Our “part-time” legislature has been in overdrive this year. Instead of adjourning in mid-May, the legislature stayed on to handle a deluge of Covid-19 legislation. That lasted until the end of June and passage of a three-month budget. In August the legislature reconvened to continue with Covid relief and other legislation, and to craft a budget for the full fiscal year.
That budget, which is balanced while leaving our rainy day funds intact, has been approved by the House and is now in the Senate where they intend to vote on it this week. When the budget is finalized and sent to the governor, hopefully by Friday, the legislature will adjourn until January when the newly elected legislature is sworn in.
In the meantime, the legislature has passed a number of other bills that were already in process from the spring. They range all over: prohibiting trade in endangered animal parts, availability of contraception, frontline worker hazard pay, and municipal charter changes. After weeks of negotiation and compromise, both bodies also finally agreed on a cannabis tax and regulate bill that the House has approved but the Senate still needs to formally act on. The Governor has not indicated whether he will sign it or not.
Last week Governor Scott vetoed Vermont’s Global Warming Solution Act, which was not unexpected. The house overrode his veto by a vote of 103-47. That bill is also in the Senate and they will take action on it early this week. A successful override requires a 2/3 vote in each chamber, and it is expected that the Senate will reach that threshold easily.
Week Two of the legislative summer session saw the House approving another COVID-19 relief bill. This one builds on Governor Scott’s proposal and extends stimulus payments to many of those left out of the federal stimulus program – those who pay state and federal income taxes without providing a social security number, and their families. Most of the eligible people are migrant workers, many deemed “essential” during the pandemic for keeping Vermont farms and industries rolling.
In the latter half of the week, the house takes up the new budget bill. This is a unified, full year budget that combines the first quarter budget passed in June, adjustments made since then, and spending for the rest of the fiscal year.
It is a balanced budget that does not dip into reserve “rainy day funds”. But it does wring out savings and efficiencies including reallocating travel and conference budgets and eliminating some unfilled job positions while not compromising services.
When a new legislature convenes in January there will be, as there always is, a Budget Adjustment Act to true up actual spending and revenues with projections. With the current economic challenges, we can expect that process to be difficult, and that may be when the reserve funds will be tapped.
According to the National Council of State Legislatures, Vermont is the ONLY state that is not required by law to have a balanced budget. However we are one of the few that have always done so, and this budget is no exception.
This past week the Vermont legislature re-convened to continue the work of crafting a budget for these unique times. Due to the immense financial uncertainty last spring, the legislature determined early on that trying to predict a full year budget wasn’t prudent. So we approved a first quarter budget and are meeting now, with new financial forecasts and projections and Governor Scott’s proposals, to map out spending for the rest of this uncertain fiscal year. There is also about $200 million remaining in federal CARES money to allocate where it is needed most.
While continuing to meet remotely, much of this week was devoted to committee work: digging into budget requests and receiving updates on the successes and failures of the relief spending authorized in June. In addition to tweaking earlier programs the legislature will take up some bills that had already passed one chamber and were awaiting action in the other. The goal is to complete all work and adjourn by September 25th.
One of the biggest unknowns is whether there will be another federal stimulus package, and if there is, how large it will be and what strings are attached. The current stimulus dollars must be spent by December 31 or they revert back to the federal government. Will that deadline be extended?
If more federal money does arrive after the legislature adjourns, the Joint Fiscal Committee (comprised of four Senators and four Representatives) is authorized by law to accept and allocate those grant dollars.
As always, please contact me with questions and concerns.
Last Friday, almost $600 million dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding (CARES Act) bills were sent to Governor Scott for his signature. Then the Legislature adjourned until late August, when it will meet again to tackle the second round of the budget using updated financial projections.
This almost $600 million adds to the over $400 million already spent or appropriated to help Vermonters, more than $1 billion total. The last round includes:
$35 million for farm relief
$82 million in economic recovery grants (for businesses)
$275 million for health care stabilization (for medical facilities)
$62 million in housing assistance
$12 million for Parent Child Centers and restarting childcare and summer programs
$20 million for broadband expansion
$15 million for local governments
A very readable list of covid-19 relief fund appropriation can be found here: https://ljfo.vermont.gov/assets/Uploads/0ab5819219/Floor_Doc_Version_of_Senate_Final_CRF-v5.pdf
The State Auditor has tracked over $4 billion in covid-19 federal spending in Vermont, which includes the $1.25 billion from the CARES Act. https://auditor.vermont.gov/content/covid-19-federal-and-state-expenditures-0
The use of this CARES money must follow strict federal guidelines, including that it must be spent by December 31 of this year. Our biggest problem is not simply how to spend the money in time, but rather seeing that it’s done responsibly: establishing control measures for who qualifies, applications, distribution of funds, and verification.
The Legislature also approved a handful of policy bills including S.219, a bill addressing racial bias and use of force by law enforcement. The bill, which passed the House 147-0 in a roll call vote, prohibits the use of chokeholds and requires state police to utilize body cameras. Perhaps most important, the bill requires that these decisions be reconsidered next year to determine if they are the right actions in what is a complicated, fluid and contentious dynamic.
As always, please contact me with questions or concerns.
The Vermont Legislature is working diligently on responsible funding plans for the new COVID-19 reality. Instead of creating a typical budget for fiscal year 2021 which begins July 1, the House approved a budget only for the first quarter. With revenues down, businesses and residents struggling, expenses uncertain, and federal funding having many strings attached, we can’t responsibly budget in the face of so much uncertainty.
This budget funds state operations for July, August, and September, generally allocating departments with 25% of their 2019 budgets — with two exceptions. VTrans and The Agency of Natural Resources conduct the bulk of their work during summer months, so they would be funded at 60% and 50% respectively. In August the Legislature will reconvene and, using updated revenues and forecasts, will craft the budget for the remainder of the year.
While a lot of federal money has already been distributed in Vermont through programs like Unemployment Insurance and the Payroll Protection Program, much more is needed. The Legislature is giving final approval to a first round of $93 million in targeted relief. State Auditor Doug Hoffer has an excellent breakdown of state and federal spending dollars on the Auditor’s website, https://auditor.vermont.gov/content/covid-19-federal-and-state-expenditures-0
The House is putting finishing touches on a major allocation of nearly $600 million to shore up almost every sector of the economy, within the federal guidelines (which are strict and often unclear). Because the amount, timing, and conditions of further federal funding are still uncertain, we are holding $400 million in reserve for allocation in August when we better know what needs are most critical at that time. Should federal funds come through before August, those reserves can be released earlier.
But none of this explains why the process is so painfully slow. Under the Governor’s State of Emergency the administration can and did take executive action quickly. However money can only be allocated by the Legislature and that process is designed (for normal years) to be slow precisely to prevent hasty action.
For example, the above $600 million allocation is part of federal COVID-19 relief funds. Since the money arrived in April we have been asking for clarification on the restrictions and guidelines on its use. The Governor proposed general blocks of spending: agriculture, housing, health care, schools, etc. The House adapted that proposal, making changes as new information develops. Committees of jurisdiction dig deep into the details of how relief funding can be most effectively used within the given restrictions, and taking testimony from many, many stakeholders and experts. Those recommendations then go to the Appropriations Committees which sifts through them and pares down the huge funding requests to match the dollars available. The House then has to debate, vote on it twice, and then it goes to the Senate where the same process must occur.
As always, please contact me with questions or comments.
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.