Week 6 of the Vermont Legislative Session-February 15, 2019
he Senate is a little slower than expected on passing their bill (S54) to regulate a cannabis market. A prediction by many was a “tax and regulate” cannabis market, increasing the minimum wage and water quality funding would sail through within the first month of the session. What is different this year? In most cases, circumstances have changed, legislators are new or are serving on a different committee, and with the power to legislate almost anything, time is less of an issue this session.
The Senate wrangled with whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries a head start to sell and tax marijuana to the public. Sen. Richard Sears, the lead proponent for several years, is not interested in giving any one sector a leg up or delaying full implementation. The start-up without funding has created a bit of a quandary in terms of public safety, education, licensing, and quickly controlling this new market in Vermont. Throw in the issue that no banking institution can set up accounts for these new businesses apart from cash deposits. So, the financial regulation also presents a complexity that needs to be addressed as cash is rarely used in the retail market today.
Just a couple weeks ago the new market for Association Health Plans (AHP) looked like it wouldn’t survive the session say nothing about 2020 enrollment. The Administration unveiled a little more concern over the current issues within the Vermont Health Insurance Exchange, the small group market and the larger issue that the under 30 age group has a 10% uninsured rate. Vermont is only one of two states that doesn’t allow for age rating. The Administration is asking to work cooperatively with the Legislature on ways to offer more financial assistance for health care consumers, and they’re discussing development of a cheaper insurance plan that would generate savings. Little discussion around “under-insurance” has occurred, while it’s known that there is a problem, inaction only compounds the problem each year as premiums increase. Without fully understanding the issues within the Vermont health insurance market, Legislators may do more harm than good. So, is the AHP market safe for another year? Time will tell but perhaps Legislators, who know little about this market, will slow down and look at Vermont holistically before making assumptions.
A welcome and often undervalued discussion around work force development and technical education has become a priority in both the House and the Senate. Another issue where inaction compounds the problem every year, as Vermont has the oldest population in the country. Young, talented Vermonters who are being pushed into a traditional four-year curriculum often aren’t suited for either the educational setting or a curriculum that leads to a professional career. This is one area where the Legislative and Administrative Branch can work together. What does the plan look like? The Governor has budged $200,000 for start-up funding to explore the vision and put together a plan for regional tech-ed facilities that would be located around the state. The unanswered questions that need to be worked out over the next year would be; how to pay the program, how to satisfy accrediting standards, and what could be accomplished within the existing tech-ed infrastructure.
H.107 An act relating to paid family leave
This bill proposes to create a Paid Family Leave Insurance Program within the Departments of Labor and Taxes that will be funded by contributions from employers and employees. The bill also proposes to amend Vermont’s existing Parental and Family Leave Act to make it applicable to additional employees and to clarify certain provisions.
The House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs voted out the bill by a vote of 8-1-1.
The following provisions are included in the bill:
- Paid Family Leave participation applies to all Vermont employers - no exemptions
- Family Leave Insurance will be funded by a .93% payroll tax; 1/2 paid by employee, 1/2 paid by employer
- Qualifying employees may take up to 12 weeks paid leave during a 12-month period for their own medical leave, maternity/paternity leave, or to care for a qualifying family member.
- Qualifying employees may take up to 2 weeks paid leave for bereavement
- Employees will receive 100% wage replacement up to double that of the livable wage in Vermont
- Employees who earn more than $150,000/year are exempt from program
- Amends the current Unpaid Family Leave program to include employers with 10 or more employees, instead of the current 15 or more employees
S.23 Minimum wage bill passes Senate Economic Development Committee
The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee finalized S.23, a bill to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 by 2024. Current law would increase the minimum wage to $12.04 by 2024. The vote along party lines was 4-1, Senator Randy Brock (R-Franklin District) opposed.
Below is the proposed path to increase to $15.00:
2020 - $11.50
2021 - $12.25
2022 - $13.10
2023 - $14.05
2024 - $15.00
The bill carves out secondary school students and those under 18 years of age. The bill also includes a study to consider adjustments for inflation, due to the Legislature by January 15, 2023.
The report shall:
(1) identify and examine mechanisms that other jurisdictions use to index their minimum wages to inflation and the potential benefits and disadvantages of each mechanism; and
(2) identify and examine any alternative mechanisms to index the minimum wage to inflation, including alternative measures of inflation, and the potential benefits and disadvantages of each mechanism.
Another study included looking at “tipped” wage employees and students. The bill now heads to the Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
ENVIRONMENT & WATER QUALITY
S.96 Establishing a Clean Water Assessment to fund State water quality programs
This bill proposes to establish a Clean Water Assessment on all parcels in the State. Monies collected under the Clean Water Assessment would be deposited in the Clean Water Fund to fund water quality improvement projects in the State.
The Senate Natural Resources & Energy will try to close the $20M funding gap for clean water initiatives with existing tax/fee collection systems to reduce implementation costs and keep more dollars for clean water projects. Additional Funding possibilities discussed:
- Per Parcel Fee (as suggested in S.96) - $40/year per parcel
- Funds from the Estate Tax - approx. $8M/year
- Property Transfer Tax Surcharge Increase - Clean Water currently received $4M/year
- Impervious Surface fee
- Rooms & Meals Tax Surcharge
This bill will also create a Clean Water Board to administer the funds and oversee projects. Several environmental groups have asked the committee to consider the creation of regional clean water utilities to oversee the funds and projects.
The Committee will continue work next week prior to sending the bill to the money committees for consideration.
Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance (VDPA) Requests expansion of cell service
The Alliance provided an overview of current agricultural practices, efforts, and projects taking aim at improving water quality. The Alliance expressed the need for reliable cell service to be able to map and plant, manage manure injection and soil samples, and ensure not only that time and resources aren't wasted but that the soil gets the nutrients it need to produce good crops. This will limit the amount of disruption of soils and limit phosphorus run-off, this is referred to as "Precision Agriculture". The cost of new technology as well as the need for cell service and funding are current barriers.
The Alliance requested that the House Energy & Technology work to address better cell service through expansion of towers or remote towers.
The House Agriculture Committee heard clarifying testimony from Laura Lapierre, Agency of Natural Resources. Under the existing statute the statutory exemption is not elaborated on. However, in “rule” the exemption applies to areas in “ordinary rotation”. This is narrowly defined as growing food or crops. Construction of a building in a wetland is not growing food or crops.
The current wetland drafts under consideration clarifies and would codify this in law. ANR looks at the activity within a wetland not the percentage of impact. The issue of ordinary rotation is dealt with on a case by case basis but use a 5-year time period as a rule.
The committee has an issue with the need to allow and limit fees to install an access road which is better than not having an access road. Water quality projects are a big part of this, and farmers are feeling penalized for doing the right thing. However, the 5,000 sq. ft threshold for “non-reporting” and paying fees in most cases will still need to be evaluated by ANR.
The Committee will likely be looking at the 5,000 sq. ft trigger as well as fees and try to think of ways to incentivize rather than penalize. Click here for the Current Wetland Rule Farming Exemption, and here for the Landowner’s Guide to Wetlands.
House Committee on Agriculture & Forestry heard from Jeff Carter, UVM Extension and Laura DiPietro, Agency of Ag on the subsurface Tile Drain Sampling Projects who provided a report from data collected from 2018. The samples tested were for Total Phosphorus, Dissolved Phosphorus, Nitrates, Turbidity, and instantaneous flow. With 1 year of sampling, there were 408 samples from 136 sampling times collected.
The initial findings showed:
- Majority of values hover in the 20‐40 ug/L (ppb) range during non‐storm or thawing events.
- Nitrates: appears to be a clear connection to soil type and N (which we knew). Sand always has highest values while clay is always extremely low values.
- Clay sites most likely have highest TP and DP values because of particle size and shrink‐swell.
Both agreed more research needs to be done in order to fully understand the potential benefits, or harm, from tile drainage. Laura stated, there is not great science on a lot of this stuff. If you want to declare something good, you can find something to support it. If you want to declare something bad, you can find something to support it. They acknowledged that research is tricky, and they are getting mixed messages – you don’t write new rules for something that you don’t have answers to. Laura suggested they would need 5 years to really understand the science. “There is a lot going on and we are dedicated to looking at it and we will evolve.”
The committee heard from the Miner Institute on the three years of data tracking phosphorus and nitrogen through tile drains and without. The conclusions drawn from their work:
- Phosphorus losses driven by surface runoff events
- Nitrogen losses exported primarily through tile flow
- Majority of losses occur during non-growing season and from small number of events
- Promote/develop BMPs that address these high-risk periods
- Drainage water management
- Cover crops
- Tile drainage may reduce P export from snowmelt-driven runoff events
- Nutrient management is key:
- Maintaining fields at agronomically optimum phosphorus levels
- Avoiding nutrient applications prior to high risk events
Cheri L. L'Esperance