This is not a typical election year.
Instead it is a year of multiple crises; one a global pandemic leading to health, economic, and social hardship. The other is a crisis of social discord and antagonism fanned by the White House and amplifying the existing hardships. As much as we would like to focus fully on the first crisis, the second crisis shapes not just our ability to respond, but trust in our institutions and leadership.
Vermont, our brave little state, has risen to these challenges with common sense and unity of purpose. The Democratic Legislature and the Republican administration are both committed to listening to the best science and taking whatever actions are needed to provide both safety and economic relief.Within the Legislature the House Leadership, which I am a part of, has beenmeeting twice a week seeking and finding common ground among Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and Independents. This is what crisis response should be.
As I write this in early May, my work most definitely not normal. Unimaginable just 2 months ago, the Legislature is meeting remotely, a realistic annual budget is largely speculation, and unemployment is nearing 30%. Legislators are spending a great deal of time trying to resolve unemployment issues and to help where it is needed most. And it is an election year. In light of the ongoing crises, campaigning is far down my list, given that public safety and the state economy are top priorities. So for the time being I will continue to be Stay Home and Stay Safe and to do what you elected me to do: to provide common sense representation and leadership for our communities and the state of Vermont.
When the federal government postponed the tax filing date to July 15, Vermont did the same because state taxes are based on federal taxes. However, while these income taxes are postponed, property taxes are not and are due on the usual schedule.
Some portion of these property tax payments will certainly also be delayed due to financial hardship. But towns are still required to make scheduled payments into the Education Fund, or face fairly stiff penalties. In light of this, the Legislature has taken a couple of actions. One is to give towns the option to waive penalties and late fees on overdue payments. The other is to allow towns to borrow from banks and credit unions in order to make their scheduled Education Fund payments, and the state will use federal relief dollars to pay the interest on those loans so that towns will bear no additional expense.
I supported both actions to prevent financial burden on our communities, but I am unsettled that our method of providing relief for Vermonters ultimately means transferring money to banks. To be sure, banks play a critical role in the state economy, but at times like this I sure wish we had a State Bank to keep that money working in Vermont for Vermonters. In the last two sessions I have introduced bills to establish a State Bank, to no avail. I will keep my eye on this issue.
In Town Meeting week the focus is on local elections and the legislature takes a break from deliberations in Montpelier. In the last week those deliberations were fast paced and sometime contentious.
On example was the cannabis bill creating a tax and regulate system to control the production and sale of cannabis in the state. This bill prioritizes small growers, under 1000 square feet, and limits people to one of any kind of license: growing, wholesaling, processing, retail, or testing, or an integrated license allowing one of each. The limitations exist to prevent a monopoly by any one player. It does not change current law for either medical dispensaries or home cultivation.
Though it passed the House by a vote of 90-54 it will likely be vetoed by Governor Scott over the issue of roadside testing for impairment. Despite the governor’s insistence, no such test currently exists and the best determination is by a trained Drug Recognition Expert. Existing blood or saliva tests do not prove impairment but simply the presence of THC, which could be residual from even the previous week.
Another controversial bill is the update of Act 250 which turned 50 years old this year. The bill began as a sprawling and complex update on a bewildering variety of issues and ended up still sprawling, but with less dramatic impact than originally envisioned. The main points are an easing of regulations in designated downtowns and some village centers to encourage compact development. The bill also takes new steps to protect forest connectivity and to include energy efficiency as a development criteria. The bill now heads to the senate for its review.
On Thursday the Vermont House approved the Global Warming Solutions Act with a decisive 105-37 vote. It now moves to the Senate.
Rather than requiring specific actions now, the Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) creates a framework for co-ordinated and focused effort, not just to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but to increase the resilience of our communities and our economy as we face increasing disruptions.
The Act creates a Climate Council comprised of agency secretaries and citizen experts. The Council writes a Climate Plan detailing specific action to take to reach the goals set in law (similar to the Paris Accord goals). The agencies will then write “Rules” to put these actions into law.
The Rules cannot impose taxes or spend money without legislative approval or take any action “contrary to legislative intent”.
The bill also creates a “cause of action”, the ability for people to sue the state if we do not make substantial progress toward our goals. But because people already can and do sue the state on a regular basis for almost any reason, this cause of action actually serves to narrow the options for bringing lawsuits. A judge cannot award payment, they can only order the agency to go back and do more effective rule making.
The final safety valve is that the legislature can at any time revise or repeal any portion of the bill. The full text can be found here: https://legislature.vermont.gov/Documents/2020/WorkGroups/House%20Energy%20and%20Technology/Bills/H.688/Drafts,%20Amendments,%20and%20Summaries/H.688~Luke%20Martland~As%20Recommended%20by%20the%20House%20Committee%20on%20Energy%20and%20Technology~2-11-2020.pdf
As always, please contact me with questions or concerns.
Most of the action this past week in Montpelier took place in the committee rooms where testimony was heard on various bills ranging from student weighting formulas for education finance, to budget adjustment and updating act 250. The big exception was Wednesday when the House attempted to override the governor’s veto of the Paid Family Leave bill.
As Vermont tries to lure people to move here it is increasingly critical that we make it so that people don’t have to choose between caring for a sick child or elderly parent, and losing their livelihood. This was a program that the House passed last year, (I voted “yes”) but the Senate weakened so much that when the final compromise came back from the conference committee I voted “no” in an unsuccessful attempt to send it back to a conference committee for improvement. The House and Senate both approved the compromise by large margins and sent it to the Governor who vetoed it.
The Unites States is one of the few countries on earth that doesn’t provide a national paid maternity leave as a cornerstone support. Although I do not like the details of this bill I do believe that something is better than nothing and supported the override attempt. That margin of error proved critical and by a vote of 99-51 the attempt failed so there will be no family leave program this year.
The following day, a non-controversial Commerce Committee bill was approved which includes a bill of mine sparked by a specific event in our district, addressing the gap as unemployed Vermonters work toward self-employment. The legislative process is too slow to help the original family, but hopefully others can now avoid the same pitfalls.
I will be meeting with constituents on Saturday, February 15 in the Pawlet Library 11:00-noon, and in the Wells Library from 1:00-2:00. You determine the agenda — come on by.
Please contact me with opinions, questions, and concerns.
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.