Editor’s note: The following is a Campaign for Vermont April 12 legislative update.
Campaign for Vermont engaged on two separate issues this week: calling on legislative leaders to take action on pension reform and we sent a letter on broadband rollout to the Senate Finance Committee as part of the rollout of our economic recovery plan, which you will see more of in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, key bills that made crossover are now starting to be taken up by the House and Senate. Here is what we followed this week:
The Senate Finance Committee has been tasked with reviewing the House broadband bill. This week they compared that bill, H.360, to an existing Senate bill that does largely similar things, S.118. Most of the debate centered around whether or not all funding should be directed through the Communication Union Districts (CUDs) that were set up last year or if Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be able to access funding on their own. In most cases CUD’s will need to partner with ISP’s in order to actually provide service, but a number of small ISP’s have expressed concern that CUD’s are new, untested, and lack expertise needed to actually get projects out the door. They argue that makes them not very good gatekeepers for state dollars. The second point of major discussion was whether or not we need a “temporary solution” to get people connected. Campaign for Vermont will be releasing a public statement on this issue later this week.
The project-based Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bill landed in the House this week. The bill is viewed, by the Senate, as a way of leveling the playing field between large towns (who have the technical expertise to handle full-sized TIF districts) and small towns who need something more manageable to build infrastructure. Some examples might be lighting, streetscapes, sidewalks wastewater facilities, and parking. State Auditor, Doug Hoffer, raised concerns around the program and the accountability measures for the communities in the pilot project. There is no real way to quantify the impact on the education fund, and this is concerning to him. The way TIFs essentially work is that a municipality can “borrow” money from the statewide education fund for infrastructure improvements that go along with development projects. The concept is that the increased tax revenue from the new economic development pays back the “loan” from the Education Fund over a period of years. Advocates like the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Regional Development Corporations support project-based TIFs. On the other hand, the USDA Rural Development program director questioned why this was necessary given the unprecedented availability of other programs right now.
Another bill that landed in the Senate this week was H.159, which directs a number of different funds into economic development and creates the Better Places program. There was little push back on the $2.5M appropriation for the tourism budget, but legislators questioned the need for the technology transfer funds at UVM. It wasn’t clear to them why technical assistance from the University was needed and why it had to be UVM that receives this funding.
People who testified on the Better Places program view this as a tool to recover from the pandemic because the program could be used to expand public spaces where people can gather in order to “stitch back together” communities.
On the House side, they are working on a workforce development bill that incorporates nearly two dozen programs, including a daily virtual employment workshop and workforce development programs run out of state facilities. A couple examples of this are welding classes and CDL classes run out of state garages. This bill is still taking shape and it’s not clear how much actual funding might go into it. It seems more like re-aligning or promoting existing programs and mixing in a few creative ideas.
The technical education centers (CTE’s) sent a letter to Senate Education this week calling for the addition of a “hold harmless” provision because of dramatic drops in enrollments because of the pandemic. The Committee is interested in helping them solve this issue but are debating if making a new tax provision is the right way to do that, using some of the ESSER funds might be more appropriate. CTE’s are a critical part of our workforce pipeline, retaining and upskilling many adult learners in addition to teaching trade skills to high school students.
In another promising sign from the State Colleges, Vermont Tech presented their new agriculture program to the Legislature this week. Their traditional program was expensive to operate and enrollment was declining. As a result, they were having to subsidize the cost of the program with tuition from other students. To resolve this, they realized that there was an opportunity to shift their program to focus more on farm-to-plate, which is a growing sector of the industry. The new program uses externships at farms around the state that specialize in specific products like organic milk, cheese, craft ice cream, meat production, and other types of value-added products. There was some concern from legislators that this meant we were abandoning dairy, but College officials pointed out that dairy isn’t where the market is at right now and it’s still part of the program just not the sole focus.
Campaign for Vermont sent a letter to legislative leaders this week asking them to prioritize pension reform this year. After adding $1,000,000,000 to our deficit over the past 12 months, we cannot afford to wait. Teachers and State Employees cannot afford to wait. We believe in a solution that employees and taxpayers to the table. You can read more about our recommendations here.
After talking with legislators, we expect the House to pass out a bill on pension oversight and governance this week. A task force will be formed to address the funding and benefit issues, but we are concerned this will delay action into next year. Still, this is a starting point and the Senate may come back with additional thoughts here.
The Senate Government Operations Committee voted out H.135 on Friday, which makes clarifies some of the State Ethics Commission operational authority and strengthens disclosure laws. The Committee also took up H.384 which would establish a statewide code of ethics that would apply uniformly to the executive and legislative branches of stage government. This codifies a number of disclosure and conflict of interest rules in state statute. Campaign for Vermont views this an important move in progressing our ethics laws in the state. We believe that four things are necessary for effective government: clear rules around conflict of interest, a place for public officials to seek advice, a place for the public to direct concerns, and an effective oversight authority.
The House looked at updates to Act 250 this week. Mostly these would update definitions currently in statute, most notably flood hazard areas that determine how close buildings can be placed to waterways. The legislation, H.120, would also allow the state board to review appeals against the Regional Planning Commissions. There is also an interesting provision that would release a property from Act 250 if jurisdiction no longer applies. Finally, there are several places in the bill that would require state agencies to look at racial equity issues and determine if there are any process or systemic improvements that can be made.