2017 Final Legislative Update: General Government
An analysis from DRM's Government & Public Affairs Team
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After nearly unanimous votes in the House and the Senate, the fiscal year 2018 state budget sits in limbo and has not yet been sent to the governor’s desk for action. Gov. Phil Scott said that he will veto the bill since the legislature did not act on his proposal to move teacher health care negotiations to the state level to net $26 million in savings. House and Senate leaders have argued that the proposal infringes on teacher collective bargaining rights. Adjournment was delayed for two weeks while the administration and House and Senate leadership tried to reach a compromise over the contentious issue. Despite many proposals from both sides, an agreement was not reached and the House and Senate proceeded with final action on the budget.
Legislative leaders are expected to continue negotiations with the Scott Administration prior to reconvening on June 21 for a veto session. Scott has indicated a willingness to sign the budget as is if necessary to avoid shutting down state government on July 1.
The $5.83 billion budget agreed to by the House and the Senate is a 1.3 percent increase over current year spending and includes no new taxes or fees. Provisions include:
- $8.37 million to increase salaries for Designated Agency mental health workers;
- $2.5 million in new child care funding to bring family eligibility levels up to the current federal poverty level;
- A $3 million base increase to the Vermont State Colleges and a one-time $500,000 payment for a campus merger;
- A shift of the Teacher’s Retirement Contribution from the General Fund to the Education Fund;
- $250,000 from Vermont Training Program funds to market Vermont as a place to work, and,
- $150,000 in additional funding for counselors in the Small Business Development Center regional offices.
Combining Lottery and Liquor Control
One of Scott’s reorganizational priorities will likely become law during the next session after the proposed merger of the Department of Liquor Control and the Lottery Commission was dismissed by the House as coming too late for full consideration. The proposal, which has been introduced in the House several times in the last few years, would combine two small areas of state government that involve controlled inventories and regulated sale as well as a state-run distribution, promotion and marketing system.
The proposal was hotly debated, and rejected, on the House floor in mid-session, but a provision that would get the ball rolling was added to S.238, a bill that would update and modernize laws related to the DLC. The provision establishes a task force to study how the two departments can be combined and directs the group to submit a draft bill this fall to accomplish the merger in the next legislature. The departments would be combined as of July 1, 2018.
Front and Rear License Plates Required
It has been nearly forty years since any of the 31 states that require front and rear license plates on pleasure cars dropped the front plate requirement. Within three years the two states that dropped the requirement – Massachusetts and Connecticut – each repealed the one-plate law. This year the need for front and rear license plates was a matter of contention between the House and Senate. The two-plate provision prevailed.
After the single plate provision passed the Senate with little notice and little testimony, police and public safety organizations came out in force to explain why front plates are critical to law enforcement. Rear plates may obscured by snow, eluding identification. Surveillance is required at border crossings for homeland security reasons. Automatic plate readers monitor oncoming traffic for sought vehicles at the rate of 10,000 images per day, and surveillance cameras monitoring front plates often prevent losses at convenience stores. The House Transportation Committee voted unanimously to maintain the two plate standard, and Senate conceded in a committee of conference.
An effort to legalize marijuana appeared doomed for much of the session given the dramatic differences between the House and Senate, but a compromise was developed and passed in the final days of the session. On Wednesday, the governor vetoed the bill, but left open the possibility of signing a revised bill if certain specific objections are addressed.
The bill as passed would have legalized the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana and two mature and four immature marijuana plants, which was the House approach. To mollify the Senate, the bill created a nine-member Marijuana Regulatory Commission, which was charged with developing legislation to establish a comprehensive regulatory and revenue system for marijuana legalization and submitting recommended legislation by Nov. 1, 2017.
Media Privilege Law
Some members of the news media stepped out from behind the pen and the camera to act as their own advocates in passing the state’s first Media Shield Law, a measure that will protect a reporters’ confidential notes, drafts and sources under most conditions.
Under a new two-tiered system, a court will not be allowed to compel a journalist to disclose information obtained from a confidential source or the identity of the source if the information was obtained confidentially. A court may compel a journalist to disclose certain non-confidential information if the information is highly material to a significant legal matter and cannot be obtained any other way. Scott signed the bill on May 17.
Reorganizing Vital Records
Until now, researchers looking for birth, death, marriage, divorce and similar records for either personal or legal reasons needed to understand an unorganized system where some records were held by town clerks, some were held by the State Archivist and some were held by the courts. H.111, a bill that evolved from a 2016 vital records study committee, aims to centralize the management of most vital records in a single Statewide Registration System.
A State Registrar of Vital Records will oversee the new system and will be the sole official repository of data from vital event certificates issued after Jan. 1, 1909. Town clerks will be identified as designated agents and allowed to issue both certified and non-certified copies of records. The bill also creates a single statute to deal with criminal penalties for vital record-related offenses.
Restructuring of Labor and Commerce
Matching the needs of employers with an array of workforce training programs provided by various state agencies was the aim of an administration proposal to merge most of the Department of Labor with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development into an Agency of Economic Opportunity. The proposal was summarily dismissed by the Senate Economic Development, Housing and Community Affairs Committee, which feared a loss of emphasis on the needs of workers.
The matter generated a nearly session-long debate as well as a counter-proposal by Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, to combine programs within the Labor Department instead, an idea that spawned immediate pushback from the business community over its support for economic development programs such as the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive program and the Vermont Training Program. In the end, the legislature charged the head of the Workforce Development Board with forming a task force to study the matter and make recommendations.