Guns, marijuana and pensions: What will survive the legislative session?

There’s been almost no one in the House of Representatives, above, or the Senate this year, as the Legislature does its business remotely. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

After two months of business in the virtual Statehouse, lawmakers will scramble this week to meet Friday’s deadline for policy bills to move from the House to the Senate (and vice versa).

The midsession passage of bills from one chamber to another is called crossover. What lawmakers ditch or push through by the crossover deadline sets the stage for the rest of the 2021 session.

On the table, along with many others are permanent mail-in voting, pension reform, expanded broadband access, a ban on flavored tobacco, racial equity in the marijuana marketplace and a loophole allowing the use of police chokeholds.

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, anticipates lawmakers will approve a $32 million broadband expansion proposal, a measure to make child care more affordable and a package of social justice and racial equity bills.

The House deadline for money bills — the state budget and tax and fee changes — is March 19.

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, said senators are working to pass bills for a universal school meals program, to help launch the state’s marijuana market, and to set up an inspection system and statewide registry of all rental units — including short-term vacation rentals.

On Saturday, the U.S Senate passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that would extend the length of federal unemployment benefits, provide $1,400 stimulus payments to most Americans and send $1.25 billion to Vermont. The U.S. House voted earlier on a massive Covid relief bill, but needs to vote again to accept the Senate changes.

The Senate version of the bill would provide $200 million to Vermont municipalities and more than $1 billion to the state government to address health care and economic needs associated with the pandemic.

The Legislature had already been working on a state-based Covid-19 relief bill. The Vermont House has passed a $79 million version to help Vermonters and businesses. That includes $10 million in business grants, more than $5 million to bolster the state’s mental health system and $20 million split evenly between affordable housing and outdoor recreation infrastructure projects. The Vermont Senate is reviewing the proposal with an eye to moving it quickly.

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According to Krowinski, the House Appropriations Committee is crafting a second, much larger coronavirus relief bill that would spell out how the state should spend the $1.25 billion from the federal government, assuming that package becomes law.

“I’m still on my mission here to create a recovery plan that leaves no Vermonter behind,” the speaker said.

Lawmakers may decide to extend the legislative session, which typically ends in May, or take a break and come back later in the year to decide how to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government.

That’s what happened last year, when legislators passed a partial budget in the spring and returned in the fall to prepare a full spending package and determine how to deliver federal Covid-19 dollars.

“We’d like to stick as close as we can to our usual legislative schedule,” Balint said. “But we reserve the right that if we need to either go a little bit later, or basically do all the work and then come back for a short time in the fall like we did last time— we can do that.”

Universal mail-in voting could be here to stay

The Senate appears ready to make universal mail-in voting a fixture of Vermont’s general elections.

The Senate Committee on Government Operations has advanced a bill requiring municipalities to mail ballots to all registered voters before a general election.

Last fall, election officials mailed a ballot to every registered voter in the state to prevent the spread of Covid-19 at normally crowded polling places. The change spurred record turnout in the November election.

Balint expects the Senate to pass the bill this week. The legislation is also a priority in the House.

The pension predicament

The state’s pension funds became a top issue after Treasurer Beth Pearce recommended in January that benefits be reduced for teachers and state employees, based on new analysis that projects the system’s unfunded liability growing by about $600 million.

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State Treasurer Beth Pearce during an interview in Montpelier on November 22nd, 2019. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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State Treasurer Beth Pearce during an interview in Montpelier on November 22nd, 2019. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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State Treasurer Beth Pearce in a pre-pandemic photo. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Pearce recommended requiring current employees to contribute more and take a lower payout, reducing cost-of-living increases for current retirees, and eliminating annual hikes altogether for retired teachers.

Legislators have pledged to address pension debt this year, and the House is taking the lead. Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said the House Committee on Government Operations, which she chairs, has been “crunching some numbers on different ways to solve the pension crisis.”

There’s no plan yet, though, and discussions continue.

Copeland Hanzas said legislators don’t want changes in the system that “impact the people who are closest to retirement,” or that affect “the people whose retirement income is the lowest.”

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She said the average annual retirement income for teachers and state employees is about $24,000.

“Nobody’s living large. Nobody’s retiring to a mansion on the intracoastal in South Florida,” Copeland Hanzas said. “We want to make sure that if we are making changes. we don’t make changes that will send those folks into poverty.”

Vermont’s marijuana marketplace

Senators plan to move legislation framing the state’s legal marijuana marketplace around racial equity.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary is expected to approve S.25 early in the week. The bill would then have to make stops in both of the chamber’s money committees.

“We need to move something,” said Sen. Party: DEMOCRATIC

Residence: BENNINGTON, VT

View all legislator information” class=”glossaryLink “>Dick Sears, D-Bennington, who chairs the committee.

The Racial Justice Alliance and other social justice groups have said the retail marijuana law that took effect last year fails to adequately address racial equity in the taxation and regulation of cannabis.

Suggestions have been made to ensure marginalized communities are better able to take advantage of the legal market and benefit from legalization, but the specifics have not been hammered out.

“I see it as our job to see what we can do on the social equity front,” Sears said.

A statewide plan for the ‘last mile’

The House is working feverishly to finish work on a $32 million broadband bill.

The House Committee on Energy and Technology approved the bill before Town Meeting Day but the funding component requires a stop in the Appropriations Committee before it hits the House floor.

The legislation would invest money to help communication union districts finish broadband buildout throughout the state, in an attempt to give all Vermonters access to high-speed internet.

There is tri-partisan support in both chambers for the bill, with all lawmakers agreeing that broadband investments are of the highest priority. U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., set aside another $100 million for state broadband expansion in the Covid-19 relief bill.

Firearms bill in limbo

At the start of the session, 16 senators signed on to legislation to prohibit people from carrying firearms in state buildings, child care centers and hospitals.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, in a pre-pandemic Senate session. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Now the bill, S.30, may not have enough votes to move out of the five-member Senate Committee on Judiciary. The proposal has drawn resistance from gun rights advocates, who say the state’s trespassing law already addresses the issue.

Sears said he and Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, lead sponsor of the bill, have drafted an amendment that would only ban firearms from hospitals.

“We decided to just basically do hospitals right now and let us take a look at other buildings in the future. But for right now, there seemed to be general agreement that hospitals need that protection, especially during times when we have a high incidence of mentally ill and so forth going to our hospitals,” Sears said.

Of the five committee members, Sen. Party: REP./DEM.

Residence: LYNDON, VT

View all legislator information” class=”glossaryLink “>Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, strongly opposes the bill, and Sen. Party: DEMOCRATIC

Residence: PUTNEY, VT

View all legislator information” class=”glossaryLink “>Jeanette White, D-Windham, has expressed reservations about potentially creating a new crime. Sen. Party: DEMOCRATIC

Residence: LUDLOW, VT

View all legislator information” class=”glossaryLink “>Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, has signaled reluctance to back the proposal.

“Right now I would guess it’s Sen. Baruth and myself,” Sears said, referring to the two committee members who do support the bill.

“We need to see where the other two are at,” he added, referring to White and Nitka.

Ban on flavored tobacco likely dead again

The Senate this session revived legislation that would ban the sale of flavored vaping and tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes. The ban was floated last year as a way to prevent young people from using nicotine products, but the proposal was sidelined after the pandemic reached Vermont.

Sen. Party: DEMOCRATIC

Residence: WILLISTON, VT

View all legislator information” class=”glossaryLink “>Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, chair of the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, said last month that she’d like the bill, S.24, to pass out of the Senate “as quickly as possible.”

But Balint said the legislation is “not a priority for the caucus right now,” and as written would not have the votes to pass the Senate.

While Balint said there is support in the Senate for a flavored vaping ban, “a number of senators really feel like adults ought to be able to buy cappuccino-flavored cigars if they decide to.”

The Senate could pass the ban this year, but she doesn’t expect the House will have the capacity to take it up this year.

House loophole on police chokeholds

Legislation in the House Committee on Judiciary would clarify a 2020 law that sharply restricted the use of chokeholds by police officers.

The measure would allow use of chokeholds when deadly force is justified, specifically when it is “objectively reasonable and necessary” to defend against serious bodily injury or death.

Last year’s law, enacted after the killing of George Floyd, made it a crime for law enforcement officers to use certain restraint techniques, such as chokeholds, that result in injury or death. An officer using those restraints could be found guilty of a new crime carrying a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

This year’s bill, H.145, would roll back part of last year’s legislation, allowing police to use chokeholds in self-defense if faced with the potential for serious bodily injury or death. The committee nearly voted on the proposal before Town Meeting Day, but tension boiled over between a Democrat and a Republican.

“I think the folks who are thinking about voting no, even though they see the improvement on this, should think real hard,” said Rep. Martin LaLonde, D-South Burlington, who has been pushing for the change. “But, you know, vote your conscience.”

Rep. Kenneth Goslant, R-Northfield, asked LaLonde if he was trying to “guilt” people into voting for the proposal.

“I think that was unnecessary,” Goslant told LaLonde.

Rep. Maxine Grad, D-Moretown, chair of the committee, tabled the vote until crossover week.

No luck for Scott with executive orders

Republican Gov. Phil Scott issued two executive orders earlier this year to streamline state government.

One would centralize and standardize the Act 250 land use permit review process; the other would have established a new state agency incorporating all of Vermont’s state-level public safety and law enforcement divisions.

The Legislature rejected both executive orders, with the understanding that both proposals would be reviewed through the normal legislative process. However, it appears neither chamber will move related bills before Friday.

“It won’t happen before crossover,” said Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.

White’s government operations committee has been considering a new super-agency for all state-level law enforcement, has already held several mammoth hearings on the subject, and does not intend to abandon the topic, she said.

“I want to make sure that we are doing this right,” White said. “Unfortunately, it means it probably will be a year delayed. If it happens. And I’m not going to say whether it will or will not happen.”

Action on Scott’s Act 250 restructuring also looks uncertain.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said that when the Senate voted down the executive order, it invited the Scott administration to draft a bill that would make the changes the governor wanted. But there’s been no bill.

“At this point, I’m not anticipating, given where we are in the calendar for the session, moving an Act 250 bill that originates in the Senate,” Bray said.

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