Week 5 of the Vermont Legislative Session – February 8, 2019
The Legislature veered into a variety of controversial matters this week. Most, if not all House committee schedules were juggled around to accommodate the lengthy floor debate over the proposal to extend the deadline for the required merger of school districts. The House voted on two amendments to H.39. Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe proposed language to allow a statewide delay for forced school mergers by one year, but that amendment failed after several hours of debate. One of the reasons for the unwillingness to delay, was Act 46 is a plan going forward and all districts must stay on track to accomplish this complex problem. The discussion continued into a second day with another amendment being proposed to allow certain school districts to have a one-year extension. For towns that haven’t yet put together a merger plan for voters to weigh in on, the deadline could be postponed for one year. This language was brought forward as an amendment Thursday and passed.
Another highly emotional bill which proposes to preserve the right to abortion (H.57) has topped the list for editorials and news outlets and carries with it a very tense and sensitive tone. A public hearing attracted hundreds of people to the statehouse late Wednesday afternoon. Those trying to maneuver their way through the halls to the coat room were asked if they wanted to wear a button supporting one position or another or whether they would sign up to speak. H.57 appears confusing and complicated, some stating nothing needs to be done to protect Roe V. Wade, others wanting to clarify and codify Vermont law to ensure the Trump Administration wouldn't preempt current law. Codifying current law was perceived as an extension of current law allowing abortion at or after birth. Both H.57 and H.39 gave the week an anxious feel but neither topic aligned the legislature decisively along party lines.
At this point the House Democrats think they have a path forward to pass a legal cannabis sales bill this session. What they may lack is enough votes to override a potential veto from Gov. Phil Scott. We will see some negotiating over the next couple months to garner Governor Scott's approval. The bigger question is; will the Senate, who has passed legislation before, accept a compromise with the Governor? The Governor’s staff has requested upward of $6 million for school education programs or roadside testing initiatives. That might be a show stopper for the 2019 session.
Changes to Act 250 Draft Bill (Click here to view the bill)
A focus of testimony this week on revisions to Act 250 was on development and construction at higher elevations and in critical resource areas. The bill would reduce the elevation threshold for permit requirement from 2,500 feet to 2,000 feet and would increase regulation below 2,000 feet elevation in “critical resource areas.”
The impact of these two changes:
- Vermont will add approximately 513,000 acres of land to Act 250 jurisdiction. Agency of Natural Resources is trying to determine how much of this would be viable forest, farm or developable land
- “Critical resource area” is defined as a river corridor, a significant wetland as defined under section 902 of this title, land at or above 2,000 feet, and land characterized by slopes greater than 15% and shallow depth to bedrock.
House Agriculture & Forestry Draft Wetlands bill
An act relating to regulation of farming in wetlands (
This bill proposes to clarify and expand those lands that are not wetlands subject to regulation by the State because of the conduct of farming on the land.
In response to changes to the Agency of Natural Resources wetland rules, the House Agriculture & Forestry committee draft bill includes clarifying language that does the following:
- Farming activities in wetlands excluded match the federal standard
- “Farming” shall have the same meaning as defined in Act 250
- Repeals the sunset of fee for pipelines and permanently sets the cap for maximum fee at $200
- Requires the construction of a new farm structures in a significant wetland or buffer zone of a significant wetland to be subject to wetland regulation
Water quality legislation has been proposed in the House. Rep. George Till (D-Jericho), coming off pressing for a large tax on electronic cigarettes, is attacking certain sectors to pay for water quality. Till's bill, H.171 An act relating to water quality funding, proposes to establish an impervious surface fee on all parcels in the State.
The bill would:
- repeal the sunset of the Clean Water Surcharge on the Property Transfer Tax
- establish a Water Quality Occupancy Surcharge on the rent of each occupancy in the State
- impose on milk handlers a fee per pound of fluid milk purchased from a milk producer for the purpose of bottling, manufacturing, processing, distribution, or sale of dairy products in the State
- require a manufacturer of asphalt to pay an assessment per ton of asphalt sold in the State each year.
- from the impervious surface fee, the Water Quality Occupancy Surcharge, and the asphalt assessment would be deposited in the Clean Water Fund
- from the milk handling fee would be deposited in the General Fund
The fee on manufacturers of asphalt, again, is a cost shift onto all Vermonters for transportation infrastructure projects. If you have driven a Vermont road lately, pot holes are plentiful and discouraging road repairs is not something Vermonters will appreciate.
Governor Scott’s plan for Clean Water Budget, lukewarm reception
House Ways and Means heard from Vermont Center for Geographical Information. This in the context of understanding the available information on parcels and water quality. The Scott Administration also provided some context for the Committee to consider. Trying to understand what current funding is, what is new funding, and if other programs will not be funded by diverting money to the Clean Water Fund.
Current law revenues dedicated to the Clean Water Fund include:
- Approximately $5 million per year generated from a 0.2% surcharge on the property transfer tax (PTT); and
- Approximately $2 million per year ($1 million in FY20 because only 6 months) in unclaimed beverage container deposits remitted to the State.
Governor’s FY20 Clean Water proposal is to allocate the $28.35 million as recommended by the Clean Water Board as well as reduce the reliance on the Capital Bill by $2.85 million. The Capital Bill has been the primary source of funding over the last 2 years.
Proposal of state revenue sources to fund the $28.35 million allocation are as follows:
- $12.15 million in Capital Funds
- $15.1 million in Clean Water Funds
- $1.1 million in the Transportation Bill
- With an additional $19.26 million in federal funding being leveraged by our state dollars, approximately $47.61 million in state and federal funds are allocated to clean water projects.
- Clean Water Fund: $25-28 million/year
- Capital Bill: $10-12 million/year
- Transportation Bill: $5 million/year
- Leveraged federal funds: $10-12 million/year
- The revenue sources that have been identified to ensure the Clean Water Fund is sustained at this level are:
- Property Transfer Tax (PTT) 0.2% surcharge: $5 million/year
- Unclaimed beverage container deposits (escheats): $2 million/year
- Estate Tax: $8-11 million/year
- Additional Property Transfer Tax (PTT) allocation to clean water: $10 million/year
The House Ways & Means Committee will look at the Estate Tax as proposed by the Governor as well as other ideas on how to generate $25+ million per year for another 18 years. The House Natural Resources Committee will be working on the policy around water quality simultaneously.
S.37 An Act relating to medical monitoring damages
This bill proposes to hold any person who releases a toxic substance strictly, jointly, and severally liable for any harm resulting from the release. The bill also proposes to establish a private right of action for medical monitoring damages incurred due to exposure to a toxic substance.
Increased insurance costs and the expense incurred to defend baseless claims were just a few of the concerns raised by Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, and business owner James Bolduc of Bolduc Salvage. The Senate Judiciary Committee appears committed to moving the bill with the “strict liability” and “medical monitoring” language included.
The committee is expected to vote out the bill with language similar to “as introduced” within the next couple weeks.
S.55 An act relating to the regulation of toxic substances and hazardous materials
This bill proposes to establish an Interagency Committee on Chemical Management to evaluate chemical inventories in the State and identify potential risks from the inventories. The bill would also do the following:
- Require a manufacturer of a children’s product containing a chemical of high concern to children (CHCC) to report the brand name, product model, universal product code
- Authorize the Commissioner of Health to add a chemical to the CHCC list
- Authorize the Commissioner of Health to restrict the sale of a children’s product or require labeling
S.54 An act relating to the regulation of cannabis
This bill proposes to establish a comprehensive regulatory system for the production and sale of cannabis and cannabis products in Vermont via the following:
- Creation of the Cannabis Control Board to adopt regulations and administer a licensing program
- Create five types of licenses: cultivator, product manufacturer, wholesaler, retailer, testing laboratory
- Implement a 10% sales tax with a potential 1% local option tax for municipalities that choose to host a cannabis retailer
- Allow municipalities to opt out of allowing cannabis retailer
In response, the House introduced its own bill (H.196) to regulate the cannabis industry. The House plan proposes a combined 20% tax rate: 11% excise tax, 6% sales tax, 3% local option tax
The Governor has said he would support tax and regulate legislation if lawmakers agreed to fund additional cannabis education and prevention programs, and roadside safety initiatives.
S.23 Minimum wage bill considered in Senate committee
The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee heard testimony this week on 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.
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
Many advocates testified in favor of a minimum wage increase, out numbering those that worry about the pressure to increase prices for products and services or reduce the overall workforce. This appeared to not be compelling to the committee. Various advocates represented that the buying power of $1 has declined over time and will continue unless an increase is passed.
Both the House and Senate stated early in the year that they will pass a $15 minimum wage this year. It is expected the Senate Economic Development Committee will pass S23 as early as next week.
Transportation FY20 Proposed Budget (Government Recommend)
Agency of Transportation presented the annual budget to the House Transportation Committee. The proposed $617.5M budget is an increase of $6.6M from FY19.
Included in the FY20 Budget:
- $100.7M for paving
- $74.4M for roadway and safety
- $62.7M for town highway programs
- $54.1M for bridges
- $32.9M for rail $9.3M for aviation
- $2.7M for park & ride facilities
- $13M for bicycle and pedestrian facilities
The focus of the FY20 Budget is to grow Vermont’s economy and provide transportation choices. Also included in the budget is an $8M investment in protecting Lake Champlain and other waterways and funding for several projects to improve downtowns.
The Transportation Committee began work on the draft transportation bill which adopts the State’s annual Transportation Program and makes miscellaneous changes to laws related to transportation.
Cheri L. L'Esperance
William Shouldice & Associates LLC
Week 4: Legislative Session
Members of VDPA, Bill Rowell, Amanda St Pierre, Dan Larivee and Roland Rainville traveled to Montpelier and participated in the Senate and House Ag Committees and the House Fish and Wildlife Committee. Discussion continued throughout lunch on what the dairy industry is facing in the session at hand.
Below is the prepared summary of the week's activity prepared by Shouldice and Associates.
Week four of the legislative session started with another blanketing of the white stuff along with blustery cold temperatures to end the week. Those stinging brisk winds did not put a damper on the number of bills being introduced in both the House and Senate. Bills of many topics made their way down the path to introduction ranging from paid family leave, switch blade knives, taxing e-cigarettes, expanding the bottle bill and banning baby bumper pads, and of course, just about everything in between.
One month into the eighteen-week session, committees have begun settling in and prioritizing committee work. Many committees are dedicated to taking up issues that have cropped up through discussion although they have no bill to reference. Committee conversation will continue and if a consensus among members is reached, they will put pen to paper to generate a draft bill which would then be officially introduced. For instance, the Health Care committee is looking at how to further regulate or ban Association Health Care plans which were just recently started. The Natural Resources Committees are looking at Clean Water Funding and changes to state permitting. Additionally, much of the week was spent with Legislators attending receptions, press conferences and ice cream socials at the request of their constituents.
The first few bills passing the House floor came at the tail end of the week. H.3 Ethnic and social equity studies standards for public schools, H.97 Fiscal year 2019 budget adjustments, H.47 taxation of electronic cigarettes and H.19 Sexual exploitation of a person in law enforcement officer custody. The new Legislators spent several hours attending training with their colleagues in order to better understand the process of floor debates, amendments and roll call votes. The bill filing deadline for the House of Representatives was Thursday. At this point 150 bills have been introduced, about half of what will be introduced in the next couple weeks. The Senate, on the other hand, chugged along with just over 60 bills so far, but the Senate has no deadline to introduce bills.
The Senate continues to work and refine S.54 Cannabis Regulation. The Judiciary Committee is considering roadside safety, how to document for probable cause and do preliminary saliva testing. The Finance committee will look at the taxes and fees through the new regulations. The Department of Health & Public Safety both testified that S.54 needs $3-6 million in upfront money to prepare for the retail sales. Investments need to be made in education and marketing as well as training. They touted that other states opened their market without such investments and are now paying a much larger price for treatment, roadside accidents and youth education.
Language for a plastic shopping bag ban, including plastic straws is in draft form and will likely be introduced next week by Senate Natural Resources. The language is derived from a New Jersey bill that likely will pass this year and imposes a penalty of $5000 for a person who violates any provision of the bill. The NJ penalty amount caused some jitteriness among committee members and likely won’t appear with the same penalty amount (if any) on their bill. This is a bill that has all the makings for quick action to be taken by the Senate.
ACT 250 (click here for a link to the draft)
The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee introduced a draft Act 250 bill which includes all recommendations made by the Act 250 Commission. The draft is the starting point for a committee bill that will attempt to update Vermont’s 50-year-old land use law. Testimony will be heard during the coming weeks.
While the Commission brought forth many recommendations, the Committee is realizing making changes to Act 250 is not a process that will happen quickly. It may take the biennium to come to any consensus and pass through both Chambers.
Clean Water Act
Senate Natural Resources and Energy heard from a myriad of witnesses giving their vision of the Clean Water Act including a FY16-FY20 appropriations scenario. A draft of the scenario can be found here. A quick look at the Clean Water Board/Governor’s Budget can be found here.
Copies of the updated RAPs were handed out by Laura DiPietro and Ryan Patch from the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets as they gave an overview of the Implementation, Suggestions for Improvement and Future planning. Laura spoke about the progress being made and stressed how this is a social change and Farmers are and will make the difference. Farmers are following the stringent rules and very often go well above and beyond what is mandated within the RAPs. DiPietro said, “farmers have done more than they have ever done, it’s phenomenal”.
Long term funding for clean water remains the top priority that the committee is focusing on. Several members stressed how there is no prioritization of funds and there needs to be more checks and balances of projects once a list is established. One member alluded to how the Capital Budget is governed and how projects are prioritized and achieved along the way and the same should be applied to how the water quality funding is managed.
This will continue to be a heavily debated issue in the weeks ahead and likely will make it out of this committee within a couple of weeks. From there, it will head to Senate Finance.
Cheri L. L'Esperance
William Shouldice & Associates LLC
Week 3: Legislative Session
On Wednesday, members of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance were invited to the State House by House Agriculture & Forestry and the Senate Agriculture Committees. Amanda St. Pierre, Bill Rowell, Tom Hinkley, Josh Poulin and Meg Nelson urged committee members to seriously consider the impact that additional permit legislation will add to an already burdensome regulatory process at the worst time economically in history for dairy farms. In addition, VDPA members asked legislators to support funding for farms to do the work necessary to comply with the RAPs and water quality projects. “All farms are working to complete the projects to meet the Required Agricultural Practices, but it’s the funding that we need you to help with,” said Amanda St. Pierre to the House Agricultural Committee.
Meg Nelson, a multi-generational farmer, explained the use of technology on her family’s farm to track cow health, manage feed, and manage the farm’s methane digester. Having GPS technology and improved bandwidth on farms is crucial to implementing technological upgrades.