Leonine: Legislature enters the home stretch

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Leonine: Legislature enters the home stretch

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 8:58am -- Anonymous

Through a special arrangement with VBM, Leonine Public Affairs provides a summary of legislative activity in Montpelier for the week ending April 7. 2017.

Leonine Public Affairs With three weeks left in the 2017 legislative session, the Senate Appropriations Committee continues to hammer out its version of the FY18 budget bill. It is likely the committee will bring the bill to the Senate floor next week. Once that happens the Senate will be spending a lot of time debating the budget. To accommodate extended floor sessions and the need on the part of the Senate “money committees” (Appropriations and Finance) to hold extensive meetings the Senate’s “morning committees” will not, after today, hold any more regularly scheduled meetings.

Because the legislature is nearing adjournment the policy committees are working feverishly to get their bills out. It is likely that some committees will use bills passed by the other chamber that are in their committee as a “Christmas tree.” Those bills will be “decorated” with “ornaments” consisting of either the language in bills the committee passed earlier in the session and which the other chamber has not acted on, or the language in bills the committee has not yet even advanced.

The House is spending more time on the floor and less in committee, which is normal for the final weeks of the legislative session. This week the House spent considerable time debating bills relating to racial justice, fair policing, the merger of lottery and liquor and mental health parity in the workers compensation system.

Beyond the activity in the Statehouse, Governor Phil Scott and Jay Peak receiver Michael Goldberg announced a $150 million settlement with Raymond James Financial. The settlement relates to the financial giant’s role in the alleged fraud case at Jay Peak resort. 

The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development continues to work through S.135--an omnibus economic development bill. Here is a section-by-section summary of the bill as passed by the Senate. 

The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development is looking at S.72, which would require telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification numbers and which has passed the Senate. The House committee may use S.72 as a Christmas tree for the language from H.467 - an act relating to data brokers. H.467 would require data brokers--any commercial entity that collects one or more items of a wide variety of information about Vermonters for sale to a third party--to register with the Department of Financial Regulation. It also requires such data brokers to file annual reports detailing the information they collect and the sources of that information. Finally, the bill requires data brokers to implement a customer identification program and requires public agencies to maintain a record of the sale of information to a data broker. The bill is intended to identify and hold accountable entities who collect information on vulnerable individuals and share that information with actors with nefarious motives. However, in the view of many the definition of data broker is overly broad and the bill would not necessarily get at the problem it is attempting to address. It is unclear at this point in the session whether the legislature has the time to fully vet and understand all potential unintended consequences this proposal might have before adjourning. 

S.136, a miscellaneous consumer protection bill, is being considered by the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development. As passed by the Senate, S.136 contained provisions that dealt with contracts for residential home improvements, home loan escrow account analysis, and the regulation of fantasy sports. The House Committee on Commerce is using S.136 as a Christmas tree by adding a number of House bills to the draft bill that did not meet the crossover deadline, including:

H.112 proposes to require an automobile dealer to remove an Internet advertisement for a vehicle within 48 hours from the time it is sold and to require an automobile dealer to disclose clearly in an advertisement whether a vehicle is for sale and/or for lease and on what terms.  

H.180 proposes to establish standards for warranty service and related obligations of motorboat and personal watercraft dealers.

H.286 proposes to require that no automatic renewal provision in a contract takes effect unless the consumer opts in.

H.288 proposes to prohibit the retention of any amount of payment due and owing for materials delivered for a construction project.  

H.390 proposes to modify and enact safeguards for the consumer protection rights of certain minors, incapacitated adults, and protected persons.  

H.432 proposes to regulate the use of credit information for personal insurance.

H.482 proposes to address issues relating to fair debt collection and other consumer protection laws.

The Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee advanced its version of H.136, a bill relating to accommodations for pregnant employees. The bill is scaled back from the House-passed version to the relief of some business groups. The bill now gives a pregnant woman the same rights as an individual with a disability in the workplace. The bill will likely be up for action on the Senate floor next week.

After extensive and at times acrimonious debate the House passed H.197, which addresses the issue of workmen’s compensation claims for work related mental health issues. The first part of the bill provides for a rebuttable presumption that if a police officer, rescue or ambulance personnel or firefighter is diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) the diagnosis is work related. Under the second part of the bill a mental condition resulting from a work related event or work related stress is considered a work related personal injury if the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by average employees in all occupations. This part of the bill effectively reverses a Vermont Supreme Court decision which held a firefighter’s mental condition was compensable only if the firefighter experienced stress above and beyond what firefighters normally experience. Mental conditions associated with disciplinary action, evaluations, job transfers, layoffs, demotions and termination are excluded from being compensable. 

This week the House Transportation Committee continued their work on S.127, the DMV Miscellaneous bill. Some of the bills the committee considered incorporating into S.127 this week are:
  • H.223, a bill that proposes that a motor vehicle will not fail an annual inspection solely due to the check engine light coming on, unless the light is on due to a vehicle safety issue. The bill's sponsor is concerned that under Vermont's new automated inspection program, Vermonters will be unable to get their vehicles inspected if the check engine light is on for a minor, non-safety related problem unless the consumer pays a hefty repair bill. DVM raised concerns about the bill. The committee has not made a final decision but it appears unlikely that they will move this bill this year.
  • H.287, a bill that regulates chains across public or private ways. The committee is going to request that the regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over this issue look into it more before next session.
  • The committee heard from members of the Vermont Towing Association in support of H.2, a bill that proposes to create a lien on a motor vehicle in favor of the person who tows it when an owner or public official asks that it be towed. The committee concluded the bill was too complex to finish this year but they agreed to work on a more comprehensive towing bill next year. 

On Monday, four members of the Vermont House held press conferences across the state announcing the introduction of a series of bills that involve taxing carbon pollution and using the revenue to fund various tax reform proposals. The bills prompted a swift response from Governor Phil Scott, who stated repeatedly throughout his campaign that he would veto a carbon tax. The bills are as follows:

H.528 proposes to make several changes to Vermont’s tax structure designed to help Vermonters with low income and reduce the tax burden on small businesses. The bill provides replacement revenue for these changes by imposing a fee on corporations that distribute fossil fuels that emit carbon pollution.
H.531 proposes to establish a carbon pollution fee that starts at $10.00 per ton and increases each year until it equals the “Social Cost of Carbon” as set forth in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Technical Support Document: - Technical Update of the Social Cost of Carbon for Regulatory Impact Analysis - Under Executive Order 12866” (dated August 2016). The bill proposes that Vermont consumers and businesses pay a fee when purchasing fossil fuels and that the Department of Taxes calculate the percentage shares of revenue collected from individuals and from businesses. The bill then proposes that the revenue collected from individuals be returned to individuals on an equal and quarterly basis in the form of dividend checks or direct deposits, and the revenue collected from businesses be returned to businesses in the same manner.

H.532 proposes to decrease statewide education property tax rates by replacing Education Fund revenue raised through property taxes with revenue raised through a fee on carbon dioxide pollution. The rate reduction and replacement of revenue would be done on a revenue-neutral basis.

H.533 proposes to eliminate Vermont’s sales and use tax by reducing the tax by one percent each year for six years. At the same time, a fee would be imposed on corporations distributing fossil fuels that emit carbon dioxide pollution. The fee would be increased over a six-year period to replace the revenue forgone from the elimination of the sales and use tax, in a revenue-neutral manner. Nonprofits and municipalities would be exempt from the carbon fee.

The House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife began consideration of S.103 this week. The bill, which passed the Senate two weeks ago, would create an interagency committee on chemical management. The interagency committee would be charged with creating an inventory of chemicals used, stored, and manufactured in Vermont and would make statutory recommendations to the legislature on how to improve those processes. The Natural Resources Committee held an initial walk through of the Senate-passed version of S.103 and began taking testimony from stakeholders. There was discussion about expanding the bill to give the Commissioner of Health more authority to regulate the manufacture of children’s products. There was also some discussion about allowing the Department of Health to regulate a variety of consumer products that children are likely to come in contact with, such as household goods. The Natural Resources Committee will continue to take testimony on S.103 next week.