Heading into what will hopefully be the final week of the 2019 legislative session, we are entering the “hurry up and wait” period, as it is commonly referred to under the Dome. The key issues have typically passed both chambers at this point, however differences in the House and Senate versions often need to be reconciled, especially in big bills, like the budget and potential revenue changes. Those differences are typically resolved in conference committees, which are made of three senators and three representatives appointed by their respective chamber leadership. Often an un-appointed member of a conference committee is a representative of the administration to help resolve any potential issues with the Governor that could otherwise result in a veto.
The “hurry up and wait” is what is going on with those legislators not appointed as they wait for action by a conference committee and/or the other chamber to move a bill. Additionally deadlines are set and reset to pressure each side to make compromises and move forward to adjournment. The result in a final week is often long daily sessions going into the evening, but with breaks throughout each day waiting for the next bill to be confirmed.
While certain bills, like the budget and any revenue changes to support it, must pass before adjournment, the clock can either force compromises on other issues or cast them aside for another day. The legislature can continue the session beyond the budgeted 18 weeks, but as that can cost more money (estimated $300,000/week), that is not a popular option. Should legislators be paid at all for extra time? I suggested not last year, but changes were not made…
The jury is out on whether higher profile bills will make it across the finish line this year. A proposal for a “tax and regulate” model for marijuana, for example, has passed one House committee, but is currently in another. Prospects for completion this session appear dim.
A ban on disposable plastic shopping bags and certain other plastics (like foam cups and plates), on the other hand, appears likely to pass this week. The bill, S.113, has passed both chambers, but differences need to be ironed out. Vermont is poised to become the fourth state to ban plastic shopping bags, although a number of municipalities around the country have already passed such measures.
Clean water funding and changes to the cleanup efforts also appear to be on track. The House approved the measure on Friday with an extension of the sales tax to cloud based software. The Senate version did not include revenue, in part because taxes must begin in the House under the Constitution.
Paid family leave and minimum wage, both priorities of legislative leaders, still face hurdles. The minimum wage bill, for example, has not yet passed the House, where leaders are actively searching for a path forward. A $15 wage by 2024 would likely pass, but fall short of a necessary two-thirds to override a possible veto.
The paid leave plan was significantly scaled back by the Senate last week, with fewer benefits as well as a lower cost to taxpayers. The House version was estimated to cost $76 million annually whereas the Senate version has been scaled back to $27 million and a lower payroll tax to support it. Both plans are still mandatory, despite Scott’s preference for a voluntary plan.
Lead testing at schools and child care centers is another issue on which the two chambers have to reconcile differences. Given the importance of the subject a compromise is likely in the end.
Several tobacco related bills have been sent to the Governor and are expected to be signed into law shortly. They include raising the age to 21; a 92% tax on vape products (e-cigarettes) and prohibition of online sales of e-cigarettes.
Legislation that mandates a waiting period for certain firearm purchases, S.169, may or may not move in the coming week. The House Judiciary Committee is slated to take up the issue on Monday, a clear sign the legislation may move forward this week.
A proposal to set-up Vermont’s first-ever certification and registration process for building contractors is plugging along in several House Committees. The measure is included in a housing bill, S.163, which passed the Senate earlier in the session. While the measure is expected to gain approval in the House, time remaining in the session could be its enemy.
Meanwhile a backdrop to many of the various issues in play, including the state budget, is a concern raised by Governor Scott on total spending increasing more than he proposed. Whether the congeniality exhibited all session will carry forward in the final week (or two), is still an open question.
Jim Harrison, email@example.com, State Representative, Rutland-Windsor-1