THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS
Lawmakers settled into their committees during the first full week of the 2024 legislative session as the House and Senate Appropriations committees worked through the proposed FY2024 Budget Adjustment Act (BAA). The budget writers are hoping to move quickly through the mid-fiscal year spending bill in advance of the FY2025 budget proposal, which Governor Phil Scott is expected to present on January 23.
The governor has notified lawmakers that his FY2025 proposal will be limited to a three percent increase, which effectively level funds the budget and in some cases would reduce funding for programs due to inflation and other economic factors. Democratic leaders are also setting expectations with their caucuses and committees that pandemic-era spending levels will be curbed as emergency federal funding dries up.
These dynamics give week two of the 2024 legislative session a feeling of the calm before the storm. Tensions between the Republican governor and Democratic supermajority in the legislature have been elevated since June, when lawmakers overrode a number of Scott’s vetoes, including the FY2024 budget bill. As a result the governor laid responsibility for the state’s economic challenges at the feet of Democratic legislators in his State of the State speech last week, which reinforced the already combative tone between the two branches of state government.
While the budget landscape and the political battle lines have yet to take shape, there are some high-profile initiatives that are underway as of week two. Governor Scott held a press conference to announce his major housing initiative, surrounded by legislators of all three political parties. H.719, which is the governor’s top priority, would implement wide-ranging reform of the state’s development and permitting regulations in an effort to increase housing stock in the state.
The governor’s top message to the legislature and public heading into the 2024 session has been that housing is the single most important priority to improve quality of life and opportunity for Vermonters. The governor has tied the issue to affordability, health care, workforce development and business growth. The legislature generally agrees that housing is a top priority. However, the devil is in the details when it comes to reforming Act 250 the longstanding land use law, and it is likely the policy and politics of housing will dominate the legislative session.
Another high-profile conversation in the early days of 2024 is flood recovery. Representatives from communities affected by the catastrophic July flooding provided extensive testimony in various committees this week on the impact – and outstanding cost – on their communities. It is a stated priority of both the administration and legislature to fund ongoing flood recovery and a significant effort is underway to identify funding possibilities on the federal, state and local levels. Flood recovery conversations will continue in the context of the FY2024 BAA and the FY2025 budget.
While lengthy floor debates are more common later in the legislative session, one bill passed by the House this week sparked two days of lengthy floor time. H.72 would modify Vermont’s drug laws and authorize “safe consumption sites.” Proponents of the bill argue H.72 is a harm reduction bill that will reduce overdoses and increase access to care for people struggling with substance use. They also argue the bill will increase public safety by taking drug activity away from the public and into a controlled environment. Opponents argue safe consumption sites are not proven to work and that the bill diverts resources from proven harm reduction programs. The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.