OVER THE HEDGE
Tensions were on the rise this week in the Vermont statehouse as the Senate Appropriations Committee worked to refine their version of the FY2024 budget. It is normal for the annual spending bill to become the center of the Vermont political universe in April, but this year feels more intense. This is in part due to significant state surpluses and federal stimulus money, and in part because Governor Phil Scott and the Vermont Senate and House seem to be relatively far apart on their budget priorities.
The governor has made it clear he is frustrated with Democratic spending plans because he thinks they are financially unsustainable. The governor and members of his administration are advocating against proposals to increase motor vehicle fees and implement payroll taxes to pay for childcare and a paid family and medical leave insurance program. They say the state’s fiscal outlook is too uncertain to pursue these goals, and that the state can increase spending on childcare and paid leave without raising revenue. The governor has also expressed frustration that the House passed a budget that did not include many of the priorities he proposed in January.
Since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the creation of a paid family and medical leave insurance program has been a high priority for the Vermont House, while the Senate has prioritized other issues, including increasing the minimum wage and more recently universal child care. Earlier this session the Senate passed S.56, a bill that establishes a comprehensive child care subsidy and grant program.
In the statehouse hallways and cafeteria some Democratic representatives and senators have expressed concern about the opposite chamber’s marquee piece of legislation. Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate are looming, but the two chambers will need to get on the same page before these priorities can be delivered. This reality seems to be setting in, and tensions are running high.
The issue of guaranteed access to financial literacy education for Vermont high school students has received a great deal of attention with Vermont’s press corps in recent months. H.228 would guarantee that all high school graduates receive at least one semester of financial literacy education. While the bill was introduced in the House, the Senate Education Committee has expressed interest in the idea, and held a hearing this week to hear from the Agency of Education (AOE) on the subject. AOE raised concerns with curriculum mandates, though supporters of the proposal have been clear that H.228 guarantees financial literacy education for high school students while maintaining maximum curricular flexibility which is important given Vermont’s emphasis on local control in school districts.
This week the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard from numerous businesses and industry associations that had significant concerns about H.121, the data privacy bill. The committee decided that the bill wasn’t ready to move forward this year and would benefit from more work over the summer and fall. Two options discussed were either to create a stakeholder group or to allow the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee to meet off session to continue to work on the bill. There was wide agreement among committee members that they want to work to pass a privacy bill next year. They want to review existing data privacy laws, including those in Connecticut, Colorado and California, to come up with a solution that works for businesses and consumers. The committee’s leadership is planning to consult with the Speaker to discuss study options.
This week the House Health Care committee took up S.37, “shield bill.” The bill contains various provisions that protect health care providers, patients and others who provide or receive abortion care or gender-affirming care in Vermont. The bill already passed the Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary committee is taking testimony on H.89, a bill that revises Vermont’s court procedures and processes to “shield” health care providers offering abortion care or gender-affirming care to patients who traveled from states where those services are illegal. Both bills are a priority for legislative leaders this year.