The House and Senate have now passed a combined 92 bills. Several key pieces of legislation have now moved from the House to the Senate and we are keeping track of them. Below are some of the highlights.
The broadband bill landed in the Senate this week and already there was skepticism about the funding mechanism outlined in the bill. There was also some disagreement about what the end goal should be in terms of universal coverage speed. There is a Senate version of the bill that we are hoping they incorporate into the final version.
The economic development bill also landed in the Senate this week and received a generally warm welcome despite some concerns about the use of one-time funds and potential inequalities that could emerge. In a last minute move, the House added another $1M to the tourism and marketing budget increasing the one-time allocation to $2.5M to assist the economic recovery of the tourism and food service industries. The bill also includes $20M for workforce development.
One specific component of the bill as also reviewed in the House Ways and Means Committee on Friday. This part of the program would assist with neighborhood development by providing grants for restoration projects on rental properties that are more than 30 years old and in a geographic area designated by a municipality. The Committee is generally favorable to this approach and are also considering expanding to owner-occupied homes using tax credits.
The Senate is considering a proposal to eliminate the State Board of Education and move all of its oversight and rulemaking duties to the Agency of Education. This is a plan that has been proposed in the past and it's unclear if there is widespread support for it in the Senate.
There is a new round of federal ESSR funds headed for Vermont, but 90% of those will go directly to school districts. The Agency of Education is working to identify where the additional funds should go based on the greatest areas of need. One possible use might be for school construction projects to modernize school facilities around the state.
After the House Government Operation's pension proposal last week, the Committee held three nights of public hearings. Not surprisingly, they were filled with employees who were very concerned about the impact of the recommended changes to their retirement plans. For the most part they summed it up as costing them more money, more time and less benefits. There is a debate about what the details of the plan should be but there is some consensus that costs should be shared between taxpayers and employees. There is also a push for more oversight of the plans and more frequent stress testing to avoid running into more issues down the road.
On Friday the House Speaker pulled her support for the plan in favor of a summer study and even members of the Committee voiced concern about the speed of the process and that they hadn't received enough input. The Speakers is pushing to get a bill addressing governance out soon and then asking the study committee to come back with recommendations before the end of the fiscal year (which is June 30). The problem is, the longer we wait the larger the problem becomes. They might even bring the legislature back over the summer to vote on a solution.
The Chair of the Committee also announced this week that the $150M in general fund revenues budgeted for pre-funding the pensions won't be applied until there are structural reforms to the plans. The underlying required contribution will still be made regardless, however. This move was meant to bring employees back to the table so that the solution doesn't come from taxpayers alone.
There is a sense from financial experts that we can't afford to delay on this issue. We agree! Campaign for Vermont is working on pension recommendations that we plan to launch within in the next week.
The Senate got their first look at the ethics bill this week. Larry Novins (Executive Director, Ethics Commission) had asked for funding to support and additional part-time staff person because of the volume of requests they receive. Campaign for Vermont supports this ask but it remains to be seen if the legislature is onboard.