When the Vermont Legislature reconvenes Jan. 6, its agenda will be similar to where it left off just four months ago — addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects — but the Legislature’s leadership will look quite different.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, is out as Senate president pro tempore and Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, is in. Ashe ran for lieutenant governor last year, and lost in the primary.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, will take over as speaker, succeeding Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, who lost her reelection bid in November.
The new Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. Phil Scott will have to contend with a massive budget gap caused by the pandemic. The last official forecast from the state’s fiscal analysts came in August, estimating that Vermont’s general fund will lose $180 million in the current fiscal year and the education fund will lose $63 million.
And with Covid-19 cases unrelenting in Vermont, Balint and Krowinski will have to navigate the Legislature through another stretch of working remotely — at least until March.
Balint and Krowinski have said the coronavirus crisis will be their primary focus this year, and many non-covid policy debates may be pushed to 2022.
“My top priority is to bring people together and create a plan of action to beat the virus and it needs to be a recovery plan that leaves no one behind,” Krowinski said.
Balint concurred: “Obviously, the first part of the session is going to be really dedicated to covid-relief. A lot of the stuff that we will be doing initially will build on the work that we did last session.
In response to the Covid-19 crisis, Krowinski and Balint will ask legislative committees to look at options for expanding affordable child care, housing and broadband.
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“We’re seeing problems that we already know exist, and that we’ve been working on, only made worse by this pandemic,” Krowinski said.
Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the minority leader in the House, said her caucus will focus on economic development policies to aid businesses.
“We’ve seen it all over, it’s kind of scary, businesses going out of business because of Covid and we really have to start looking long and hard at what it takes to run a business in the state of Vermont and how much money it takes that business before they can even unlock the door in our state,” McCoy said.
In addition, Balint said the Senate will tackle criminal justice reform, including ways to decrease the number of people sent to prison.
Balint said all these policy discussions will be familiar to legislators.
“When I look at this list of priorities that senators have given to me, there aren’t any new things — it’s all stuff that we have been working on,” she said.
But Balint said Covid-19 could sideline any other legislative work, depending on the pandemic’s trajectory this year.
“It’s a hard place for all of us to be in, knowing we can make these plans, but they all might go out the window,” Balint said.
Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand-Isle, who sits on the influential Committee on Committees with Balint and Krowinski, said he would prefer that the Legislature take up only coronavirus-related measures in 2021. He said Vermont will be constrained by pandemic-related revenue losses, and the committees in charge of tax policy and state spending will be strapped for cash.
“These committees are not going to have money this year — it’s not going to be there,” Mazza said. “So let’s work on survival and how we can get through this, rather than work on new programs.”
Even so, a number of policy debates will arise in the coming months. Here’s what to expect:
In the Senate, newly-minted Minority Leader Randy Brock, R-Franklin, and Balint both believe there is bandwidth in the Statehouse to expand broadband in rural Vermont.
“From my perspective, and I think from many Republicans’ perspectives, the whole issue of broadband — and rural broadband in particular — is an absolutely critical issue.” Brock said.
Brock said the pandemic has highlighted Vermont’s desperate need for dependable broadband, and that’s an integral part of strengthening the state’s economy.
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Balint sees broadband not just as a way to boost the economy, but also as a way to combat climate change.
“This ties in nicely to the work that we want to continue to do around reducing our carbon load in Vermont and I think remote work, remote schooling, telemedicine, all of that ties into fewer Vermonters driving around on a day-to-day basis,” Balint said.
However, any major broadband expansion this year will require additional federal dollars, she said.
A broadband report commissioned by lawmakers in 2020 found that the pandemic sharply increased demand for internet services in Vermont, and offered several recommendations to quickly expand internet access to the 61,000 households in the state that lack it. Among them: deploying cellular hotspots and establishing a new subsidy program for low-income Vermonters who can’t afford broadband service.
Paid family leave looks unlikely
Democrats tried but failed to establish a statewide paid family leave program in 2020. Before the pandemic hit, the Legislature passed a paid leave bill, but Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it. A veto override in the House fell one vote short.
Before the Democrats decide whether to revive paid leave legislation in 2021, Krowinski wants to see if President-elect Joe Biden will pursue the policy at the federal level.
“I think it’s important for us to be coordinating our work with what the Biden administration is going to be doing,” Krowinski said. “And so issues like paid leave and student debt and others that have been priorities for Democrats to work on, I think it’s important to see what they are going to take the lead on and then we coordinate and adjust from there.”
Balint said the governor has made it clear he opposes the paid family leave proposal, and the Senate is unlikely to waste its time on the measure in this biennium.
“It’s a hard sell for me and my chamber to take another run at this when we know the governor is not supportive,” she said.
Balint said Vermonters need the benefit, but “we have a finite amount of energy and time, and so I’m hoping that the Biden administration will really take it up in earnest.”
The next steps on climate change
Legislative leaders say they want to give the newly Vermont Climate Council time to come up with recommendations to cut carbon emissions. However, those recommendations aren’t expected until 2022.
The council, established by the Global Warming Solutions Act, met for the first time on Nov. 20. The statute requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025, and to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 and 80% below by 2050.
Scott vetoed the Global Warming Solutions Act earlier this year, but the Legislature overrode the veto, making it law. Scott thinks the law is unconstitutional because it delegates the governor’s authority to the climate council. He has asked the Legislature to change the law to clarify the authority of the executive branch.
Balint said she and the Senate have no intention of taking another look at the Global Warming Solutions Act.
“I don’t know why the governor is picking this fight right now. We have had our legislative council attorneys weigh in, we’ve had the AG weigh in, and so right now I’m seeing that as a political distraction,” Balint said. “We have been told it is completely and totally constitutional and we are going to continue to work from that assumption.”
In response to Scott’s worries about the policy, Krowinski said her approach will be “to sit down and have a conversation with the governor about it to better understand his concern.”
One of the first measures that legislators will take up this month would give towns the authority to send Town Meeting Day ballots to residents via mail, or postpone the date that voting takes place. Town Meeting Day is the first Tuesday in March.
Scott said in November that municipalities should have the power to mail Town Meeting Day ballots to residents this year.
Vermont temporarily expanded its statewide mail-in voting system for the November general election to mitigate health risks during the Covid-19 crisis, and the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office mailed a ballot to every registered voter in the state. The system worked well, and legislators have also said they will consider permanently expanding the statewide vote-by-mail system this year.
Act 250 reforms still on the table
In 2020, Covid-19 derailed any chance the Legislature had of passing a nearly 50-page reform of the state’s longstanding land use law.
The Senate and House ended up passing a bill narrowly focused on best management practices for trails and outdoor recreation, and forest fragmentation, as well as development patterns that break up natural habitat.
However, the governor vetoed the bill and instead signed an executive order that mandates recreational trail management.
The Legislature is looking at Act 250 reform again this year, with a targeted approach.
Balint said she has talked with key senators and there is an understanding that a modest proposal may make its way through the Statehouse this biennium.
“I don’t see how — in this very restricted session — we can have an omnibus bill on Act 250 pass through the chamber,” Balint said, citing concern with remote working and a need to be in person to truly work on the complex legislation.
“Over the course of two years, maybe it’s more possible,” she added. “But I’d like to see and focus on a couple key wins in that area.”
Krowinski said she is interested in discussing Act 250 reforms again this year.
“I think that we did some really good work trying to pass a policy that modernizes Act 250 in the state, and I want to see that progress continue this next legislative session,” Krowinski said. “I don’t know what exactly that looks like, but I do know that we need to bring our partners back to the table and to take another look at this.”
Constitutional amendments coming soon
Two proposals to change the Vermont Constitution must be voted on during the next two years by both the state House and Senate, but as lawmakers prepare for a session dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic downturn, the amendments may wait for a year.
In the 2019-20 biennium, the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives approved two amendments to the state constitution, one that protects the right to reproductive health and another clarifying that slavery and indentured servitude are prohibited in any form.
Statute stipulates that the Legislature must consider state constitutional amendments in back-to-back bienniums so that two elected legislative bodies weigh in on the changes. Since both proposals were approved in 2019-20, another vote must occur in the 2021-22 biennium.
While the constitutional changes will appear on the Senate calendar for action immediately in January, it seems there is no firm timeline requirement for lawmakers to act on the amendments as long as they do so within the biennium.
Balint has indicated she is not interested in taking either up in 2021 and they can wait until 2022.
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