Leonine Public Affairs There is no greater signal that the session is coming to a close than the Senate passing the budget. Last week the Senate Appropriations Committee put its mark on the FY21 budget bill and the full Senate passed it unanimously on Friday. The Senate had possession of the $7.1 billion budget bill for barely a week, which is likely a record. The Senate is worried about getting their priority bills across the finish line by the end of the session, which is expected to be this coming week. These priorities were loaded into the budget including two front-line worker hazard pay bills (S.352 and S.353) and a bill that limits out-of-pocket expenses for insulin (S.296), among others. And in order to avoid a showdown with the House over a cloud tax proposal which put the miscellaneous tax bill (H.954) in jeopardy, the Senate chose to add a number of “must pass” provisions from the miscellaneous tax bill to the budget.
The Senate version of the budget bill is not significantly different in terms of appropriations than the House version. The Senate tweaked some line items and streamlined language but significant chunks of the House-passed bill went unchanged. For example, the Senate accepted the House version of the FY21 Transportation Bill, which is typically a stand-alone bill but this year was wrapped into the budget bill. Here is a summary of the highlights of the Senate-passed budget bill.
The Senate also made some amendments to CRF appropriations as outlined in this side-by-side summary of the Governor, House and Senate CRF spending proposals.
The legislature appears on track to wrap up the unprecedented 2020 session next week. With only three months until the new legislature convenes in January it will be a short off-session made even shorter by the unprecedented and compressed campaign season that will encompass the Vermont political world in October.
On Thursday, the House voted to override Governor Scott’s veto of H.688, the Global Warming Solutions Act, by a vote of 103-47. The bill establishes a 23-member Vermont Climate Council that would be charged with establishing a plan to meet the state’s emissions reduction targets. The bill also allows for a private right of action against the State if these targets are not met, which was the primary reason for the governor’s veto. Supporters of the bill argue the state’s current climate goals will not be met without a definitive plan and consequences if the goals of the plan are not met. Opponents warn allowing the private right of action means there is a high likelihood the state will face costly lawsuits in the near future. The first benchmark in the state’s climate goals is to reduce emissions 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Currently, Vermont is not on track to meet this requirement. The bill now goes to the Senate for an override vote. The Senate is expected to easily override the veto and so the bill is expected to become law.
On Thursday the Senate passed a much reduced (in relation to what passed the House) version of H.926, the bill making changes to Act 250. As passed by the Senate the bill addresses just two issues: Act 250 jurisdiction over recreational trails and changes to the Act 250 criteria on the impacts of development on forest blocks and connecting wildlife habitat corridors. Next week the House may review and act on the Senate’s changes. However, at this time it is an open question whether the bill will die as it falls far short of the changes to Act 250 the House included in its version of the bill.
On Tuesday morning the House Ways and Means Committee added language to H.954, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill, which would apply the state sales tax to “vendor-hosted prewritten software”, commonly referred to as the cloud tax. While the Ways and Means Committee had taken testimony on the cloud tax earlier in the year, H.954 had already passed both chambers without the language included. The Senate Finance Committee, in anticipation of receiving an unpopular proposal late in the session, took testimony on Thursday from concerned stakeholders. Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Committee took non-controversial sections from H.954 and added them to the budget, undermining the need to advance H.954. While the House was originally scheduled to vote on H.954 this week, that vote has been postponed, perhaps indefinitely. This is the second time in as many years that the Ways and Means Committee has introduced a cloud tax late in the process.
The long road to approve a retail market for cannabis in Vermont has been rocky and full of dead ends. The House, Senate and Scott Administration have thus far been unable to reach consensus on a model for legalized sales. The House, even with a Democratic majority, has skewed toward a more conservative approach on cannabis year after year, and Governor Scott has been hesitant to support a tax and regulate model. The governor vetoed a 2017 bill legalizing possession, citing concerns about driver safety and underage use. He then signed a bill in 2018 that addressed some of his stated concerns. The 2018 law allows adults over the age of 21 to grow and possess small amounts of cannabis. The law also established a commission to study how to best roll out a regulated market for cannabis in Vermont. Some of the recommendations from that commission were the genesis of the current legalization bill, S.54. which was introduced in the beginning of the 2019-2020 biennium.
Members of the S.54 conference committee have been hashing out the differences between their two versions of the bill over the past several weeks, and came to an agreement earlier this week. On Thursday, the House signed off on the conference committee report, and the Senate is expected to do the same early next week. The bill sets up a system for the legalized retail sale of cannabis and would allow municipalities to opt-in to allow retail cannabis stores to operate. The bill would impose a 14 percent excise tax and a six percent sales tax on cannabis transactions. Municipalities would receive a share of the state’s cannabis licensing fees. One of the most controversial parts of the cannabis discussion has been how to deal with roadside testing. S.54 allows police to test the saliva of those suspected of driving under the influence, but only after a warrant is obtained.
Once approved by the Senate, S.54 will head to the governor’s desk. He has not indicated what he will do yet, though at his regular weekly press conference on Friday, he expressed his appreciation for the legislature’s willingness to compromise on the issue as much as they have.
GOVERNOR SCOTT'S PRESS CONFERENCE
At his regular Tuesday press briefing, Governor Scott welcomed Dr. Antony Fauci, who is the Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases and serves on President Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force. Dr. Fauci joined Vermont officials via Zoom and congratulated the state on its excellent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that Vermont should be a model for the rest of the country in how to deal with the virus.
At his regular Friday press briefing, Governor Scott announced additional measures to reopen Vermont’s economy which include allowing bar seating for bars and restaurants, and allowing lodging establishments to rent their rooms at full capacity.
A healthy amount of time was spent during this press conference discussing the nature of creemees, with Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts Zooming in to dispel a rumor that creemees were non-dairy. He confirmed what we all should already know: creemees are a dairy product.
FROM THE LEONINE BLOG
Telehealth Expansions Explode During COVID-19
One of the many major landslide changes that have come about in state policy since the start of the coronavirus crisis has been the rapid expansion of telehealth. What was once a niche service used sparingly in place of in-person office visits has exploded in popularity, due to the necessity of keeping individuals at home and out of hospitals and doctors’ offices, where COVID-19 could potentially be contacted or spread. Because telehealth was previously not the priority it is now, most telehealth legislation was aimed at expanding access in rural areas not well served by physicians or specialists.
Leonine Public AffairsPlease visit our website for our in-depth reporting on COVID-19 throughout the United States. This site is courtesy of Leonine FOCUS, our 50-state legislative regulatory, tracking and reporting service. The site is frequently updated and includes information on executive orders, legislation, regulation, tax deadlines and more from across the country.
Source: Leonine Public Affairs, Montpelier, Legislative Report Fall Session - Week 4- September 18, 2020. leoninepublicaffairs.com.
Through a special arrangement with Leonine, Vermont Business Magazine republishes Leonine's legislative report on vermontbiz.com