Vermont Legislative Updates

Big Questions, Few Answers as Usual Adjournment Date Approaches

When the legislature moved from the State House to the cloud eight weeks ago, it was anyone’s guess as to how that would work. The answer, it turns out, was about as well as one could expect. Small committees have functioned better than large ones; the 30-member Senate has worked vastly better than the 150-member House; and legislators have similar (or greater) technical challenges as the rest of us who are working remotely.

Lawmakers now have two enormous tasks ahead of them, and it’s not at all clear how they will accomplish them in this strange virtual environment:

  1. Determine how to spend more than $1 billion in federal Coronavirus Relief Funds within the restrictive (but vague) confines of the law; and
  2. Close a massive state budget deficit (without using much of #1).

Those decisions are largely being put off until late summer. In the short term—between now and mid-June—lawmakers will pass an FY 2020 budget adjustment to accommodate changes in the current fiscal year. That reconciliation has turned out to be surprisingly straightforward. And they will pass a so-called “skinny budget” which will appropriate money for the first three months of FY 2021.

The real work will happen when lawmakers “return” in late August from a summer recess to accomplish tasks #1 and 2. That will almost certainly be a virtual return, with the State House likely closed for large gatherings until next year.

Thus far, all legislative decisions have been made by consensus, which has been easy to do in light of the immediate public health and financial crisis. But tasks #1 and 2 will necessitate major policy choices, some of which will naturally become partisan.

In a wide-ranging interview yesterday on Vermont Public Radio, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe gave little indication of how those choices will be made. We are left now with mostly questions:

  • How will the legislature respond if the federal government refuses to backfill state budget deficits?
  • What will Gov. Phil Scott’s and the legislature’s appetite be for budget cuts and tax increases?
  • How will committees function as they grapple with complex policy and program choices?
  • Will committees even matter, or will decision making, by necessity, be consolidated?
  • How will the bodies—and most significantly the House—manage to debate controversial issues?
  • Will committees take up non-COVID-19 legislation?
  • How will outside interests and the public be heard?

This is the time of year when we would normally put our weekly Legislative Update on hiatus until the legislature adjourns for the year. In this anything-but-normal session, we will continue to publish periodic Legislative Updates, but our publication schedule will be driven by legislative news and not our usual Friday deadline.

We will continue to keep our clients informed on the details of committee hearings, floor proceedings, caucus meetings and other relevant activities.

Read the full May 8, 2020 Legislative Update.

Other News

State of Vermont Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force

Vermont Governor Phil Scott has established the State of Vermont Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force. The Task Force is tasked with providing expertise to mitigate the economic impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, by providing strategies to speed recovery and providing technical assistance. The Task Force is made up of three action teams: (i) the Restart VT Team which will develop plans for “the smooth, safe and orderly reopening of the economy in concert with the State Emergency Operations Center and the Department of Health”, (ii) the Local Support and Community Action Team, which “will interface with local groups to learn what is being done on the ground in communities and what can be replicated and shared statewide,” and (iii) the Employer Financial and Technical Support Team, which “will focus on increasing financial and technical support capacity for small and large businesses.” The Action Teams are supported by Agency of Commerce and Community Development Deputy Secretary Ted Brady, Economic Development Commissioner Joan Goldstein, Housing & Community Development Commissioner Josh Hanford and public affairs expert and small business owner Dennise Casey.

Open meeting laws

This bill would suspend current laws for duration of the declared state of emergency due to COVID-19 and would allow the public body to meet by electronic means. It would also extend the time limit that a public body would have to post meeting minutes by ten calendar days.

Election laws

The other piece of legislation sets for temporary election procedures. This would not extend beyond 2020 elections. The intent of the legislation is protect public health, safety, and welfare. The legislation would eliminate the requirement for a person seeking office to gather voter signatures on their petition and would shorten the time period in which people seeking office would submit their statement of nomination. Section 2 will be amended to clarify only a statement of nomination or candidate consents would be submitted. Additionally, the legislation allows the Secretary of State, in consultation with the Governor, to authorize  appropriate election procedures including: requiring mail balloting, creating early or mail ballot collection stations, permitting clerks to begin counting in 30 day window preceding election day, permitting drive up window collection of ballots, extend time to process and count ballots, and extend voting day hours. Finally, the legislation would allow the legislative body to submit a request to the Secretary of State to authorize the use of Australian ballot systems.

Have more questions about what’s happening at the Vermont State House? Reach out to Patti Komline.

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