Editor’s note: The following is a Campaign for Vermont May 3 legislative update.
Last week, the Vermont House killed the project-based “Tax Incremental Funding” (TIF), a funding source for small towns. CFV also sent a letter to the Senate Government Operations Committee on the pension bill this week and released Phase 2 of its economic recovery plan.
In a rather abrupt turn of events, the House Economic Development Committee tabled the project-based TIF program that advocates claimed would allow smaller towns access to this form of capital. Janet Ancel, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked the Economic Development Committee to abandon the bill because she believes that municipalities don’t have the talent to manage these project. Advocates for towns across the state have expressed concern that the Legislators don’t trust them.
The Senate continued working on the economic development bill that covers a number of programs, including the Entrepreneur Capital Fund, the new/remote worker relocation program. The Lake Champlain Chamber asked for an additional $40 million to help struggling restaurants. They are concerned about an unmet need and demand is far outpacing available dollars.
There was also criticism that the current bailout funding was too prescriptive because it was being targeted at specific types of businesses and it’s difficult to predict what other businesses are impacted downstream. As a remedy, it was suggested that any business with a 25% or more drop in revenue should qualify.
The Senate Finance Committee is working through final changes to the broadband bill. CFV sent them a preview of Phase 2 of its economic recovery plan a couple weeks ago that deals with this issue.
One new aspect that came up this week is the possibility of net-neutrality provisions on the broadband infrastructure grants. There is some disagreement, but state lawyers believe Vermont could require net-neutrality when internet service providers apply for these grant funds.
The Committee seems to be gravitating towards making the broadband authority part of the Department for Public Service. It would speed up the implementation process versus a volunteer board which doesn’t exist yet. One of the main constraints on the $250 million in federal funds is that it must be spent within three years. Taking six months to set up volunteer board eats into that timeline.
The Legislature may take a back seat on the merger of the Vermont State Colleges (VSC). The Board of Trustees and Chancellor have a clear vision for modernizing the state college system. This week, Brian Prescott from the National Center for Higher Education Systems backed up the plan, saying VSC needs reform. He said (and CFV agrees) the state needs to adopt affordability standards to measure the cost of the system. CFV believes the colleges need to better align their curriculum with workforce demands. Some of this work is underway, but officials promise to work on this further over the next several years.
The Northern Border Regional Commission pitched an idea to join the state employees pension fund. Adding this group to Vermont public pension plans would make the work ahead more complicated and potentially open the door to other groups outside of state government.
The Senate received the pension bill this week, although they had already been taking testimony in preparation for receiving it. Tom Golonka (Chair, Vermont Pension Investment Committee) shared that they are preparing an RFP to recommend best practices for proceeding with making the board more professional. The Senate is still working through specifics of the bill, but there are serious questions about how to handle medical insurance. Vermont is one of the only states that provides full health benefits after retirement, but we have never actually pre-funded these plans and continue to pay out of pocket. CFV sent a letter to the Committee this week addressing several of these issues.
The House Government Operations Committee is making final touches to S.15, the voting expansion bill. Two new developments are that the Committee wants the Secretary of State’s office to come back with suggestions for voter verification and they also want to limit how many ballots a person may turn in at a time. The current suggestion is 25. There are also efforts to clean up the statewide voter checklist, but it’s unclear if legislative action is helpful here because the Secretary of State and town clerks are already working on this and have funding secured.
The House is also looking at a bill, H.363, that would allow candidates for office to draw a salary from campaign contributions. This is laudable as an opportunity for less wealthy persons to run for office, however it’s questionable if a House or Senate campaigns could bring in enough revenue to supplement a candidates salary. A candidate would also not be able to draw down more income than reported to the tax department in the previous year.