The VT Statehouse Insider – Week 8
The final two weeks of February are often the most dynamic of the entire legislative session. Policy committees begin to pass bills and prepare to make budget recommendations and the budget adjustment bill is usually nearing final passage and a trip to the governor’s desk. This week was no different, with a flurry of committee activity in the push to meet crossover deadlines.
There was also a hint of a budget standoff brewing between Republican Governor Phil Scott and the Democratic supermajority in the legislature. Ever since the House passed the FY2023 Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) in early February the administration has voiced concerns with the level of spending in the bill compared to the governor’s proposal. The administration has noted on multiple occasions that additional spending in the BAA will take away from the governor’s proposals in the upcoming FY2024 budget. Democrats have defended the additional spending – most of which is geared toward housing – as urgent and necessary.
Governor Scott held a press conference this week along with senior members of his cabinet to highlight his proposal to set aside $150 million of state funding for future fiscal years. The purpose is to ensure state matching funds are available in future fiscal years to draw down all available federal funding. Pandemic-era federal programs such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provide funding at higher levels so long as states can provide matching funds. While Vermont is in good shape to match federal programs this year, state economists have warned that future fiscal years may be leaner, putting matching funds at risk.
Democrats have also stated their desire to ensure no federal money is left on the table, but the governor’s press conference comes at a time when the House and Senate are about to begin negotiations on the FY2023 BAA, which currently includes more spending than the governor supports. These could be the early days of a growing budget standoff, particularly as the legislature works through the FY2024 budget.
This week the House Education committee continued their review of H.258, a bill that restricts public dollars to independent schools. Among other provisions, H.258 requires a school district that does not maintain an elementary or high school to designate up to three public schools to serve as the public school of the district. The bill also repeals the definition of approved independent school and the approved independent school approval process. The bill would essentially prohibit most independent schools from receiving public dollars. This proposal is particularly concerning in more rural areas of the state where towns are often too small to operate their own public schools. Many lawmakers across the political spectrum represent districts that depend on independent schools to educate their children, and this issue is expected to be contentious in both chambers.
This week the House Environment & Energy committee continued their review of H.158, also known as the “Bottle Bill.” H.158 proposes to expand Vermont’s existing beverage container redemption program beyond beer and soda containers to include water bottles, wine bottles and sports drinks. It would also create a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) beginning in 2027. A PRO is an organization that assumes responsibility for collecting and recycling certain products. Stakeholders who oppose expanding the bottle bill say that the expansion would increase the cost of recycling and create a hefty burden on distributors and redemption centers, among other businesses.
The House Commerce & Economic Development committee met on Thursday to walk through H.121, a data privacy bill, with Legislative Counsel David Hall. As he had done in previous testimony, David Hall repeatedly raised concerns about the language in the bill being too vague, unworkable and possibly unconstitutional. He only made it halfway through the bill in an hour and a half. He will come back and review the rest of the bill with the committee later.
ABORTION AND GENDER AFFIRMING CARE
This week the Senate Health and Welfare committee continued its work on S.37 , An act relating to access to legally protected health care activity and regulation of health care providers. This is a so-called “shield bill” that is aimed at protecting Vermont health care providers who offer abortion or gender-affirming care services to individuals from states where these services are illegal. The bill codifies the current practice whereby commercial health insurers and Medicaid cover abortion and gender-affirming care services in Vermont. However, the bill adds a new mandate that prohibits commercial health insurers, but not Medicaid, from imposing cost-sharing, such as co-pays and deductibles, for patients seeking abortions. The committee has scheduled a vote on the bill early next week.