By Rep. Jim Harrison
By the end of the second week of the 2019 Legislative session, we are beginning to get a better picture of some of the issues likely to be considered this year. Some are repeats from last year, while others may be new.
Increasing the smoking age to 21, banning or taxing single use shopping bags and primary seatbelt enforcement are all examples of returning bills.
Some new topics this year might be a proposal to delay forced school mergers as a result of Act 46 and State Board of Education decisions this past fall, instant runoff voting and Hhemp legislation, in light of recent federal changes.
The process for amending Vermont’s constitution begins every four years. As 2019 marks the opening of that window, several changes have already been introduced, including rights to abortion and privacy; four-year term for governor; and abolishment of slavery (current wording could be construed to protect only persons over 21, although slavery is already prohibited by the U.S. Constitution).
Perhaps an early example of the changing dynamic this year given the Democratic gains in the House, Gov. Phil Scott has already unveiled a voluntary paid family leave plan in an effort to find middle ground on the bill he vetoed last year.
Scott’s plan partners with New Hampshire and would include state employees in both states and allow private employers to opt-in voluntarily for a premium charge. Meanwhile, legislative leaders, while encouraged that the governor had a paid leave proposal, reintroduced their own mandated program with a richer benefit along with a new and higher payroll tax (0.93 percent shared between employee and employer), which may suggest the bar has been raised.
Another vetoed bill last year, the $15 minimum wage (graduated over several years), has been reintroduced. While it is likely to pass the Legislature again, it is unclear what modifications might be made to ensure it receives support from the governor this time around.
One of the more contentious issues this year could revolve around changes to Act 250. A legislative study committee is recommending a number of amendments to the 50-year-old development review law that could add new criteria to the process, such as climate change impacts and restrictions on development in forest tracks.
The Senate is moving ahead with a tax and regulate system for marijuana. However, the governor is still skeptical because the proposal does not include additional highway safety measures and may not focus enough on use education and prevention. House Speaker Johnson is also not on board yet with such a plan.
And legislative leaders also indicate they are not supportive of several of the carbon tax proposals that were introduced last year, but variations will receive some discussion.
While most bills are still in the drafting stages, preliminary reports from the lawyers who draft the bills for legislators suggest the number is up about 13 percent from two years ago.
The governor, who has been resistant to supporting new taxes to fund the state’s ongoing clean water initiatives, is recommending a reallocation of the state estate tax to clean water. Whether that will satisfy legislative advocates for more money remains to be seen.
More details on Scott’s budget priorities will be unveiled this Thursday, Jan. 24 when he gives his annual budget address to a joint session of the Legislature. The speech is scheduled to broadcast on Vermont Public Radio and Public Television at 2 p.m. ( PBS will rebroadcast it at 8 p.m.).
You may reach me at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or my cell, 802-236-3001. Messages may also be left at the State House during the legislative session at 802-828-2228.
Jim Harrison is the state rep for Bridgewater, Killington, Mendon and Chittenden towns.