Lawmakers reconvened this week in Montpelier for an abridged session focused on the passage of the 2020-21 fiscal year budget. Over the next five to six weeks, the Legislature must also determine how to address a $180-million deficit caused by business shutdowns in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
Legislators also plan to tackle a number of other bills in the coming weeks, including proposals put on hold earlier this year because of the pandemic. Among them:
• A plan to tax and regulate marijuana — legislation that’s been in the works since early 2018. Highway safety measures remain an outstanding area of controversy that are unresolved in the House.
• The Global Warming Solutions Act, a bill that would legally require the state to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions. The Senate approved a measure in June that would allow individuals to sue the state if it doesn’t meet deadlines for implementation of carbon reduction initiatives.
• A two-year effort to reform Act 250. The House approved legislation in February that exempts state-designated downtowns and neighborhood development areas from Act 250 review. It also adds a requirement for developers to show that projects meet “climate adaptation” criteria.
• Policing and racial justice initiatives that go beyond reforms signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott in July.
VTDigger explores these pending legislative actions in this preview of the legislative session:
House and Senate leaders have concerns about the budget Scott proposed last week.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate leader Tim Ashe, D-Chittenden, have both taken issue with the fact that it doesn’t directly include additional money for the state college system. Two reports issued in June found that state colleges need $30 million in “bridge funding” in the current fiscal year to cover a budget shortfall.
Scott has recommended the colleges get $30 million of the federal coronavirus relief dollars. But, for that to happen, the federal government would need to grant states additional flexibility for using the money, and that hasn’t happened yet.
The federal government gave Vermont $1.25 billion for coronavirus relief in April, and there is about $200 million left. Scott has proposed spending most of that amount — $133 million — on additional grants for struggling businesses.
Ashe also said he’s concerned that the governor’s budget does not include money to help schools deal with reopening costs amid the COVID-19 crisis.
In June, lawmakers planned to set aside $100 million of coronavirus relief dollars to help K-12 schools weather the costs of adapting to the pandemic, and implementing hybrid in-person and remote learning education arrangements.
“We’re gonna have to have that discussion with the governor’s team about how they expect to pay for all this stuff if it’s not coming from these federal funds,” Ashe said.
Criminal justice, police reform
At the end of June, lawmakers raced to craft police reforms after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black man.
Before adjourning June 26, the House and Senate approved legislation, S.219, that requires all state police to wear body cameras, prohibits officers from using chokeholds and similar restraint techniques, while mandating that the Legislature pass additional criminal and racial justice measures in the upcoming session and in the coming years.
When the governor signed the bill in mid July, he said he hoped lawmakers would take up additional criminal justice reforms, including policing training “modernization,” measures to provide community oversight of police, and a statewide use-of-force policy.
In a recent interview, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said lawmakers are under pressure to take immediate action on police reforms, but they’re also hearing calls from racial justice advocates to slow down so policymakers can hear more feedback from communities of color.
“We are hearing the simultaneous calls for ‘reform now,’ and ‘please, please, please put aside your assumptions and your privilege and your bias and listen — sit, absorb and listen,’” Johnson said.
“So that’s what we’re trying to do,” she said.
The new law requires the Legislature to analyze the establishment of a new criminal statute for police who use prohibited restraints that cause death or serious injury.
The law also mandates that lawmakers adopt a statewide model policy for the use of police body cameras. Vermont State Police officers were required to wear body cameras starting on Aug. 1.
Act 250 reform on the horizon
Before the pandemic, the House passed a major reform of Vermont’s land use law, Act 250, after working on the legislation for more than a year. The chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, said the reforms struck “a balance” between broadening Act 250 jurisdiction to protect certain natural resources while releasing certain town and village centers from review.
Johnson said finishing Act 250 reform in the coming weeks is a priority.
She said the reforms would help businesses, create jobs and expand housing.
Ashe expects the Senate will pass a scaled-down version of the Act 250 reform package.