With the 2019 session completing its eighth week out of the budgeted 18, the pace of activity in both chambers is picking up. As is typical at the start of a new biennium with new members and new committee assignments, it is often a few weeks before there is significant activity. This year that may have been accented by close to 40 new lawmakers as well as six new committee chairs in the House. Additionally, a record number of new bill requests have created a bit of backlog with the lawyers in legislative council. Perhaps because of a change in the make up of the House with only 43 Republicans now, Gov. Scott has projected a more conciliatory tone with the Legislature in his inaugural speech as well as his budget address. The Legislature now has the ability to override a gubernatorial veto if all Democrats and Progressives vote together, an option that was not possible the last two years. Several tobacco related measures are well on their way to passage this year, following Scott’s willingness to embrace them:
- The Senate has approved a change in the smoking age to 21, including tobacco substitutes, like e-cigarettes. This marks a turn around from last year where the measure failed in that body.
- The House has approved a new 93 percent excise tax on e-cigarette vape products to help discourage consumption by youth.
- A House committee gave unanimous approval to a measure that would ban the sale of e-cigarette products over the internet.
The Senate has passed a tax and regulate bill for marijuana. At least one observer indicated it may be for the sixth time in the past few years. With cannabis now legal in Vermont, the issue has new life, especially if concerns with Scott can be overcome, i.e. highway safety and prevention and education. The Senate version includes a 16 percent state tax plus a local option 2 percent tax.
The House Ways and Means Committee has started reviewing a statewide mandatory paid family leave plan that would cost nearly $100 million annually, funded by a new payroll tax. Meanwhile, the House General Committee, which has already advanced the mandatory plan, H.107, is now reviewing the governor’s proposed bi-state voluntary plan.
Following action by the Senate to increase Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 per hour over several years, the legislation will be reviewed by several House committees. It is unclear whether there will be enough votes to override a veto or if compromise with the administration will be sought.
The House approved H.57, which recognizes the fundamental right of every women who becomes pregnant to choose to carry a pregnancy to term, to give birth to a child, or to have an abortion. The legislation has moved to the Senate, which is expected to take up the measure later this session.
A two-day waiting period for firearm purchases was the subject of a Senate committee hearing. The bill, as advocated by the parents of a 23-year-old son who committed suicide last fall, may or may not make it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee according to its chair, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington.
On the education front, the House approved a narrow delay for several towns grappling with Act 46 mergers, while a challenge to the ability of the state to mandate a merger plays out in court.
Prior to the session, Tax Commissioner Samson projected that the average residential statewide education property tax rates would remain unchanged if overall increases were held to 3 percent. However, preliminary reports suggest local budgets are increasing over 4 percent statewide, which could cause the statewide base rate to increase.
The House Natural Resources Committee has been reviewing a commission report on making changes to Vermont’s land use law, Act 250. Included in the recommendations is the addition of new climate change criteria as well as prohibiting development over 2,000-feet in altitude, which may stymie development in ski areas. It is unclear whether the committee will reach necessary consensus this session on major changes to the law.
Other legislations of interest:
Every four years, the Senate can begin the nearly six-year process of amending the state’s constitution. So far there are proposals for removing references to slavery, a four-year term for governor and senators, equality of rights, right to privacy including decisions on one’s own body, and right to personal reproductive liberty.
A Senate bill, S.11, is on its way to final passage that would break up the Chittenden Senate District to two or more districts beginning in 2022 with a maximum three members per Senate district. The Chittenden District currently has six senators, the largest in the country.
The House Energy and Technology Committee is drafting a bill to help with expansion of broadband in underserved areas of the state.
The House Transportation Committee is working on a plan to incent Vermonters to dramatically increase the number of electric vehicles in the state with a goal of 50,000 electric vehicles by the year 2025.
Legislation to test all schools and childcare providers in Vermont for lead in their drinking water has passed the Senate and now under consideration in the House Education Committee.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson indicated there isn’t enough time this year to take up carbon tax proposals.
Both the Legislature and governor have proposed increases in childcare subsidies and support for early education. The difference is money. The governor’s plan calls for an additional $7 million while a tri-partisan House bill would cost an additional $26 million annually, more than doubling of the state’s current spending in this area.
The Senate passed a measure that would exempt cars older than 10 years old from emission tests over concerns about the financial hardship that would be faced by owners of older vehicles.
In a departure from the past two years, a fee bill for various licenses is under review in the Statehouse. The bill put forth by the administration and Secretary of State’s office includes $6.9 million in fee increases for the Departments of Financial Regulation, Fish and Wildlife, Public Service, and Agriculture and $1.7 million in fee increases for the Secretary of State’s Professional Licensing Office.
The House Commerce Committee has been taking testimony on the acute labor shortage in the state and the pressing need for workforce development.
Rep. Jim Harrison