This Legislative Update is more of a look forward than a review of the past week. The headline item is that Governor Scott vetoed the Paid Family Leave bill, with the Minimum Wage bill on his desk awaiting action. He is expected to veto that bill as well, though the Legislature passed both bills with large majorities.
The question is whether the House can override those vetoes, assuming the second one happens. A veto override requires a 2/3 vote in both chambers (100 in the House and 20 in the Senate). Family Leave passed with 89 votes, Minimum Wage with 93. I will be supporting the override in both cases.
In a speech on the House floor I spoke of my initial “No” vote on the Family Leave bill not as an effort to kill the bill, but as an effort to send the bill back to a Committee of Conference where it could be strengthened and improved. I did not succeed in that effort and the bill that passed contains some fundamental flaws. But some sort of Family Leave program is important both for current Vermonters and in order to attract new ones, so I am committed to passing this bill and improving it in the future.
The Minimum Wage bill that sits on the Governor’s desk increases wages to $12.55 by 2022 and then annually, by the cost of living or 5%, whichever is less. At the current minimum wage, a Vermonter needs to work 85 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. While this increase will not get to $15/hr by 2025, it still represents great improvement for those living at the lowest margins of the economy.
In the coming week the House will be voting on a “worker misclassification” bill dealing with enforcement of treating employees as independent contractors. Also on the agenda is a revision of a Senate bill to regulate legal sale of cannabis. The bill is designed to favor small Vermont producers.
Dozens of other topics are in motion in the statehouse as well, including economic development, changes to education funding, workforce training, climate change, and prison reform.
As alway, please contact me with questions or concerns.
In any legislative session two bills MUST pass (the rest, however important, are optional). Those two bills are the budget and the revenue bills – the income and expenses for state government. Both bills originate in the House; slightly different versions of each were passed by both chambers, both went to committees of conference to iron out the differences, and the conference committee compromise was approved by both chambers. The final step is for the approved bill to return to the chamber where it originated. As of noon last Friday one critical step was missing: the Senate had not yet notified us of their action. Without the Senate taking that final step, the budget and revenue bills were “stuck” in the Senate, essentially being held hostage as negotiating leverage for action on other bills the Senate wanted to see.
This is politics as usual, part of the sausage making of legislating. Differences between the House and Senate had held up paid family leave and minimum wage bills for weeks; those bills are what the Senate was looking for leverage on by holding up the budget and tax bills.
Ironically, the Senate had passed a stronger minimum wage bill which the House weakened, and the House passed a stronger family leave bill which the Senate weakened. Compromises were hard to find; veto-proof majorities were harder yet, and the governor wasn’t forthcoming on whether he would veto these bills or not, as he ultimately did when we passed them last year.
Things reached a head on Friday morning when House Speaker Mitzi Johnson had had enough of fruitless negotiations and released an open letter to Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe. In it she stated that the House had offered compromises, the Senate had not and that, a week into expensive overtime, we were at an impasse. She offered five compromise positions and told the Senate to chose one by noon or the House would adjourn for the year.
The Senate did not respond until about 2:30 when they sent over the revenue bill and a couple others that had passed all but the final step. The Speaker and Pro Tem The Speaker reiterated her intention to adjourn. Democrats were solidly behind her. Republicans were in full agreement since they never supported those bills in the first place. Only Progressives offered any opposition, preferring to stay a little longer and pass those two bills.
However, the Senate had not yet sent over the approved budget (remember that a bill needs to end in in the originating chamber). So the House Human Service Committee quickly passed a Senate bill on something, it came to the House floor where a “strike all” amendment erased the original language of the bill and replaced it with the approved conference committee report on the budget. The Republicans agreed to suspend rules to allow full passage and the budget was sent “home” to the Senate, now as a Senate bill.
As the House was adjourning the Senate sent over the approved budget followed quickly by compromise positions on the minimum wage and paid family leave bills. The Speaker would have none of it and the House adjourned until January. The Senate then adjourned until Wednesday.
This created a new and unprecedented conflict, in that adjournment MUST be a joint resolution with the House and Senate agreeing to the same date. So the House is, but isn’t, adjourned and the minimum wage and paid family leave bills are on the table for action in January, or on Tuesday.
Of course the Senate has an alternative perspective on events, different media outlets are reporting different views, and there are intense political calculations involved that I have not touched upon in this update. When the dust has settled and we are finally and collectively adjourned I will send a final update on the session.
This is the final week of the legislative session and with just a few days left there is a LOT to do!
Usually, the House and the Senate pass differing versions of bills due to various amendments and deletions. Some bills are readily agreed upon but many of the more complex or important bills end up in a committee of conference where three Representatives and three Senators hash out the differences. The final version then goes back to both chambers for a simple “yes or no” vote, no further changes allowed.
A few bills die in conference committee, like a divorce over irreconcilable differences, such as the bill on extending timelines for school district consolidation. Most bills, however, end with differences resolved, like the education committees agreeing on lead testing in schools and childcare centers at levels of 4 parts per billion, or capitol construction and bonding (H.543), broadband buildout (H.513), regulation of toxins (S.55), economic development (S.162), protecting reproductive choice (H.57), a 24-hour waiting period for handgun purchases (H.69), and many others.
An agreement on the budget was reportedly reached on Tuesday but the fate of other key bills remains unknown, as does the Governor’s position on some of them. Among these are paid family leave (House passed it, Senate weakened it), minimum wage (Senate passed it, House weakened it, Senate totally rewrote it), and clean water funding for which the House, Senate, and Governor all have different proposals. The Budget and Tax bills are the only “must pass” legislation, but I sure would like to see continued progress on these other bills as well.
As always, please contact me with questions, concerns, or opinions.
The end of this legislative session is near. If all goes well business will be wrapped up in Montpelier by the end of next week, but that is a big “if”. The budget and tax bills are the “must pass” bills for any session, and agreement between the House and Senate seems close. What the governor will do remains to be seen.
House Ways and Means passed a long-awaited bill dedicating a funding source for water quality. It diverts 4% of the rooms and meals tax out of the education fund, promising to replace that with tax revenues from taxing software downloads from the cloud. Despite the absolute need for funding, I don’t like the proposal: taxing software downloads seems very uncertain, and I have yet to understand what water quality has to do with education.
The Family Leave bill has been shredded in the Senate so that it now offers a fraction of the benefits passed by the House. The tension is largely over cost but also concerns what the benefits are, who pays, and whether it is an “all in” program or voluntary. The governor insists on a voluntary program while the legislature to see an all-in approach as essential.
Cost of living in Vermont is in line with the national average, however our wages lag at about 80% of average. This is the heart of the “affordability crisis” so many of us experience. An obvious solution is to get more money into the pockets of low income Vermonters through higher wages, specifically a higher minimum wage.
The simple plan to increase minimum wage to $15/hr by 2024 has run headlong into the very real challenges some small businesses face trying to meet this goal. In addition the agencies providing home health care are funded by Medicaid and that funding will not increase to meet the higher wages creating a funding shortfall in those agencies. Either the state finds more funding or we lay off critical workers. Doing the right thing for workers and helping Vermont become a livable place for younger people is not a simple thing, it turns out.
Transportation funding, broadband expansion, dealing with lead levels in school water supplies and [addressing] the remaining Act 46 school mergers are just a few of the bills still in play.
As always, please feel free to contact me with questions or concerns,
Last week the Vermont House took an important step toward joining the rest of the world when we approved H.107, a paid family and medical leave bill, by a vote of 92-52. I believe this is crucial not just for Vermonters to faces unexpected emergencies, but to attract young families to the state.
We can and will continue to argue over who should pay how much and what the benefit levels should be, but we are on the right path. H.107 is essentially an insurance program that says that if you are faced with recovery from an illness or accident, caring for an elderly parent or other family member, or the birth of a child, you can take time to do so without the fear of job loss and financial ruin that so often results.
As passed, the bill requires employees to fund the program with a payroll tax of 1%, decreasing to 0.55% in 2020. Employers can choose to fund some or all of this benefit, which has the potential to become a valuable recruiting tool in a tight labor market. There has been spirited debate about whether funding should be an employee/employer split, but for now it is on employees.
Benefits are generally 90% of pay at lower income levels, but capped for high earners, with time limits of eight weeks for personal medical or family caregiving, and twelve weeks for the birth of a child. The bill now goes to the Senate.
Also last week the Senate sent the House a bill banning single use plastic bags, styrofoam food containers, and plastic straws on a 30-0 vote. In addition the Senate began the multi-year process of amending the VT Constitution. A successful amendment must pass in both the Senate with a 2/3 vote, and in the House, in two different bienniums and then pass in a statewide vote. The process is designed to be difficult to avoid rash actions.
Several constitutional proposals are under discussion. On Friday the Senate approved amending the constitution to include a woman’s right to reproductive choice, 28-2. That now moves to the House to complete the first round of voting. The second round would be in 2021.
Another proposed amendment is to remove all mention of slavery from the VT Constitution. Most Vermonters know that we were the first state to ban slavery, but not many know that was only a partial ban. Article 1 states that “… no person ought to be beholden by law, to serve another person as a servant, slave, or apprentice, after arriving to the age of twenty-one years, unless bound by the person’s own consent, after arriving to such age, or bound by law for the payment of debt, damages, fines, costs, or the like.” That might need some clean-up.
In addition to these issues and my work on the Energy and Technology Committee I am closely involved in include Dual Enrollment problems affecting VT kids in NY schools, slate quarries and Act 250 revisions, revising incompatible positions for Town Officers, and shifting to ranked choice voting in certain elections.
As always , please contact me with questions, concerns, or comments.
This is the point in the legislative session when the hard work of committees comes to the House floor. This week we debated a number of important bills including the budget. After a detailed explanation, the budget passed 139-1, indicating approval of not just the Appropriation Committee’s proposal but the process. Appropriations held numerous public hearings, solicited advice and suggestions from legislators and other committees, and worked with the administration’s recommendations.
Representatives each have their budget disappointments that more wasn’t allocated for their areas of concern, which are many. But overall the Appropriations Committee has done a remarkable job of moving state priorities with limited current means and some grim demographic projections.
Many other bills were also approved, including the Capital Bill which consists of $125 million in bonding, focusing on “bricks and mortar”: upkeep of state buildings, grant programs, clean water and housing. A workforce development bill, a critical child care assistance bill, and the broadband expansion bill passed as well.
The biggest fireworks were reserved for H.439 “The Home Weatherization Assistance Program.” Legislators are in nearly unanimous agreement that home weatherization provides great return on investment in terms of health, job creation, fuel savings, and participation in work and school. Disagreement comes on how to raise the money.
The existing program is funded through a 2¢ per gallon tax on heating oil, propane, kerosene, and dyed diesel fuel, and a 0.75% levy on natural gas and coal. The bill proposed expanding the program by increasing those charges to 4¢ a gallon, and 1% and 1.5% respectively. That would raise $4.6 million.
Heated debate (no pun intended) followed on whether this is a regressive tax, though my amendment to shift the program cost to a progressive tax on the highest income bracket was soundly defeated. There was debate on whether other fuels are similarly taxed – and they are, one example being the charge on our electric bills which pays for efficiency programs. And we debated whether this is a “carbon tax” in disguise.
On that question I side with those who say it is not. A carbon tax is generally understood to 1) be set much higher in an effort to influence behavior, which this does not do, and 2) to vary with the carbon content of the different fuels, which this also does not do. This is like the existing gasoline tax which taxes a specific produce (gasoline) to raise money for a specific purpose (highways).
In the end the bill passed with an amendment to exempt farming and logging operations, which I supported. All these bills and others now move to the Senate for consideration.
Hundreds of high school students converged on the Statehouse last Friday to stage a rally and a press conference, and to testify in various committees. They came to demand action on climate change. Those who spoke in the Energy Committee were articulate, informed, and frustrated. And they weren’t wrong.
The Legislative Calendar for Tuesday, March 19th is packed with 25 different bills for action or taking their place in the lineup. Some are minor adjustments to or streamlining of existing law. Some break new ground. None of them relate to climate change.
That doesn’t mean that climate change isn’t getting serious attention, just not the attention that it deserves. However, in legislative speak “attention” usually means money; how best to raise it and how best to spend it.
Two general ideas are getting a lot of traction. One is a proposal to increase funds for weatherizing Vermont’s old drafty housing stock, which has multiple benefits. In addition to reducing fuel consumption and saving money, warmer homes mean healthier people in them – less time lost from work and school, lower medical costs, and less family stress.
The other idea is a proposal to incentivize the transition to electric vehicles, a change that most major manufacturers will be making in the near future, worldwide. This also requires simultaneous development of a statewide system of charging stations, both publicly and privately owned.
Both plans have plenty of wrinkles to iron out. What are the specific goals? What is the most effective program? How much do we spend? For how long? What is the revenue source? Who is eligible to benefit? What are the consequences of acting? (Fewer gasoline engines means less gas tax money collected means less revenue for the highways.) What are the consequences of not acting?
I look forward to theses proposals taking their place on the House floor soon.
High speed internet is no longer a luxury. In addition to being indispensable for virtually all businesses, it is the lifeline for many of Vermont’s cottage industries or work-from-home artists, craftspeople, and start-ups. Unfortunately, for too many people it is a frayed and unreliable lifeline.
How did we get here?
In Vermont, electric and telephone service are provided by regulated monopolies. The agreement is that providers of both services will operate under tight state regulation in exchange for a designated territory. A look at the map of electric utility territories clearly illustrates the history of private electric companies expanding only into territories with enough population density to earn them money. It was left to the electric co-ops to provide this now essential service into the boondocks, which was only feasible with serious federal commitment in the form of the Rural Electrification Program. But it worked.
The growth of broadband service is following an identical track. But broadband is federally regulated – and the federal government is clear that they still prefer a lightly regulated “free enterprise” approach. Private companies like Consolidated, xFinity, and VTel will build out service where they can make money, or where they receive subsidies. Any area providing fewer than about 15-20 customers per mile just don’t interest them. Unless there are subsidies. Most telephone companies are offering service to their existing customers but that is often a copper wire-based DSL internet in rural areas which has many limitations.
So what can we do?
The House Energy and Technology has approved a bill which takes a three-pronged approach.
- Currently, incentives for broadband providers to expand unto unserved or underserved areas come from the Connectivity Initiative. That is funded by the Universal Service charge on your phone bill – currently a 2% tax. But that tax first funds the E-911 service and some other programs as well. Then whatever is left over gets split and one of those portions is the available money for broadband expansion. In 2018 it was about $200,000. In 2019 it is forecast to be $0.
The Committee’s proposal is to add another 0.5% to that tax; that would generate about $1.5 million annually. On my home’s phone bill it would be an extra 4.5¢ per month.
2) The bill also requires a feasibility study of electric utilities providing broadband service, as is already happening in some states. Certain synergies exist: electric utilities already service almost every building in the state. Utilities require more intensive data handling to become efficient real-time energy managers; they also require a comprehensive, high speed communications network
There are obvious challenges as well. Utilities do a good job operating within the regulated monopoly sphere. But broadband is lightly regulated and highly competitive, so we are asking utilities to operate two very different business models together.
3) Recognizing that to date, neither private enterprise or the state has been able to resolve these issues the bill also creates a “toolbox” to assist communications union districts and other entities to take on broadband network expansion and operation. Learning from the experience of EC Fiber we are offering three tools: a new technical expert position created to advise these entities; grants and low interest loans for planning and construction; and a streamlined process for “makeready” – getting wires onto the poles.
These three options are not the only ones, but they represent a variety of approaches. Different areas require different solutions, and hopefully these options will fit different needs in different places.
This week the House approved a compromise bill affecting deadlines for school district mergers under Act 46. The compromise allows a one year extension for some towns who have been working diligently but unsuccessfully to merge. The remaining towns that have not yet complied need to meet the July 1, 2019 deadline. That bill now goes to the Senate.
The bill generating the most passion is H.57, which would put into statute the current status quo for abortions. It is important to note that the bill, which has not yet come to the House floor, neither enhances nor diminishes access to abortion procedures in Vermont. Rather it establishes current practice as law.
This is an inflammatory issue, as evidenced at the open hearing last week in Montpelier at which 60 members of the public spoke passionately and eloquently – 30 opposed to the bill and 30 in favor. The debate is not just political. It is personal, ethical, spiritual, and social and it hinges on our beliefs in fundamental rights.
Many people on both sides of the debate have contacted me with their concerns, and I appreciate the input and the ongoing discussions. This bill is still a work in progress, and has already been modified.
My position is that while I do not promote abortion and in a perfect world I hope there would be no need for it, I do support a woman’s right to make that choice. Women have always sought out ways to end unwanted pregnancies. Roe v. Wade was not the start of abortions; it marked the end of women dying from them. The best way to prevent abortions is through education and readily available birth control.
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.