The 2023 legislative session came to an end this week. While legislators are expected to return next month for a veto session, they passed a number of bills in the final days. These included the primary housing bill of the session and a major overhaul and investment in early childhood education. In a last-minute effort, legislators also invested in themselves, significantly increasing legislative pay and creating an entirely new benefits package.
The budget that emerged this week contained $8.5B in spending and included a new payroll tax that would be split between employers and employees (to fund the afore mentioned child care bill).Read more
As the 2023 legislative session is winding down, legislators are rushing to give themselves a pay raise and a new benefits package. The effort would bring Vermont legislative pay closer to the $31,775 median for legislators across the country. We reported on this when the bill passed the Senate, at the time it looked like the bill would likely wait until next year, but the House is posturing to move aggressively on it.Read more
Governor Scott has already promised to veto the Clean Heat Standard (S.5) passed by the Senate on Thursday. Senators voted 20-10 to concur with the House version of the bill that would create a carbon-pricing system for heating fuels based on their carbon intensity. This was one vote short of being able to sustain a veto, so one Senator would need to shift their position on the bill in order to Scott's veto to be successful.
In preparation for the vote, Campaign for Vermont sent a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee explaining why the "check-back" provision was weak and they should strengthen it. One of the bill sponsors acknowledged in the floor debate that the original version of the bill "fully implemented the Clean Heat Standard,” and that the check-back was an afterthought. Essentially, the bill allows the Public Utility Commission to implement key pieces of the system prior to legislative approval and exercise enforcement powers for non-compliance.Read more
Before we dive into this week's update we need to get something unfortunate out of the way. Last week we had reported that the House had gutted the "check-back" provision in S.5 that requires the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to bring the Clean Heat Standard rules back to the legislature for a vote. This was in fact incorrect. The provision in question had been added in the Senate, not by the House Environment & Energy Committee as we had indicated. Our reporter on the bill didn't catch that provision until the walk-through in that Committee and didn't realize it was in the underlying bill, not the amendment being offered by the Committee. Our apologies for this mistake.
That being said, the provision in question is still concerning because it could potentially allow the PUC to skirt the "check-back" provision in the bill. The House did offer an amendment on the floor in an attempt to address this, but we will encourage legislators to strengthen the check-back provision and limit workarounds.
The bill creating the Clean Heat Standard (S.5) passed the House this week 98-46, two votes shy of a veto override. The bill now moves back to the Senate to see if they will agree with the (relatively minor) House changes or if a Committee of Conference will be called for. The Senate was one vote short of being able to sustain an override when they voted on the bill back in March.Read more
Two more major bills moved this week. In the House, the bill creating a carbon-pricing credit system advanced out of the Environment & Energy Committee with some relatively minor changes. However, it does provide some additional flexibility to the Public Utilities Commission to pause the credit program due to market conditions such as workforce shortages or supply chain issues. Additionally, the penalties on fuel dealers were reduced from 4x the credit amount to 2x.
The second major move was a bill passed by the Senate that would double legislative pay and create a new benefits package for legislators that includes health insurance and child care services. The goal is to make the legislature more attractive and accessible for working-class Vermonters, but it is still a historic increase in compensation for the State's citizen legislature.Read more
This week the pension divestment bill landed in the House Government Operations Committee. It turns out that one of the Committee members is on the Vermont Pension Investment Commission (VPIC), which was universally opposed to the bill as written due to its potential exposure for state employees and taxpayers. VPIC is very concerned that divestment mandates (as opposed to voluntary divestment) will lead to increasing the Actuarially Determined Employer Contribution (ADEC). This is the amount that the state is supposed to contribute annually towards the pension funds in order to meet our obligations to employees. We already had to increase this payment last year, in addition to making special payments to the funds, because of previous incorrect assumptions about the rate of return our investments would get.Read more
This week we saw three major initiatives clear key votes on the House and Senate floors. The major housing bill this session, S.100, cleared the Senate floor on Tuesday, as did the bill divesting state pension funds from fossil fuel investments (S.42). In the House, the bill (H.483) tightening admissions and other requirements on independent schools that publicly tuitioned students choose to attend passed on a voice vote after passionate speeches from both sides.Read more
The Clean Heat Standard bill (S.5) made a re-appearance this week as the House began to take testimony. Not much of an indication yet of how the Committee will handle the bill, but already there has been more vocal opposition to it than was heard in the Senate.
The independent schools bill was pulled back into the House Education Committee twice this week after they rushed the bill out at the end of last week with a lack of testimony. Some of the language was improved around enrollment for students on public tuition, but is still problematic. Additionally, students will no longer be allowed to use their tuition dollars at schools across the border in Quebec. No testimony on either of these issues was taken by the Committee. Not a good look for those responsible for our public policy supporting Vermont students.Read more
Two more problematic bills moved out of committee this week. The first was a bill tightening restrictions on independent schools who receive public tuition dollars under Vermont's historic town tuitioning system. We have been following this bill for quite a while and, although duplicative, the bill was generally acceptable until a new provision was added the day before the Committee was set to vote on it... That provision would disallow any sort of normal application processes to play out before schools make enrollment decisions. Current rules prevent discriminatory behavior, but schools still saw value in bringing students in for site visits before enrollment so they could begin planning how to best meet their needs. The bill would prevent this as well as other criteria such as program alignment. This was particularly concerning for students ability to use their tuition dollars at specialty schools like ski academies, which were not given an opportunity to comment on the bill. We are hopeful that this language will be fixed by a House floor amendment or by the Senate.Read more
The week leading up to town meeting was a mixed bag. The full potential impacts of the carbon-pricing legislation (S.5) were averted by an amendment from the Senate Appropriations Committee, which they claim turns the bill into a "study." In actuality it still asks the Public Utilities Commission to build a carbon-pricing system for heating fuels, but then the legislature will need to sign off on it before those rules they develop go into effect. Essentially they are building the bus and then deciding whether or not to drive it, versus designing the bus first and then deciding if they should build it. Perhaps a small distinction, but an important one.
Also, despite a full-throated attack from from public school administrators, the House seems reluctant to move forward on a bill that would end Vermont's historic town tuitioning system. If that holds true, that's a win for rural Vermont!Read more