Legislature off to the races as session begins

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Legislature off to the races as session begins

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 4:57pm -- tim

Leonine Public Affairs The 2018 legislative session started on Wednesday, January 3 and legislators wasted no time getting to work. The House Judiciary Committee voted to move the marijuana legalization bill to the House floor in the morning of the first day of the session. The bill was debated at length and several amendments were offered over the course of the morning. All this occurred before Governor Phil Scott delivered the State of the State address at 2pm on Thursday, January 4. (Vermont Business Magazine and vermontbiz.com are again publishing the weekly legislative updates from Leonine Public Affairs, based in Montpelier.)

By Friday it was already clear where some of the major sticking points will be between the executive and legislative branches. Before the 2018 session it was anticipated there would be significant debate about the budget, school spending and growing Vermont’s economy. Those were the major themes in both the governor’s State of the State address and the agendas set out by legislative leaders. While their stated goals are similar, the challenge will be finding compromise between the Republican governor and the Democratically controlled legislature on which policies will best achieve these goals.

With significant disagreements on how to address affordability and economic growth, elected leaders will need to better understand the implications on Vermonters of recent federal legislation and determine if it is necessary or prudent to take action to address those changes this year. This process will be challenging as lawmakers start unraveling how federal legislation such as the tax reform bill will affect the state budget and programs.

It’s also clear that the political honeymoon is over. Last year both the governor and the legislature kept their disagreements to a minimum and for the most part refrained from public disputes. That will not be the case this year as there have already been multiple jabs taken by each side as they establish a tone for the 2018 session. Vermonters can expect more conflict and tension but could also see many more initiatives moving in 2018 than they did in 2017, which was a relatively light year for new legislation. 

Thursday afternoon Governor Scott gave his second State of the State address to a joint assembly of the House and Senate. In his speech, Governor Scott reiterated his commitment to solving the challenges facing the state without raising taxes and fees on Vermonters, including property taxes. The governor then identified a shrinking workforce as being a primary problem and indicated that his upcoming budget address will feature proposals to grow the state’s workforce. He mentioned expanding adult vocational training and encouraging members of the National Guard to remain in Vermont once they complete their service. Two concrete policies to achieve this goal are paying college tuition for members of the Vermont National Guard and eliminating state income taxes on military pensions. Another theme in the governor’s speech was a call for civility in politics. He encouraged members of the legislature to put partisanship aside to solve the state’s problems. The full transcript of the governor’s State of the State address can be found here

Former state Senator and Auditor of Accounts Randy Brock was sworn in as the “new” Senator from Franklin County on Wednesday. Senator Brock replaces Senator Dustin Degree, who resigned to take a position with the Scott administration. In a special session in June 2017 Senator David Soucy, R-Rutland, was appointed to fill the unexpired term of former Senator Kevin Mullin, who left when he was appointed chair of the Green Mountain Care Board. On Wednesday, Senator Brock took Senator Degree’s seats on the Senate Finance and Transportation Committees, while Senator Soucy was appointed to the Senate Institutions and Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committees. Senator Carolyn Branagan, R-Franklin, moved from the Senate Institutions Committee to the Senate Education Committee.

Three new House members were also sworn in Wednesday. Chris Mattos of Milton replaced Rep. Ron Hubert, Edward Reed of Fayston replaced Rep. Adam Greshin (now Commissioner of Finance) and Kelly Pajala of Londonderry replaced Rep. Oliver Olson. The following committee assignments were made to accommodate the new members:

  • Rep. Jim Harrison of Chittenden - Committee on Government Operations
  • Rep. Chris Mattos of Milton - Committee on Education
  • Rep. Edward Read of Fayston - Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs
  • Rep. Kelly Pajala of Londonderry - Committee on Human Services
  • Rep. Paul Poirier of Barre City - Committee on Agriculture and Forestry
  • Rep. Amy Sheldon of Middlebury - Committee on Commerce and Economic Development
  • Rep. Robert LaClair of Barre Town - Vice Chair, Committee on Government Operations.

Pursuant to legislation enacted during the 2017 session the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Financial Regulation issued a report in December that made recommendations for legislation concerning so-called “data brokers.” On Wednesday the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee got an overview of the report from Attorney General TJ Donovan, members of his staff and representatives from the Department of Financial Regulation. The committee intends to develop a “committee bill” reflecting the report’s recommendations and plans to take testimony on the issue from privacy advocates and industry next week. Notably, the report states that a consumer facing business that collects and sells data concerning personal information should not be considered a data broker. Instead, the report calls for regulation of businesses like credit reporting agencies that do not have a direct relationship with consumers. However, the “devil is in the details” and until there is actual bill language it is unknown what the scope of the proposed regulatory scheme will be.

The first bill to pass the House in the 2018 legislative session was H.511, an act relating to highway safety, which as amended focuses on the issue of legalizing marijuana for adult use. H.511 was amended by the Senate to include legalization language during the June veto override session and sent to the House for consideration. However, there were not enough votes to suspend rules and take up the bill for consideration so H.511 remained on the House calendar to be taken up in January. Representatives were on the floor late Thursday evening debating the bill and several amendments. As passed by the House, H.511 legalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana for adults 21 years of age and older, and allows individuals to grow up to two mature plants and four immature plants. The bill does not allow for a tax and regulate system similar to what has been implemented in Colorado and Washington State. The Senate is expected to take up and pass H.511 next week and Governor Scott has indicated he will sign the bill if no further changes are made. 

The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back Net Neutrality rules adopted by the FCC in 2015 has sparked outrage from many observers. On Thursday, the Senate Finance Committee heard a brief overview from legislative counsel on what this means for Vermont, as well as steps other states are considering as a response. While the final FCC order has yet to be released, it’s clear that this will be a hot topic during the 2018 legislative session as legislators determine what, if any, steps Vermont could take on the issue of Net Neutrality.

With the recent passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act by Congress, the Vermont Department of Taxes, legislative Joint Fiscal Office (JFO), and state economists are working to determine how changes to the federal tax code may impact state tax revenues. The House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee this week took testimony from Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom and staff from JFO on this subject. The general consensus is that there is still a great deal of uncertainty about how individuals and corporations will choose to adapt to the new tax structure. It may be quite a while before the state fully understands what the impact on revenues will be. Click here for a one page overview of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act prepared by JFO.

The House Health Care Committee and Senate Health and Welfare Committee started the 2018 legislative session by looking at the impacts pending federal issues may have on health care policy in Vermont. The most immediate pressure on the state budget stems from the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Federal funding for CHIP expired in September of 2017 and while there are proposals in both the United States House and Senate to continue the program, state fiscal analysts warned lawmakers it is unlikely to be funded at previous levels. If CHIP is not reapproved the Vermont General Fund faces a $1.9 million shortfall in FY18 and $21.6 million shortfall in FY19. Other federal policies that will likely impact health care in Vermont include the elimination of the individual health insurance mandate in the recently passed federal tax bill, potential changes to Medicaid eligibility resulting from how adjusted gross income is calculated and directives from the Trump administration that alter subsidies for health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony on S.105, which relates to contract provisions that require disputes between parties to be submitted to arbitration in lieu of court litigation. The bill addresses concerns that many such arbitration provisions are contained in contracts where there is unequal bargaining power between the parties, and the terms of the arbitration provisions are unfair to the party with less bargaining power. It would create a presumption that an arbitration provision is unconscionable and therefore unenforceable if it contains terms such as specifying an inconvenient location for the arbitration proceeding or that a claim be brought much earlier than what the applicable statute of limitations would otherwise require.


Finally, a big thank you and congratulations to Terri Hallenbeck for her years of service in the Vermont press corps. Best of luck on your next adventure! 

SEE ALSO: Legislative Preview: Budget, Congress and pot make their marks

Source: Leonine Public Affairs, Montpelier, 1.5.2018. leoninepublicaffairs.com