We should know in a couple weeks what bills will make it and which won't. Right now though it's not very clear. Many of the legislature's biggest initiatives appear to have either stalled, hit roadblocks, or lack clear direction.
The House now has three bills it is considering for economic development. The main bill combines a number of different programs. One notable thing is that it merges the much publicized remote worker incentive program (which pays for costs associated with moving to the state to work remotely for an out-of-state employer) with a less known "new worker" incentive program which assists Vermont employers with relocating employees to the state. The application process for these two programs is very similar so the Agency of Commerce and Community Development is proposing the administration and appropriation for the two be merged.
The House Energy & Technology Committee is still working through the broadband development bill. The Chairman of EC Fiber tried pitching the Committee on doing a statewide survey of infrastructure available for broadband buildout. This survey would help to alleviate some of the pre-construction cost for communities looking to invest in projects. There is still no clear funding source identified yet. The Committee seems to be leaning towards the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) as the mechanism for delivering funds to projects. However, VEDA is not thrilled about this proposition as they see this investments as high-risk and could jeopardize the stability of the organization (which is backed with taxpayer dollars).
Other advocates cautioned the Committee not to move too quickly because the local broadband authorities the legislature set up last year are still getting their feet under them and creating "artificial urgency" will cause them to make mistakes as they attempt projects. Committee members are also concerned with accountability (which is important) around delivery. We wonder though how the state is going to hold local authorities accountable if they are not able to provide broadband.
There was more debate on Vermont's pension funds this week. Most of the work now seems to have moved to the government operations committees instead of the finance committees. Vermont ranks 6th in the country for the percentage of post-employment liabilities compared to gross state product. There is significant concern from the Treasurer and advisory groups that the over-leveraged pension funds could lead to a bond rating downgrade. Major rating agencies rely on pension fund health for 20%-25% of a state's rating.
The Speaker is following this issue closely and the House Government Operations Committee sent a letter to the Appropriations Committee this week. They are calling for a study committee look at prefunding the state employee's fund while the state contributes $46M more per year to the teachers retirement health care fund (with a 10% inflation factor). The Vermont Business Roundtable has already thrown its weight behind the Treasurer's plan (which largely asks employees to cover the deficit) and CFV is likely to come out with a position on this issue as well within the coming weeks.
There wasn't too much activity on the education front this week. The education property tax weighting bill is still underway in the House Ways & Means Committee. This bill would alter how property tax rates are calculated for local school districts by applying increased weighting factors for population density, poverty, and second language learners. It seems likely a bill will move forward, but we would like to see some town-by-town analysis of the impact to local districts before weighing in. We kind of hope legislators feel the same.
After getting voted out of House Government Operations Committee last week, H.135 (the ethics bill) landed in House Appropriations which appears to be waffling on whether or not to fund a part-time staff person to assist the Ethics Commission's Executive Director. CFV supports the creating of this position as it will help the office respond to inquiries faster and better position the Commission to enforce the code of ethics that we expect to be implemented next year. This is the critical piece we have been working towards since the Commission was first created in 2017. It is not enough for ethics standards to be clearly defined; they must also be enforceable.
-Campaign for Vermont Team
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