Return from Town Meeting Day, Crossover time
March 10th, 2022
Last week the legislature was adjourned for the week of Town Meeting Day. It was a great opportunity to connect with constituents and also to have some time to reflect on our work in the Vermont House so far this year. This week, as we return to the statehouse, we approach the all important “crossover” deadline, whereby all bills must move from one chamber to the other. This provides a nice opportunity to reflect on some of the work from the House that will now go to the Senate for review, amendment and passage. As a member of the House Ways and Means (tax and revenue) committee, I get to spend most of my time on bills affecting the revenue of the state, but of course I also try to stay up-to-date on legislation not within the jurisdiction of our committee.
House Bills of Note:
Child tax credit bill H. 510:
The Child Tax Credit is designed as both an anti-poverty measure and an incentive for young families to put down roots in Vermont. It could be used to help with any of the expenses that parents face when raising small children — food, clothing, diapers, rent — or anything else. It will be available to parents or guardians with child care costs, but also to those who, out of choice or necessity, are staying home to look after their children themselves.
Proposal 2 Constitutional Amendment:
Vermont outlawed slavery in 1777 when it ratified its first Constitution. But the wording is not absolute. As currently written, only persons over the age of 21 cannot be held in slavery. Additionally, a Vermonter over this age can be bound into slavery if they consent to being a slave. Proposal 2 would amend Article 1, Chapter 1 of the Vermont Constitution, replacing this original section with language stating plainly that “slavery and indentured servitude in any form are prohibited.” Changing the state constitution is a four-year process. The proposed language must be approved by the legislature in two successive biennia, a step that with today’s vote is now complete. The proposed amendment will now be placed on the ballot for all Vermont voters to consider in November 2022.
Some may question the need for this change because slavery has been outlawed in the United States since 1865. But the unfortunate reality in 2022 is that forms of modern slavery, such as sex trafficking and the labor of undocumented immigrants, still exist in this country and Vermont is not immune. Given the continuing challenges with racism in our society, one can argue that passing Prop 2 is worth it just for the message it sends about the aspirations we have for our state and how all Vermonters deserve to be treated. “Language is powerful,” said Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski) in presenting Prop 2 on the floor. “And the truth shall set us free.”
Proposal 5 Constitutional Amendment:
The Reproductive Liberty Amendment (Proposal 5) was affirmed by the House in the second consecutive biennium, on a roll-call vote of 107-41. The RLA would amend the Vermont constitution, establishing personal reproductive autonomy as a fundamental right. For 50 years, Vermonters have had the freedom to choose for themselves whether and when to have children, and Prop 5 will guarantee they continue to have that right in the future. Ultimately this is the people’s decision. Prop 5 now goes before the voters, who will have the final say on both Prop 2 and Prop 5 when they cast their ballot in the November 2022 general election.
Budget Adjustment, H. 679:
The House gave final legislative approval to H.679, a bill that balances the FY22 state budget at mid-year while making important one-time investments in our state’s COVID-19 recovery. The bill now moves to Gov. Scott for his signature. With a combination of one-time General Fund and federal ARPA stimulus dollars, H.679 supports programs that provide vital services to Vermonters during the ongoing pandemic — while laying the groundwork for economic recovery and a vibrant future in all 14 counties.
Key appropriations include:
$60 million in workforce retention bonuses for essential community healthcare and social service providers, at $2,000 per FTE. PLUS: $6 million for retention payments for childcare staff and $4.9 million for recruitment and retention payments at the Department of Corrections.
$55 million to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board for housing and increased shelter capacity
$50 million in additional one-time funds — for a total of $200 million — to help reduce our unfunded pension liability
$6 million to Vermont Foodbank to feed hungry Vermonters and reduce food insecurity
Changes to Current Use Rules, H. 697:
This is a bill that adds a “reserve forest” category to the current use program. The overarching goal, developed via Vermont Conservation Design, is to facilitate the return of 9% of Vermont’s forest to old growth. At the time the program was conceived forty years ago, nobody was thinking about invasive species, climate change, increased flooding, carbon sequestration, carbon storage and biodiversity. The Use Value program was about retaining forest blocks and intelligent management of these forests for the production of forest products. We have learned a lot since then. Vermont Conservation Design, spearheaded by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, calls for 9% of Vermont’s forestland to return to old growth forest to achieve these purposes. We currently have less than 1% of our forested landscape in old growth condition.
Work in the Ways and Means Committee Room
Education Fund/Yield Update:
Every year, school districts use projections provided by the Tax Department in December to help build their budgets and project their local education tax rates. Once most budgets have been voted on and there is clarity on statewide spending, the legislature can move ahead with the annual “yield bill,” which finalizes those rates. It’s not unusual for the statewide spending estimates that inform the “December 1st letter” to differ from actual budgets, so tax rates discussed at Town Meeting are always a best guess.
This year is unusual in the sense that there is a large surplus in the Education Fund. There are many possible uses for this money — including support for tech centers, school meals, and transitions to new funding systems — and no decisions have been made, but it is unlikely that any significant amount will be used to reduce tax rates. We will continue the conversations in March and vote out the yield bill when we have more information on approved school budgets.
Education Funding Reform:
Following a 2019 Study from UVM and Rutgers on the effectiveness and accuracy of Vermont’s pupil weighting system, there has been a lot of discussion about what to do with the new information. Last summer, a legislative task force was convened to consider and propose an implementation plan for the new proposed weights. This task force was also charged with considering a broader array of reform to Vermont’s unique education finance system. This legislative session, the Senate kicked off the work on this bill, ultimately deciding to advance a policy that would maintain the basic framework of the pupil weighting system, while updating the weights themselves with empirically derived values. Additionally, this bill simplifies the formula used to calculate equalized pupils and also changes the way students living in poverty are counted. On the whole, I am optimistic that this bill can pass this session and that it will have a positive impact on education equity statewide.