Vermont Legislative Update Quick Links
Health Department creates COVID-19 portal
The Vermont Department of Health has created a portal for information related to COVID-19 and will have updates on the status of the virus from the State, CDC and the White House.
The page has links for frequently asked questions related to:
- Prevention Monitoring
- Specific precautions older Vermonters should take
The page provides specific guidance for the following groups:
- First responders
- Health care professionals
- Long-term care facilities
- Schools, child care programs and colleges
Senate committee modifies renewable energy bill
The Senate Natural Resources Committee took final testimony from two witnesses this morning on S.267, a renewable energy standards bill, before tentatively deciding to amend it to eliminate a provision that would have raised rates by four to ten percent every year for ten years.
John Hollar of DRM testified on behalf of GlobalFoundries, the state’s largest manufacturer, about the significant impact the bill would have on the company’s costs. GlobalFoundries’ electric bill in Vermont is already $15-20 million higher than the amount the company pays for comparable power purchases in New York State. S.267 as passed by the Finance Committee would add another $1.5 to $3.8 million annually.
Ironically, the bills’ costs do not relate to the requirement for 100 percent renewable power, a standard utilities testified they could reach with minimal rate impact. Rather, the costs would be caused by requiring them to double their purchase of high-cost, in-state renewable power (so-called Tier 2 purchases).
Following the testimony, committee chairman Chris Bray, D-Addison, said he would propose an amendment to eliminate the Tier 2 requirement and replace it with a study. As the swing vote on the committee, Bray’s announcement largely ensured the change would be approved. It is unclear when final action will be taken by the committee.
Finance considers ban on flavored tobacco products
The Senate Finance Committee took testimony on Tuesday on S.288, a bill that would ban all flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes.
Many of the witnesses were hostile to the proposal, reflecting the opposition of Committee Chair Ann Cummings, D-Washington, to the scope of the bill.
An economist consultant for the tobacco industry argued that the bill would cost Vermont about $20 million in revenue. That estimate was largely ignored by the committee and was refuted by legislative economist Graham Campbell, who estimated the cost at closer to $5 million.
Cummings has suggested that the committee would consider a bill that exempts not only menthol cigarettes, but also certain kinds of vaping products that she believes are not used by kids. That proposal is strongly opposed by health organizations.
The bill is a priority for the committee, and the scope of it will be determined when the legislature returns.
Senate Institutions members riled by inaction on unfunded pension liability
Representatives of the Vermont Business Roundtable appeared before the Senate Institutions Committee this week to argue for reforms to address the dramatic and growing unfunded liability, which now stands at nearly $5 billion. VBR President Lisa Ventriss was joined by long-time pension reform advocate David Coates and Mark Crow, owner of Tenth Crow Creative.
Coates said the states total outstanding pension liability in 2019 equals $7400 per resident. The growth in liability is the result of faulty assumptions and a poor investment strategy. The state’s average rate of return has been six percent, while it has continuously assumed a return rate of 8%. He said the state needs to perform an independent stress test to fully understand the scope of the state’s risk.
Committee members grew increasingly agitated by the presentation and the state’s failure to address the problem. Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, reiterated his frustration that State Treasurer Beth Pearce has failed to recommend a plan to the legislature. Committee Chair Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said, “We’ve reached the point where we cannot let this issue go.” He said he would work with his House counterpart on a plan.
Vermont State Employee Association President Steve Howard also testified, and not surprisingly had a different take on the situation. Although he said the union agrees with the scope of the problem and the need for a solution, they do not agree with the VBR recommendations.
Howard said the union supports a two percent surcharge on the wealthiest Vermonters to pay off the unfunded liability. That proposal appeared to have little support among committee members, who said it would do nothing to address the structural issues that caused the problem.
Sen. Benning concluded the hearing by saying, “This problem is getting worse by the hour.”
Bill would regulate new facial recognition technology
The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development this week considered H.595, a bill that would require businesses to provide notice to consumers when using facial recognition technology.
The bill was proposed by the Office of Attorney General in response to concerns that individuals and businesses can use a combination of “screen scraping” and biometrics to collect and sell personal information. For example, apps that can scrape and “map” Facebook photographs can identify individuals within seconds. This technology is also used to gather data on children.
The Attorney General’s Chief of Staff asked the legislature to pass a bill only a few days ago, but they had not proposed any actual language as of this week. That brought loud protests from technology companies, who argued that they should be able to respond to a specific bill.
After holding a public hearing on the issue, the AG’s office reconsidered its approach and proposed a study instead that would allow all stakeholders to weigh in. The AG’s office intends to hold meetings over the summer and propose a bill for next session.
In related news, on Tuesday, Attorney General T.J. Donovan filed a lawsuit against Clearview AI, an industry leader in facial recognition technology, alleging violations of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act and a new data broker law. Clearview also collects this information on children.
Economic incentive proposals move to Senate Finance
The Senate Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Friday passed S.256, a bill that includes a variety of economic development provisions. The bill includes a new employee incentive program, a tax increment financing pilot project, and a novel convertible loan program under Vermont’s Employment Growth Incentive program:
- New Vermont Employee Incentive Program
- Up to $5,000 for qualifying relocation expenses for new employees and up to $7,500 for a new employee who becomes a resident in an enhanced Labor Market Area.
- Tax Increment Financing Project Development; Pilot Program
- A project-based TIF program intended for communities with smaller, specific projects.
- A maximum of 15 projects in the pilot program.
- Not more than five projects approved per year, and not more than one project per municipality.
- Capital Investment Convertible Loan Program
- An incentive to smaller businesses in the form of a convertible loan in order to upgrade facilities, machinery, and equipment and to increase total payroll.
- Businesses would be required to make monthly, interest-only payments during the award period. The interest rate shall not exceed one percent.
- A loan shall convert to a grant at the end of the award period if the business remains in good standing on the loan, and the business meets or exceeds its capital investment and payroll requirements.
- The award would be offered to businesses with 30 or fewer employees, may not exceed $150,000, and would be over a three-year period.
- Report on larger employers
- The Vermont Economic Progress Council shall report on recommendations concerning the design and implementation of an additional incentive program within the VEGI program.
- The purpose of this program is to incentivize large, anchor businesses throughout Vermont to make significant capital investments in their Vermont facilities.
- The report will study the economic benefits that large employers currently provide, particularly in rural areas of the State, and the negative impacts that occur when such employers diminish.
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