Editor’s note: The following is a Campaign for Vermont April 19 legislative update.
We released the first phase of our economic recovery plan this week. If you haven’t seen it already, check it out.
It was another busy week in the legislature as the House and Senate got to work on each other’s bills. It is sounding like the Legislature might push out adjournment an extra week to leave time for committees to finish their work.
The Senate Economic Development Committee dove into H.159 this week and quickly discovered that the bill does not contain as much emphasis on workforce development as they would like (we agree). Senators asked industry leaders in Construction and trades to come back with suggestions around strengthening those facets of the bill.
Vermont Technical College has been working on these areas, particularly with apprenticeship programs, but organizing has been difficult because of the disruptions related to Covid. Legislators asked the college president to come back next week with details on where exactly current funding is going and where their greatest needs are.
The Senate Finance Committee took extensive testimony this week on the broadband buildout bill, H.360. Affordable housing advocates asked the Committee for funding to help reach low-income housing projects. There are a number of competing priorities, including access versus affordability and whether or not cell coverage should be included in the buildout.
Some of the other items the Committee is grappling with are whether or not funds should only be accessible through Communication Union Districts (CUDs) or whether local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be able to access them directly. Also under consideration is whether the state should sponsor an infrastructure survey to determine which areas would be easiest to run fiber cables.
The House Commerce Committee was not enamored with the project-based TIF bill that the Senate sent them (S.33). The bill would, in theory, give smaller towns access to tax-increment financing because the project-based program would be easier to manage than a geographic district. Legislators worried that these projects still would be unwieldly for most municipalities and pose a financial risk. They preferred that towns use the new incoming federal money first before TIFs, but may end up scrapping the bill completely.
There was also some more good news for the outdoor recreation and tourism industry this week. The Department of Economic Development announced $25M in funding over the next three years for trail outdoor infrastructure buildout. Growth in this industry is twice the underlying economy with no ceiling in sight (yet). Other allocations include:
- Economic Development – $143M
- Climate Change – $200M
- Water/Sewer Infrastructure – $170M
- Housing – $249M
- Connectivity – $250.5M
- Administration – $17M
Interesting side note, part of this funding is going to programs like the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation’s new “novice hunting weekend.” Program directors expected a couple hundred people to show up, but more than 1,000 did and over half were women.
A number of programs are competing economic development dollars, like the micro-business loan program and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies (VCET) investment fund.
The House took a first look at S.13 this week, a bill that would create a taskforce to study the weighting factors involved in calculating local tax rates. Proponents of reform argue that the current formula underfunds rural school districts (there is evidence they might be right). A study from UVM in 2019 identified a number of recommended changes and this new taskforce is being asked to create an implementation plan.
The Senate looked at a bill, S.134, this week that would redirect efforts by the state college system (VSC) to rebrand their campuses. The plan put forward by the VSC Chancellor and the board of trustees would envision multiple campuses under the same name, which would specialize in specific programs. Similar to how the SUNY system works in New York state.
This bill would require that the finances for each campus to be kept separately and that each campus would have to vote individually to accept the branding and programming changes.
The House Government Operations Committee voted out the pension bill this week, which includes restructuring of the Vermont Pension Investment Committee (VPIC) meant to increase expertise on the board and representation from stakeholders. Additionally the bill would create a taskforce to look at benefits structure. This group is meant to meet over the summer and return with recommendations.
The Senate is getting ready to receive this bill next week and they got a jump on it Friday by reviewing the current House bill and discussing who they would like to have come in to testify.