Although negotiations with the governor’s office had been going on for some time on the budget and yield bills, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Tim Ashe met with the governor for the first time since our adjournment in May on Tuesday, June 20. That meeting led to a compromise agreement that the Legislature approved last week.
I am frustrated with this last-minute deal making. It avoids the formal legislative process, virtually eliminates any input from individual lawmakers, and could lead to significant unintended consequences from whatever compromise is worked out.
I also find it frustrating that a budget that passed 143-1 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate, with no increases in taxes or fees as requested by the governor, was held hostage while they negotiated over collective bargaining for teacher health care.
Regardless of these challenges, I am proud of our accomplishments this legislative session, including the most fiscally responsible budget in a decade.
Budget: no new taxes or fees
The budget that both the House and Senate passed this year made significant investments in Vermonters without raising taxes or fees. We made significant investments in mental health care ($8.3 million), child care for working families ($2.5 million), and higher education ($3 million). We listened to working Vermonters and small businesses and made investments in economic development through expanded support of Small Business Development Centers, Micro Business Development, economic development marketing, and career and technical education. Knowing the value of supporting work in rural Vermont, we also made additional investments in working lands, Farm to School programs, and the logging industry.
Retirement plan for small business employees
Sixty-eight percent of employees at Vermont businesses with 50 or fewer employees don’t have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Providing workers with a convenient way to save for retirement is an important way to increase an individual’s assets and reduce the need for social services in retirement. That is the purpose of the Green Mountain Retirement Plan, which was created through legislation this year. The plan will be available on a voluntary basis to employers with 50 employees or fewer who do not currently offer a retirement plan to their employees, and to self-employed individuals. The plan will automatically enroll all employees of employers who choose to participate in the plan. The plan will be funded by employee contributions with an option for future voluntary employer contributions. The plan will be overseen by a seven-member board that will set program terms; prepare and design plan documents; and be authorized to appoint an administrator to assist in the selection of investments, managers, custodians, and other support services.
I sponsored this legislation in the House and helped shepherd the legislation through my committee, Government Operations, and reported it on the House floor where it passed.
Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an ethics commission and has consistently received a very low grade when it comes to government accountability. The vast majority of our state and local elected officials are trustworthy, dedicated individuals who put the interests of Vermont and their constituents first. However, corruption, even in small doses, can undermine public trust in government. That is why the passage of Vermont’s first ethics law is such an important step.
The legislation establishes an independent state ethics commission. It prohibits legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office. It imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting and related campaign contributions involving statewide candidates/office holders. It requires financial disclosures for legislative and statewide candidates and also for executive officers. It requires the creation of a state code of ethics. And it also requires each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees. While considered by many only a modest step forward, this legislation nonetheless helps to provide the public assurances of governmental transparency, integrity, and propriety.
I helped get this legislation through the House Government Operations committee and worked on compromise language with the Senate so that this important legislation passed both houses. It was an honor to be in Montpelier last week when Gov. Scott signed this important legislation.
With Maine, Massachusetts, and Canada moving toward a regulated market for marijuana, the House and Senate passed legislation to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. The bill continues to impose penalties on the possession of marijuana by individuals less than 21 years of age and imposes penalties on those who enable minors to consume marijuana (an amendment I drafted). Other amendments I was able to add to the legislation included (1) amending the open container law to add marijuana, (2) prohibiting the use of marijuana in a motor vehicle with a child present, and (3) prohibiting the use of marijuana at child care facilities (over 50% of child care is home-based).
Delaying the effective date of this bill to July 1, 2019, will allow additional time to put in place necessary traffic safety precautions as well as education and prevention programming. The legislation also creates a commission to consider how to regulate and tax the retail sale of marijuana. As noted, the governor has vetoed this legislation, but he is interested in working with the legislature on a compromise. Stay tuned.
Decertification: A remedy for police misconduct
Another bill that we worked on in the House Government Operations Committee, which passed both the House and Senate, spells out the type of misconduct that will lead to discipline and decertification of police officers. Until passage of this legislation, police officers could only lose their badge under narrow circumstances. This new legislation details categories of misconduct and the penalties for such misconduct. Also included in the bill is language which will put an end to so-called “agency hopping.” If an officer resigns from one agency when facing possible discipline and is seeking employment with another agency, any disciplinary proceedings will need to be disclosed to the hiring agency. The bill goes a long way to ensuring that “bad actors” will not be detracting from the high quality of Vermont’s law enforcement.
Paid family leave
The United States is one of the few developed countries that does not mandate paid family leave. Similar to President Trump’s paid leave budget proposal, the House passed legislation that would provide up to six weeks of leave at 80% of salary for employees. Leave may be taken for the birth or adoption of a child or to take care of a family member with a serious illness. Studies from other states have shown increased productivity and other benefits from those that have used it to keep themselves and their families healthy. There will be no cost to businesses for this program. The cost will be born by employees at the cost of 0.141% of an employee’s income. This bill is now in the Senate.