ago. We quickly regretted the present as that’s all we heard, vroom, vroom…as he revved it up on the floor before letting it fly. Rather, it was a week of daylong Zoom sessions to finish bills, starting each morning with committee meetings, followed by often long House floor sessions, then back to more committee time. But as a pleasant wrap up on two of the evenings, we had family Zoom sessions with grandsons Theo and Graham, who were celebrating birthdays.
It’s probably fair to say all members of the General Assembly were ready for a break after the Legislature adjourned Friday evening (to return Aug. 25). There was a rush to finish work on certain legislation prior to the end of the week, which meant for more than usual back and forth of bills between the House and Senate.
The “must pass” first quarter budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1 was completed without the reductions in spending the administration had recommended. If cuts are necessary (likely), they will be addressed in August. The legislation included $29.4 million to cover the expected cost of the first year of the new state employees’ contract, with 4.15% average increases overall. This part of the bill drew a bit of discussion in the House given that state revenues are down dramatically and the extra costs could potentially lead to layoffs or tax increases. However, an amendment to require the administration and union to renegotiate the contract was handily defeated.
While there will be no pay raises in the coming year for elected officials (including legislators) and most appointed positions (commissioners, agency secretaries, etc), a provision was included in the budget that would change the way future legislator pay increases are calculated. That section of the bill garnered quite of bit of debate, especially the question of ‘why now?” (I voted “no” thinking, as I did on the state employee pay raise, that now was not the time given our present economic challenges. However the House majority voted to include it in the bill.)
Other key legislation
S.342 expands workers compensation coverage to employees if they contract Covid at work and are regularly exposed to physical contact with known sources of Covid-19, such as in a nursing home or hospital. Passed.
Approximately $600 million in Covid funds was appropriated last week in several bills, including grants to health care, businesses, housing for the homeless, broadband improvements, local municipalities and agriculture to the extent they are permissible under the federal guidelines.
The House judiciary and government operations committees held joint sessions all week on several policing related bills sent over from the Senate. S.219, which bans chokeholds, mandates the use of body cams for state police and sets out intent for lawmakers to work on other reforms. It passed on a unanimous vote on Friday.
The House agreed to continue working on two other related bills, S.119 (use of force) and S.124 (misc. law enforcement provisions) when it returns in August.
Both chambers signed off on the annual transportation (H.942) and capital construction (H.955) bills.
The annual yield bill, H.959, was also completed. The legislation sets the statewide education property tax formula, which is then adjusted locally based on local per-pupil spending. The tax rate was set without addressing the shortfall in the Education Fund caused by the reduced consumption tax revenues. The fund deficit could mean school spending reductions or tax increases over the next several years.
Late in the week, the Senate took up H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, but removed the additional funding for the Agency of Natural Resources to do the necessary work. A similar version of the measure passed the House earlier in the session. The bill will likely be revisited when the session resumes in August.
When the Legislature returns in August, a state budget for the remaining nine months of the fiscal year will be crafted. The delay this year is as a result of the uncertainty of state revenues and whether any additional federal assistance will be available. Absent significant new federal money, Scott’s budget revisions will need a second look. Also on the table could be changes to Act 250 and a housing bill that includes what some might refer to as the beginning of statewide zoning for towns.
Early voting period for Aug. 11 primaries has begun
Vermont’s 45-day early voting period allows any registered voter to request an early ballot. For the 2020 August primary elections the secretary of state’s office will be mailing all registered voters a postcard with instructions on how to request their primary ballot, which will include a tear-off, postage-paid, pre-addressed return postcard that voters can use to request their ballot.
Vermont voters are not required to use the postcard to request their ballot. They can also request their ballot directly from their town clerk in writing, by phone, by email, or in-person at your town office.
Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the state house. With the session now suspended until late August, Harrision’s weekly updates will return at that time. However, you can reach him by email at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.