Pop quiz: What’s the most pressing issue facing lawmakers in the 2021 legislative session? Hint: It’s been the most pressing issue in the world for a year now.
For Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, his top three priorities are, in order, related to COVID-19, COVID-19 and COVID-19, and he hoped to get moving on one of them right away — the passage of a law allowing towns to extend the date for their annual meetings or to allow for Australian ballot voting on all town business. The proposed legislation also contained $2 million for postage and printing, taking the burden directly off municipalities.
Rounding out Higley’s coronavirus-related agenda is allocating and extending COVID-19 relief funds to programs and businesses and focusing on legislation relating solely to the pandemic, such as the budget and appropriations.
Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said Vermonters “certainly stepped up in the time of need” to contain the spread, and the main mission of the 2021 session is “our community’s and state’s emergence from this pandemic.”
“The havoc wreaked upon all of us has been overwhelming,” Scheuermann said. “That said, I couldn’t be more proud of our community and our state for how we have taken the lead in addressing every aspect of it.”
Rep. Kate Donnally, D-Hyde Park, echoed those priorities.
“COVID response and recovery will define this session,” Donnally said. “It is my priority that we boldly address the structural challenges exposed by COVID, such as lack of access to high-speed internet, child care and safe affordable housing.”
Lamoille County Sen. Rich Westman, R-Cambridge, sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and said money will be in short supply, with estimates that the education fund will be $40 million short — a 9 percent gap. This could lead to increases for both resident and non-resident tax rates approaching 10 cents, he said.
The general fund is also facing significant revenue shortfalls, Westman said.
“Think of it this way,” Westman said. “When people pay state income taxes on April 15, it will be on income earned in 2020, and we know the COVID pandemic has dramatically reduced many people’s incomes.”
Rep. Dave Yacovone, D-Morristown, has been reappointed to the House Appropriations Committee, which will have the tough task of finding money for the state colleges system and state employees’ pension fund.
“While the challenges facing our pensions and state colleges have been well publicized, I hope we address them in a substantive way,” Yacovone said.
State colleges on life support
Rep. Dan Noyes, D-Wolcott, said that revenue shortfall will also affect lawmakers’ abilities to fund his and others’ efforts to keep the Vermont State College system funded, as well as fund the state pension fund for teachers and state employees. He said he expects the state colleges board “will have to make some tough decisions” with the college system to keep it viable.
“I believe our state college system is important to not only making sure Vermonters have access to post-secondary education, but it is also one of our best ways to bring and keep young people in Vermont,” Noyes said. “We need to prioritize funding resources to ensure that Northern Vermont University makes it through the economic downturn and pressures put on colleges by shifts in populations.”
Westman also prioritizes supporting the Vermont State College system, which includes his alma mater, Johnson State College, now part of the two-campus Northern Vermont University.
“But,” he warned, “these overarching revenue issues complicate dealing effectively with both.”
Think of the children
Scheuermann continues to push hard for the tourism and hospitality industry, saying the pandemic underlines how important that sector is to the state’s economy.
She also remains bullish on education reform and continues to push for property tax relief. But, she also plans on pursuing legislation to increase transparency around local school performance and student assessment data.
“This data has not been accessible of late for Stowe schools, and I am committed to its restoration,” she said. “After all, the students, parents, teachers, staff and community at large deserve to know how our students and schools are performing.”
A sleeper topic for Westman is a proposal by the group Let’s Grow Kids outlining a three-year plan to expand access to child care and make it more affordable.
Donnally also includes education in her outlook, pointing to a bill, H.54, which takes a hard look at the state’s per-pupil education costs, which have left many Vermont school districts “overtaxed and underfunded, especially smaller and poorer school districts, resulting in inequities for some of the state’s most vulnerable children.”
Broadband and other topics
Lamoille County is well-represented in the House Committee on Energy and Technology, with three of its nine members hailing from the county. Rep. Avram Patt, D-Worcester, and Scheuermann were on it during the last biennium; Rep. Lucy Rogers, D-Waterville, joins them this year, after taking a keen interest in broadband accessibility last year.
Patt said the “growing threat” of cybersecurity — like the cyberattack on the UVM Medical Center in late October — is among the issues the committee will tackle.
“I’m excited to use this new position to delve into policies relating to broadband internet infrastructure, sustainable energy planning, and Vermont’s IT/cybersecurity needs,” Rogers said.
Rogers is also interested in Act 250 reform, specifically the kind that streamlines and standardizes the permitting process and exempts development in downtowns and village centers that already have local zoning.
Lawmakers have their eyes on other issues, too.
• Noyes, who has taken an interest in the needs of older Vermonters since he was first elected in 2016 — he sits on the House Human Services Committee — said he has introduced legislation aimed at making sure that demographic gets the food support they need. He would like the committee to also concentrate on support for Vermonters with drug and alcohol addiction for greater access to child care.
• Patt, who has kept climate change issues upfront since he was elected, said he would like to see the Legislature focus on renewable energy, transportation and energy efficiency and conservation.
• Yacovone echoed the coronavirus relief and attention to broadband and called for the passage of the Economic Solutions Act, which aims to have Vermont grow the majority of its own food, strengthen rural Vermont’s infrastructure, increase Vermont household income to the top fifth in the nation and address and prevent adverse childhood experiences in Vermont.
• For Rogers, an effective vaccine rollout, land use planning and housing development “with an emphasis on social and racial equity.”
• Donnally, the lone freshman lawmaker from Lamoille County, has been assigned to the House Committee on Judiciary, which she called an honor. Prior to being elected in November, Donnally was busy at the local level working on racial justice issues.
“Whatever legislation we are working on, I aim to bring a trauma-informed, social and racial equity lens to my work to ensure that Vermonters not only have access to the courts and to justice, but that our system allows for the healing and restorative practices necessary to build safer communities,” Donnally said.
• For Higley, who sits on the House Committee on Government Operations, 2021 will also see the start of the statewide redistricting process that follows every census year.
There was hope for lawmakers, who last year had to quickly learn to legislate without being in the same room, that the 2021 session would see them all back together again.
Westman said it’s fortunate there are digital tools that allow lawmakers to conduct business, but it’s much harder for those who aren’t in leadership. It used to be, he said, a few members of the 30-person Senate could walk into the president pro tempore’s office and have an audience.
“In this Zoom or electronic world, the ability to just walk in and suggest changes to something is much harder to do,” Westman said.
That’s the sentiment of a lawmaker who was first elected to the Senate in 2010. For Donnally, a first-timer, working remotely makes it much harder to meet people and build relationships.
“Good legislative work is grounded in relationships,” she said. “This relationship building is still possible, but it requires a level of intentional work that is not necessary when we are in person.”
For Higley, who lives in rural Lowell, consistent internet problems can be an issue, too. And for a legislator like Scheuermann, who likes to check in on several different committees, it’s tough to hop from Zoom room to Zoom room.
For some lawmakers, like Noyes, Patt and Yacovone, social isolation also makes it tough to build trust and engage with constituents. Patt said he still receives a lot of emails and phone calls, but has much less face-to-face interaction in his communities.
“While we will come out of this with some new ways to use technology going forward to increase citizen participation and awareness, I look forward to when we will no longer be completely dependent on it,” Patt said.
Added Rogers: “We legislators are not alone in adjusting to less-than-ideal conditions during COVID, and meeting remotely is simply us doing our part in fighting the spread of COVID-19.”