The major event this week was the House killing the project-based TIFs. CFV also sent a letter to the Senate Government Operations Committee on the pension bill this week and released Phase 2 of our economic recovery plan.
In a rather abrupt turn of events, the House Economic Development Committee tabled the project-based TIF program that advocates claimed would allow smaller towns access to this form of capital. Janet Ancel, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked the Economic Development Committee to abandon the bill because she believes that municipalities don't have the talent to manage these project. Advocates for towns across the state have expressed concern to us and others that the Legislators don't trust them.
The Senate continued working on the economic development bill that covers a number of programs, including the Entrepreneur Capital Fund, the new/remote worker relocation program. The Lack Champlain Chamber of Commerce asked for an addition $40M to help struggling restaurants. They are concerned about an unmet need and demand is far outpacing available dollars.
There was also criticism that the current bailout funding was too prescriptive because it was being targeted at specific types of businesses and it's difficult to predict what other businesses are impacted downstream. As a remedy, it was suggested that any business with a 25% or more drop in revenue should qualify.
The Senate Finance Committee is working through final changes to the broadband bill. We sent them a preview of Phase 2 of our economic recovery plan a couple weeks ago that deals with this issue.
One new aspect that came up this week is the possibility of net-neutrality provisions on the broadband infrastructure grants. There is some disagreement, but state lawyers believe we could attach a requirement on this funds when internet service providers apply for them.
The Committee seems to be gravitating towards making the broadband authority part of the Department for Public Service. This makes sense because it would speed up the implementation process versus a volunteer board we would need to construct. One of the main constraints on the $250 in federal funds is that it needs to be spent within three years so if you take six months to set up volunteer board that eats up 33% of our timeline. Unfortunately it does not seem like the Committee is interested in address the affordability of connecting or maintaining service in this bill.
It is beginning to look like the Legislature will take a back seat on the merger of the Vermont State Colleges (VSC). This is probably a good thing as the Board of Trustees and Chancellor have a clear vision for the future of the state college system and how to modernize it. This week, Brian Prescott from the National Center for Higher Education Systems backed up the plan, saying that VSC needs reform. He also believes (and we agree) that the state needs to adopt affordability standards to measure the cost of the system. We also think that the colleges need to better align their curriculum with workforce demands. Some of this work is underway, but officials promise to work on this further over the next several years.
The Northern Border Regional Commission pitched an idea to join the state employees pension fund. Something we immediately reached out to the relevant committees to discourage. Adding this group to our public pension plans would make the work ahead of us more complicated and potentially open the door to other groups outside of state government. Not something that seems prudent at the current time.
The Senate received the pension bill this week, although they had already been taking testimony in preparation for receiving it. Tom Golonka (Chair, Vermont Pension Investment Committee) shared that they are preparing an RFP to recommend best practices for proceeding with making the board more professional. The Senate is still working through specifics of the bill, but there are serious questions about how to handle medical insurance. Vermont is one of the only states that provides full health benefits after retirement, but we have never actually pre-funded these plans and continue to pay out of pocket. CFV sent a letter to the Committee this week addressing several of these issues.
The House Government Operations Committee is making final touches to S.15, the voting expansion bill. Two new developments are that the Committee wants the Secretary of State's office to come back with suggestions for voter verification and they also want to limit how many ballots a person may turn in at a time. The current suggestion is 25. There are also efforts to clean up the statewide voter checklist, but it's unclear if legislative action is helpful here because the Secretary of State and town clerks are already working on this and have funding secured.
The House is also looking at a bill, H.363, that would allow candidates for office to draw a salary from campaign contributions. This is laudable as an opportunity for less wealthy persons to run for office, however it's questionable if a House or Senate campaigns could bring in enough revenue to supplement a candidates salary. A candidate would also not be able to draw down more income than reported to the tax department in the previous year – an appropriate guardrail.