Governor Phil Scott called on legislators to support his proposal to return half of the more than $90 million Education Fund surplus to Vermont taxpayers and dedicate the other half to strengthen Vermont’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) system. The Governor’s tax proposal, if supported by the Legislature, would return about $250 - $275 to Vermont residential property taxpayers through a rebate check that would be issued this summer. In the same vein, the Governor called on the Legislature to provide funding for Ukraine, equivalent to $1 per Vermonter, just over $650,000. Swift action was taken by the legislature as H.717 flew through both House and Senate. The bill also appropriated $1,749 which equals the total amount of funds collected by the Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery from sales of Russian-sourced products during the period from February 24, 2022 to March 2, 2022.
It appears the Senate found a strategy to override the Governor’s veto of the Contractor Registration Bill, H.157, by including the controversial registration program in a must-pass housing bill designed to address Vermont’s housing crisis, S.226. The Administration prioritized Vermont housing needs but does not support the current proposal for creating a registration program for residential contractors. The Senate action sets up the potential for a “showdown” at the end of the session.
On Friday, the House mustered up enough votes (102-47) to override a vetoed piece of legislation (H.361) that will allow youth voters (those 16-17) to vote and participate in certain local elections in the Town of Brattleboro. Time will tell if this same issue finds its way to other towns throughout the State in the coming years.
The Legislature plans to continue funding Vermont’s Worker Relocation Program to attract new residents to the State and grow the workforce. Two other states, Maine and Alaska, and cities within 6 other states have similar programs. Vermont is an incredibly beautiful state that offers an amazing quality of life. Why is it we must entice people by a monetary incentive to relocate here? States with similar lifestyle opportunities do not appear to be paying people to move to their home turf. Maybe a study should occur that looks at what those states offer that Vermont doesn’t. After all, who doesn’t like a good study?
The optimistic idea of things being back to normal this week at the Vermont Statehouse, other than the face masks, came to a screeching halt when public members and lobbyists tried to attend committee hearings in person. Wishful thinking. The room capacity was so limited that people were gathering in empty rooms and corners of the building listening to hearings on their phones or tablets. Being a fly on the walls of the Statehouse would show that things are still far from normal.
Is the “pandemic” finally winding down for real this time? Possibly, with cases continuing to drop, some children went back to school maskless, towns are lifting mandates, and the state is moving away from third-party contract tracing of the virus. It is finally time to “loosen the spicket” but state leaders are still trying to decipher how that should occur. Many Lawmakers seem ready to remove the masks under the golden dome especially considering the town of Montpelier has removed their mask mandate. There have been requests from members of each chamber to remove the mask requirement and move forward with modifying rules to be more in line with the latest CDC recommendations, which essentially leaves it up to the individual. We expect leadership to address this next week.
H.715 An act relating to the Clean Heat Standard
This bill proposes to establish the Clean Heat Standard to reduce Vermont’s greenhouse gas emissions from the thermal sector. The Clean Heat Standard shall be administered by the Public Utility Commission with assistance from the Clean Heat Standard Technical Advisory Group and the Equity Advisory Group.
The bill appropriates $600K to the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to hire 3 support positions to implement the plan and authorizes the PUC to establish a system of tradeable clean heat credits earned from the delivery of clean heat measures that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The PUC shall determine what the credits and offsets are and their value. In addition, $600K is appropriated to the Department of Public Service (DPS) to retain consultants that support the verification and evaluation of the Clean Heat Standard credits and for associated operating costs related to implementation.
Details of the proposed program are not defined in this bill which is unsettling to some legislators. Questions arose regarding who is required to participate, for example, wood pellets which are often sold by local retail stores. Timeline is to initiate organization of the program by August of 2022; the program would go into effect January 2025.
The bill passed out of House Energy and Technology prior to the Town Meeting break; House Appropriations will vote next week on funding included in the bill. Click here for the bill as recommended by House Energy and Technology.
H.703 An act relating to promoting workforce development
The bill proposes a long list of workforce development programs and initiatives including:
- Funding for Critical Workforce careers, prioritizing health and safety (To be determined with House Human Services)
- $5M for a forgivable loan program for college students who remain and work in VT for 2 years after graduation
- $1M to State Refugee Office for grants to support refugees or new Americans working in VT
- $387K to VT Technical College to develop a skilled meat cutter training and apprenticeship program
- Study to look at Career and Technical Education (CTE) system to improve delivery of courses and funding model
- $3M to the Department of Labor to launch and lead a coordinated regional system to support the State’s workforce expansion efforts
- Vermont Work Based Learning and Training Program to serve transitioning secondary and postsecondary students and Vermonters seeking work-based experience as part of career change
- Creation of Vermont Trades Scholarship Program for employment or career advancement in a building, mechanical, industrial, or medical trade, or clean energy, energy efficiency, weatherization, or clean transportation
- Vermont Trades Loan Reimbursement Program for those employed in the building trades, energy efficiency or clean energy sectors.
- CTE Construction and Rehabilitation Experiential Learning Program and Revolving Loan Fund to provide funding to expand the experiential and educational opportunities for high school and adult CTE students to work directly on construction projects.
- A variety of programs and grants to support and retain Vermont’s Health Care workforce
On Friday afternoon, House Appropriations got a preview of the bill from House Commerce & Economic Development and instructed them to prioritize programs as the Committee cannot appropriate the approximately $50M in funding included in H.703.
Click here for the latest draft of the bill.
Education Fund Surplus Proposal for CTE
House Ways and Means Committee heard from Daniel French, Vermont’s Secretary of Education about a proposal to use the $95.7M forecasted education fund surplus to help Vermonters.
The Governor proposes that the surplus be treated in two ways:
- Returning half of the surplus to homestead property owners through rebate checks of about $275 per parcel
- Investing in workforce development programs in K-12 settings, such as career technical education (CTE), including upgrades to existing facilities.
CTE and Workforce Expansion would do the following:
- Creation of a “revolving fund” for CTE centers to purchase houses to flip, addressing both housing shortage and workforce training. CTEs could also purchase land for teaching programs to build infrastructure and the land could later be sold. Cost estimate: $15M
- Fund a competitive grant program for facility and infrastructure upgrades directly tied to high-need workforce expansion. Cost Estimate: $28M.
- Development of just-in-time, rapid deployment training opportunities to assist CTE students in mastering the skills for Vermont’s high-need jobs in trades and healthcare. Cost Estimate: $5M
The proposal is under consideration by legislative committees.
S.263 An act relating to supporting economic development
This bill proposes various economic development programs including but not limited to:
- Increasing Vermont’s minimum wage to $15/hour by 2024
- Paid Sick Leave changes:
- Increase the minimum rate at which earned sick time accrues and require employers to permit FT employees to earn at least 80 hours/year
- Expands permissible uses of earned sick time to include isolation related to a communicable disease
- Establishes a grant program to reimburse employers for the cost of providing paid sick leave for COVID-19 related reasons
- Establishes a legislative study of paid family and medical leave in VT
- Requires administration to contract with an insurance carrier to provide family and medical leave insurance to all State employees and to make that insurance available to other VT employers
- Amends the existing unpaid leave law to reflect new Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program
- Requires all FT employees to be enrolled in Family and Medical Leave Insurance Program and permits employers to enroll PT employees and allows individuals to enroll
- Provides funding to establish a Family and Medical Leave program and to reimburse employers for the cost of coverage for FT employees through 2026
- Enacts a temporary UI Supplemental Benefit Program funded with ARPA funds
- Increases the weekly UI benefit by $25 and requires reports related to the implementation of the increased benefit
The UI Supplemental Benefit was passed last session but failed to happen due to a conflict with use of federal dollars for UI benefits. The Senate Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs Committee planned at the start of the session to include this benefit in a bill. The inclusion of increased minimum wage and paid family leave benefits at a time when wages are higher, and employers are offering many attractive benefits packages will create interesting debate as this bill moves forward.
On Friday, the Committee considered adding a report from Department of Liquor and Lottery for a market study and recommendations of Vermont’s sports betting market as they continue work on the bill next week.
Click here for the latest draft of bill and here to view summary table of S.263.
S.284 An act relating to weatherization
This bill proposes to accelerate the weatherization of homes in Vermont. The bill proposes the following:
· Improve energy fitness of at least 120,000 housing units by 2031
- Provide assistance of up to an average of $8,500 per unit
- Appropriate $20M for Home Weatherization Assistance Fund
- $500K to Department of Labor to provide training subsidies to contractors and businesses for internships
- $333K to Vermont Technical College for training and career path programs in the building trades
- $600K to Vermont Technical College for mobile workforce training labs
Senate Natural Resources and Energy voted 5-0 in favor of moving the bill. Senate Appropriations and Education committees will review the proposals next week. Click here to view the bill as recommended by SNR.
H.492 An act relating to the structure of the Natural Resources Board
The purpose of this act is to strengthen the administration of the Act 250 program by changing the structure, function, and name of the Natural Resources Board. Included in the changes:
- Appeals of the Act 250 permit decisions to be heard by a five-member board called the Environmental Review Board.
- The Environmental Division of the Superior Court would continue to hear the other types of cases within its jurisdiction.
- The Environmental Review Board would keep the current duties of the Natural Resources Board in addition to hearing appeals.
- The Board would provide oversight, management, and training to the Act 250 program and staff and District Commissions,
- The Board would develop Act 250 program policy through permit decisions and rulemaking.
House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife voted 8-3 H.492 to move the bill out of committee on February 24th. House Ways and Means Committee reviewed the bill and amended it as follows:
- Removed board’s ability to hire personnel for particular proceedings
- Increased appropriation for new positions to $384K – increase of $84K
- Added reporting requirement for report due in December of 12/23 to include whether the Board should be able to assess their costs on applicants
House Ways & Means voted 8-3 to move the bill. As House Appropriations reviewed the bill and the amendment, Rep. Robert Helm (R-Rutland) commented “this is a 36-page bill that I walk through the door 5 minutes ago and it was on my desk. That doesn’t feel comfortable to me.”
House Appropriations plans to amend the bill by removing the language that raises the per diem amount as it relates to pay for members of the newly created board. The Committee will consider the new language next week and vote on the bill.
Click here to view bill as recommended by House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife and here for amendments to H.492 as passed by House Ways and Means.
S.226 An act relating to expanding access to safe and affordable housing
This bill proposes to increase the supply of affordable housing in this State, promote homeownership, and broaden housing opportunities for Vermonters.
In a last-minute move before crossover, the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee decided to include H.157 An act relating to registration of construction contractors, which was vetoed by the Governor on February 16th. Both the Administration and the Legislature are focused on addressing Vermont’s housing crisis and S.226 provides several programs and funding to ease housing burdens faced by Vermonters. The inclusion of H.157 could derail efforts and cause a showdown between the Legislature and the Administration.
The bill will be taken up by Senate Finance Committee next week.
Click here to view the bill as recommended by Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs.
S.234 An act relating to changes to Act 250
This bill proposes to make multiple amendments to the State land use and development law, Act 250, including easing the permit requirements for Priority Housing Projects to quickly increase affordable housing in Vermont.
Included in the bill:
- A report on ACT 250 jurisdiction over Agricultural businesses, with recommendations on how Act 250 jurisdiction should be applied to agricultural businesses, including those located on properties already operating as farms – page 21
- Implementation of the Road Rule, which requires Act 250 permit for “construction of a road, roads, driveway, or driveways, which as a single road or driveway is greater than 800 feet, or which in combination is greater than 2,000 feet, to provide access to or within a tract or tracts of land of more than one acre owned or controlled by a person. The rule does exempt a road used primarily for farming or forestry purposes unless used for a residential purpose. – Page 16
- Creates a study committee to look at structure and function of the Natural Resources Board and report to the General Assembly proposed changes
- Amendments of definitions used in Act 250 – page 6
- Amendments of rules for Forest Blocks to prevent forest fragmentation – page 11
- Directs Secretary of Natural Resources to complete and maintain resource mapping based on GIS or other technology – page 14
- Amends rules for permitting for wood products manufacturers – page 17
Senator Chris Bray (D-Addison) introduced S.235, An act relating to Act 250 jurisdiction over agricultural businesses, at the start of the session and elected to incorporate the proposal into S.234. A search through the Committee’s agendas posted this session did not show evidence that testimony from agricultural business was requested or taken on the impact of Act 250 jurisdiction over agricultural businesses. The bill was referred to the Senate Finance Committee.
Click here to view the bill as recommended by Senate Natural Resources and Energy.