The Vermont Statehouse Insider 2023 – Week 15

Beginning of the End

The Senate Appropriations committee approved their version of the FY2024 budget on Friday. The stakes are high as Democrats in the House and Senate work to find a path to achieve their legislative priorities while the standoff with Republican Governor Phil Scott over the budget heats up. As the Senate Appropriations committee worked through the budget this week, the House Human Services committee passed their version of one of the top Democratic priorities – childcare.

The House Human Services committee passed S.56, which would significantly increase subsidies to childcare programs and families that utilize childcare and incentivize growth in the childcare sector. The committee voted 10-1 to approve S.56, which reduces the price tag of the bill as it passed the Senate by $28 million. House Human Services reduced some of the subsidy increases and removed a parental leave provision that was included in the Senate version of the bill. The House has prioritized a universal paid family and medical leave (PFML) insurance program and did not feel the Senate program in S.56 was adequate. As a result, the House Ways and Means committee is contemplating how to fund both childcare and the more robust PFML insurance program established in H.66, which passed the House earlier this year and is currently in the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs committee.

The future of childcare and PFML depend on the House and Senate reconciling their differences on funding mechanisms and on priorities. Whatever budget package emerges will likely have to withstand a gubernatorial veto, as Governor Scott has become increasingly critical of the spending levels being proposed.

By a surprisingly strong 114-24 vote, the House passed S.37, the “Shield Bill” on Friday. The bill is designed to protect health care professionals who provide abortion care or gender-affirming care to those traveling to Vermont from states where those services are illegal. A House floor amendment was added to ensure the abortion pill Mifepristone, caught up in a battle before the U.S. Supreme Court, remains legal to prescribe and use in Vermont. The bill also requires health insurers to cover abortion care and gender-affirming care, services they already cover, but imposes a new requirement that prohibits cost-sharing for abortion care. This stands in stark contrast to many other states that are passing bans on abortion care and gender-affirming care. Long-time statehouse observers wonder if the strong House vote was in part due to the fact that a majority of voters in every town in Vermont voted in favor of the Reproductive Liberty Amendment to the Vermont Constitution last November.

The Senate Natural Resources committee took testimony this week on H.158, also known as the “Bottle Bill”. The original Bottle Bill, passed in 1972, established a redemption system that charges consumers a small deposit when they buy certain beverages. H.158 expands Vermont’s existing beverage container redemption program beyond beer and soda containers to include water bottles, wine bottles and sports drinks. It would also create a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) beginning in 2027. A PRO is an organization that assumes responsibility for collecting and recycling certain products. Stakeholders who oppose expanding the bottle bill say that the expansion would increase the cost of recycling and create a hefty burden on distributors and redemption centers, among other businesses. There has also been criticism of the bill for continuing to divert the unclaimed deposits. The organizations that will be tasked with running the PRO are asking that they be allowed to keep 100 percent of
the unclaimed deposits in the PRO for the first five years, when costs are expected to be substantial as the program is designed and investments are made in new technology and infrastructure.