Vermont Legislative Update 02-01-2019
An analysis from DRM's Government & Public Affairs Team
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House Commerce pauses bill to ban non-compete agreements
After hearing limited opposition from the business community to a bill that would ban virtually all non-compete agreements, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee initially planned to vote out the bill this week. By Thursday, however, it became clear that the business community had concerns, and further consideration of the bill, H.1, has been delayed for two weeks.
Insurance agent Alan Kinney was the only business owner to testify this week in opposition. Kinney argued that non-compete agreements are essential to allow an insurance agency to protect its client base when an employee departs. Committee members appeared receptive to an amendment offered by DRM attorney John Hollar on behalf of the Vermont Insurance Agents Association.
Committee in turmoil over proposed delay of school district mergers
For months, controversy has raged in communities throughout Vermont over school district mergers that are required under Act 46. It was no surprise, then, when Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe (a community that adamantly opposes a pending mandated merger with its neighboring towns) offered an amendment to the annual Budget Adjustment Act that would delay mergers by one year. Scheuermann agreed to withdraw her amendment after receiving a promise from House Speaker Mitzi Johnson that her proposal would receive a separate vote on the floor.
That agreement left the House Education Committee tied in knots on Friday afternoon as it wrestled with the requirement to figure out how to present the issue to the full House. Rep. Peter Conlon, D-Cornwall, offered several motions to vote down Scheuermann’s amendment and a related delay proposal. Committee members struggled to understand the parliamentary implications of voting on a motion not to approve a bill, in which yes means no and no means yes. In the end, both motions passed (meaning the proposals failed) by a vote of 7-4.
The committee continued to work Friday afternoon to satisfy a leadership command to bring a proposal to the floor, even though a majority of the committee was clearly in opposition.
Cannabis testimony continues
The Senate Judiciary Committee heard two full mornings of testimony this week on legislation to tax and regulate the sale of cannabis. The bill is on track to sail out of committee and pass the Senate, as Chairman Dick Sears, D-Bennington, pointed out similar bills have done in six previous years. None of those prior bills survived in the House, even when the House agreed to legalize cannabis.
The memory of these previous defeats was on the front of Sears’ mind this week as he pushed back at advocates’ attempts to include provisions for expungements, reparations, farm sales, allowances for public consumption, and incentives for economic growth in the bill. Sears reminded advocates that the more expansive the bill becomes, the less chance it has of passing. The last witness to testify, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, added unexpected momentum to the bill by supporting it without reservation.
The committee did hear opposition from Health Commissioner Mark Levin, M.D., who told senators it would be “unconscionable to create this marketplace” without a dedicated revenue stream for education and prevention. Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson spoke against the bill in equally strong terms, warning of dramatically lower roadway safety.
The Judiciary Committee will continue taking testimony next week while the Senate Government Operations Committee will begin discussing composition of the Cannabis Control Board, the bill’s public records implications, and the role of municipalities in regulating retail stores.
Legislators decry lack of progress in broadband expansion
Legislators in both the House and Senate this week decried the lack of progress in expanding broadband coverage throughout Vermont. In a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, complained about the lack of political leadership on broadband from the governor’s office, and said that the legislature needs to lead on the issue.
In the House Energy and Technology Committee, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, introduced two bills to expand coverage. The first, H.94, would raise the Universal Service Charge by 0.05% for four years. The revenue would be used to fund feasibility studies and technical assistance to towns trying to develop a communications union district. The Joint Fiscal Office estimates the fee increase would bring in $1.6 million each year.
The second bill, H.95, would require the Commissioner of Public Service to study the feasibility of electric companies offering broadband service.
Further hearings are expected on both bills.
Agency of Human Services presents budget to appropriators
Secretary Al Gobeille presented a general overview of the Agency of Human Services budget proposal on Thursday to the House Appropriations Committee. The budget, a $15.9 million increase over the AHS FY 2019 budget, includes a $7 million General Fund investment in childcare support, a $2 million family services initiative and $500,000 for weatherization projects.
Proposed savings in several AHS departments would come from reduced staffing, a point of concern for several committee members. Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls, said that a recent survey indicated employees feel the departments are not currently adequately staffed. That prompted committee members to request assurances that staffing reductions would not affect services that the State should be providing.
The budget proposal reflects an elimination in Medicaid funding for the Green Mountain Care Board, a gap that Gobeille proposes to fill with increased billbacks to hospitals. He reasoned that the $2.5 million reduction could easily be spread out and carried by the entities regulated by the GMCB.
AHS department heads will visit the committee next week to lay out further budget details.
Senate advances moratoriums on home health CONs
The Senate has passed S.14, a bill that extends the moratorium on home health agency certificates of need until 2025. The bill now moves to the House.
Bi-State Primary Care Association holds Legislative Day
Members of the Bi-State Primary Care Association presented to numerous committees as part of its Legislative Day on Tuesday. BSPCA is a member organization made up of federally qualified health centers, rural health clinics, rural primary care practices, clinics for the uninsured, the area health education center network, and Planned Parenthood of Northern New England clinics. Members of the Association, including more than 80 sites across the state, provide care to one in three Vermonters.
Community Health Centers of Burlington Dr. Peter Gunther and Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley Dr. Melissa Volansky said the health centers are committed to improving the health status of Vermonters and ensuring that all individuals have access to affordable and high-quality medical, mental health, substance abuse, and oral health care, regardless of insurance status or ability to pay. BSPCA members said their priorities are:
- To increase investments to integrate mental health and substance abuse with primary care;
- To expand access to oral health;
- To invest in preventive and wellness services;
- To sustain the 340B pharmacy program to ensure continued access to low cost pharmaceuticals (the 340B program is a federal program that requires drug manufacturers to provide outpatient drugs to eligible health care organizations and covered entities at significantly reduced prices); and
- To invest in workforce development strategies such as increased loan repayment for health care professionals.
Members highlighted various challenges, including recruitment and retention of providers, administrative burdens such as required prior authorizations for insurers for certain procedures or pharmaceuticals prescribed, and an aging workforce.
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