Editor’s note: The following is a Campaign for Vermont May 10 legislative update.
House leadership admitted last week that if we had followed the recommendations from 12 years ago our pension funds wouldn’t be in the shape they are today. A number of other pieces of legislation, including ethics, broadband, and economic development also moved forward last week.
Last week the House started walking through changes that Senate Finance made to H.360, the broadband bill. They are planning to call for a conference committee (which was expected) with major points of contention being around universal service requirements for providers and the ability to go around Communication Union Districts (CUDs) to get access to grant funding.
We were also surprised to see the possibility of affordability re-introduced by the House after the Senate took a pass on this issue. Representative Scheuermann is leading an effort to take this up in the conference Committee.
The House Commerce Committee has started taking testimony on H.159 even though it hasn’t made it back over from the Senate yet. Officials from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development shared that they are further along with their marketing strategies and the more funds that legislators can commit the more successful they will be. Every neighboring state has a larger marketing budget than Vermont does. An idea to leverage the lottery to drive tourism was also floated, but it was not immediately clear how this would work.
The Committee was also told that the grant funding might not work for what the Better Places Program. Its up in the air, according to ACCD, because of strings attached to federal funds.
The student weighting bill moved from House Ways and Means to House Appropriations last week. This will be a short stop to approve funding for the summer study committee and then the bill, S.13, is likely headed back to the House floor.
The Senate offered an amendment to the miscellaneous education bill, S.115, last week. One of the major pieces of the bill would repurpose the State Board of Education to look at long-term education policy instead of administrative and oversight tasks; these would be shifted to the Agency of Education. There are some differences between the House and Senate version around how explicit the language should be about this shift in direction. There are a number of other initiatives in the bill, including libraries, wellness programs, access to menstrual products, The House seems likely to concur with the Senate changes, but if they don’t, this bill will go to a conference committee.
The House began digesting the changes made by the Senate to the pension bill. There was much discussion around how many legislators should be on the summer task for or the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) and what their qualifications should be. The 2009 pension task force was brought up as an example of what not to do. Only three out of ten recommendations were followed. The Chairwoman of House Government Operations was adamant that if they had followed those recommendations we would not be here today (we agree!).
There was also an interesting discussion about whether the legislature has the authority to change benefits without going through a collective bargaining process. In theory it seems they do, so long as they don’t run afoul of federal law.
The House Rules Committee set the legislature’s emergency declaration to expire on May 22nd. This is the target date for adjournment and the emergency declaration is what allows standing committees to continue meeting remotely until then. By default this means the legislature would meet in person next session, however there are some exemptions such as if the legislature has to come back this summer for a veto session. The new resolution also allows the House Rules committee to meet remotely if the state pauses or rolls back its reopening plan so they can assess the need to bring the rest of the legislature back.
The Senate started looking at the version of S.15, the voting law bill, that the House sent back last week. A floor amendment required that all ballots with electronic signatures have to be submitted the day prior to an election, whereas regular mail-in ballots can still be received on election day. This bill does not allow for processing of ballots received after election day as some states allow. Another change in the House version limited the number of ballots that a person could drop off at a polling location to 25. The Secretary of State’s office didn’t ask for this change but was supportive of it.
The Senate gave approval last week to the bill that extends funding for the Ethics Commission and allows for a new part time administrative position to help handle the number of requests that the Commission receives. The problem is that they aren’t funding the position, just authorizing it. A separate bill to take up a universal code of ethics for state government was not addressed this year, but we expect it to be picked up next year and will be advocating for its passage.