This week the Vermont House passed H.57 codifying the right of “every individual who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion.” Vermont had no state laws regarding abortion, so this bill creates a basic framework. The final vote in the House was 107-37. I voted in favor and the bill now goes to the Senate.
The Senate approved and is sending to the House bills raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, and a bill exempting cars over ten years old from inspection emissions standards. The goal is to reduce the financial pressure on lower income Vermonters, many of whom drive older vehicles and who struggle to afford repairs. But that goal conflicts with the state’s environmental goals and EPA air quality standards. This makes for an interesting debate.
The Energy and Technology Committee is putting the finishing touches on an omnibus broadband bill with three approaches to expanding broadband access around the state. The first is to increase money available to existing underfunded programs by increasing the Universal Service Fee (telephone tax) by 0.5%. On my telephone bill that would be an extra 4.5¢.
The second approach is a study to allow (but not require) electric utilities to become broadband carriers. This has been done by some co-ops in other states but involves a fair amount of risk and very different business models; in Vermont electric utilities are tightly regulated monopolies while telecommunications are lightly regulated, and highly competitive.
The third approach is to assemble technical, regulatory, and financial assistance for Communications Union Districts and other entities which are expanding broadband into underserved areas.
The Legislature is operating under tight timeframes. Of over 800 bill drafting requests, only about 400 have been finished and sent to committees for consideration. Of these a very small handful have been passed by the House. Our deadline for bills to be passed out of committee (and some bills need to go through several committees) is March 15th.
The Legislature is not in session during Town Meeting week, which leaves us eight legislative days to take testimony, amend, and approve any bills we hope to move this year. After March 15th we will shift focus to shepherding those bills through House votes and then taking up whatever bills the Senate has sent over to us. We will also be taking a good look at which bills we want to take up in the second year of the biennium.
At the close of Town Meeting Week the Legislature is gearing up for some hectic activity. Friday, March 15th is crossover – the day by which bills need to be voted out of committee so they can “cross over” to the other chamber. The budget and tax bills get an extra week in recognition of their complexity.
What this approaching deadline means is that most of the record number of bills introduced this year will not see the light of day; including at least eight that I am a lead sponsor on. Four are energy bills, one is judicial, two involve government operations, and one is about tax incentives. But they aren’t entirely dead in that they could still show up as amendments to other bills or be taken up next year.
Some big bills, like the Act 250 overhaul, have proven to be just too big a lift for the first few months of the session. Remember we have 40 new House members, and a lot of changes in in committee assignments, so people need to get up to speed. On my committee six out of nine members are new to the committee, though several bring extensive prior knowledge in certain areas.
Bills that I expect we will see in some form this spring are minimum wage, paid family leave, broadband expansion (which I see primarily as economic development), and regulated cannabis sales. The legislature is also continuing to push forward on mental health treatment, addiction treatment and the many, many impacts on family, work, schools, communities: and trying to match workers to the 10,000 job vacancies in Vermont that exist right now. Simple solutions are complicated by low wages, difficult access to child care, and unaffordable housing.
As always please write or call with questions or comments. 282-5535