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What to expect in Vermont’s special Covid-19 budget session

Secretary of the Senate John Bloomer Jr. sets up for a hybrid remote and in-person Senate session on April 8, 2020. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Lawmakers will reconvene this week in Montpelier for an abridged session focused on the passage of the 2020-21 fiscal year budget. Over the next five to six weeks, the Legislature must also determine how to address a $180 million deficit caused by business shutdowns in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis.

Legislators also plan to tackle a number of other bills in the coming weeks, including proposals put on hold earlier this year because of the pandemic. Among them:

A plan to tax and regulate marijuana — legislation that’s been in the works since early 2018. Highway safety measures remain an outstanding area of controversy that are unresolved in the House. The Global Warming Solutions Act, a bill that would legally require the state to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions. The Senate approved a measure in June that would allow individuals to sue the state if it doesn’t meet deadlines for implementation of carbon reduction initiatives.

VTDigger explores these pending legislative actions in this preview of the legislative session.

Criminal justice and police reform 

At the end of June, lawmakers raced to craft police reforms after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black man.

Before adjourning June 26, the House and Senate approved legislation, S.219, that requires all state police to wear body cameras, prohibits officers from using chokeholds and similar restraint techniques, while mandating that the Legislature pass additional criminal and racial justice measures in the upcoming session and in the coming years.

When the governor signed the bill in mid July, he said he hoped lawmakers would take up additional criminal justice reforms, including policing training “modernization,” measures to provide community oversight of police, and a statewide use-of-force policy.

In a recent interview, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said lawmakers are under pressure to take immediate action on police reforms, but they’re also hearing calls from racial justice advocates to slow down so policymakers can hear more feedback from communities of color. 

“We are hearing the simultaneous calls for ‘reform now,’ and ‘please, please, please put aside your assumptions and your privilege and your bias and listen — sit, absorb and listen,’” Johnson said. 

“So that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.

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The new law requires the Legislature to analyze the establishment of a new criminal statute for police who use prohibited restraints that cause death or serious injury. 

The law also mandates that lawmakers adopt a statewide model policy for the use of police body cameras. Vermont State Police officers were required to wear body cameras starting on Aug. 1.

Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, who chairs the House government operations committee, said there is no guarantee the House will pass police reforms in the abridged budget session.

“We’re going to look at it, and we probably will make progress on it,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “I can’t say that it would be ready for passage right now, but we are committed to working on and making sure we get the policy right, whether that it’s in September or in January when we have more time.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said he and Johnson will talk in the next week about the Legislature’s capacity to take on more reform efforts, since “the amount of time that we’re going to be back is limited.”

Demonstrators knelt silently for 9 minutes in front of the Vermont Statehouse in memory of George Floyd and other victims of police violence on June 4, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
A regulated market for marijuana

The fate of S.54 is hazy as Senate and House members debate the tax-and-regulate bill in conference committee. 

The two chambers are far apart on issues of highway safety. The House favors allowing police to pull over drivers they suspect aren’t wearing seat belts and to use saliva tests to screen drivers for drug impairment, if they first obtain a warrant.

The Senate has objected to both policies, saying they violate Vermonters’ civil liberties and could undermine fair and impartial policing. An ACLU study released in 2016 showed that a Florida seat belt ticketing law led to an increase in police pullovers of Black motorists.

Johnson suggested she would be open to an alternative to saliva testing, but “if it’s not saliva, it needs to be something that will assure Vermonters that our roadways are not going to be made more dangerous by increasing the availability and accessibility of cannabis.”

She said the House and Senate are “pretty far apart” on the bill, and House members are willing to walk away from the legislation if a compromise isn’t reached. 

“I believe we can get the bill done. Each side will need to make compromises. Obviously, some differences are easier to resolve than others,” Ashe said.

Act 250 reform on the horizon

Before the pandemic, the House passed a major reform of Vermont’s land use law, Act 250, after working on the legislation for more than a year. The chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, said the reforms struck “a balance” between broadening Act 250 jurisdiction to protect certain natural resources while releasing certain town and village centers from review. 

Johnson said finishing Act 250 reform in the coming weeks is a priority. 

“We’ve put so much work into that, and having a new set of rules that will make development cheaper, easier, more efficient, more predictable in appropriate places for development, I think will help a lot of the issues that you know that we’ve seen in Covid,” Johnson said. 

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She said the reforms would help businesses, create jobs and expand housing. 

Ashe expects the Senate will pass a scaled-down version of the Act 250 reform package.

Global Warming Solutions Act close to passage

In June, the Vermont Senate approved this climate change bill, which would legally require the state to meet targets for carbon emission reductions in the coming years, and allow individuals to sue the government if it doesn’t. 

The Senate made few changes in the legislation after it came over from the House in February, but decided to remove funding from the proposal until the state budget is settled.

The Joint Fiscal Office estimates the policy would cost $600,000 in its first year. Ashe said lawmakers will look to revise that estimate. 

While Democratic leaders say moving the legislation is a priority, Republican members in the House oppose the measure.

In a statement, House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said lawmakers should focus on moving the state out of the economic downturn brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and not be spending time on the Global Warming Solutions Act during the 2020 budget session.

“Legislative leadership is still intent on addressing unrelated priorities like the Global Warming Solutions Act, which exposes the state of Vermont to massive legal liability,” McCoy said. 

Demonstrators gathered on the Statehouse lawn on the day of Gov. Phil Scott’s 2020 State of the State address to demand action on climate change. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger
Budgetary business 

House and Senate leaders have concerns about the budget Scott proposed last week. 

Johnson and Ashe have both taken issue with the fact that it doesn’t directly include additional money for the state college system. Two reports issued in June found that state colleges need $30 million in “bridge funding” in the current fiscal year to cover a budget shortfall.

Scott has recommended the colleges get $30 million of the federal coronavirus relief dollars. But, for that to happen, the federal government would need to grant states additional flexibility for using the money, and that hasn’t happened yet.

The federal government gave Vermont $1.25 billion for coronavirus relief in April, and there is about $200 million left. Scott has proposed spending the most of that amount — $133 million — on additional grants for struggling businesses. 

Ashe also said he’s concerned that the governor’s budget does not include money to help schools deal with reopening costs amid the Covid-19 crisis. 

In June, lawmakers planned to set aside $100 million of coronavirus relief dollars to help K-12 schools weather the costs of adapting to the pandemic, and implementing hybrid in-person and remote learning education arrangements.

“We’re gonna have to have that discussion with the governor’s team about how they expect to pay for all this stuff if it’s not coming from these federal funds,” Ashe said. 

Ashe also hopes to use federal money to expand the state’s hazard pay program for essential workers so that it includes retail and grocery store employees. 

Before the summer break, the Legislature passed a $28 million “hazard pay” program for public health, public safety, health care and human services workers who were on the frontlines of the Covid-19 crisis in March, April and May. Those workers are eligible to receive $1,200 or $2,000, depending on how many hours they worked at the time. 

Grocery store workers and other retail employees were excluded because of concerns they would not qualify for funding under the federal guidelines for the coronavirus relief funds. But Ashe said other states, including Pennsylvania and Louisiana, have started using federal money to give hazard pay to grocery store workers. 

“They were at great risk, and for two months, in particular, had among the most stressful jobs in society, “ Ashe said. 

There is also discussion about tweaking language in the $35 million aid package, S.351, for the forest and agriculture industries in the state — which the Legislature sent to the governor before it adjourned for its summer recess.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, who’s on the Senate agriculture committee, has already asked the panel’s members to look at changing the Sept. 15 deadline for moving unused money into a dairy assistance program — which already contains the bulk of the appropriation.

In an email to fellow senators, Pollina said the non-dairy farm relief program had not been established as of early August and there is not enough time for vegetable, livestock and maple farmers to prepare the necessary grant application.

In a letter Aug. 20 letter to Johnson and Ashe, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont wrote that dairy farms, processors, forestry businesses and fairs — are required to show that they simply lost revenues or incurred expenses caused by the Covid-19 public health emergency, while farm and food businesses must document no net profits between March 1 and Aug. 1.

That higher financial reporting standard for farmers has met with opposition. NOFA and seven other organizations co-signed a letter calling for the “no net profit” requirement to be removed from the law.

What to expect in Vermont’s special Covid-19 budget session

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