Harrison Announces Candidacy for New Legislative Term

Jim Harrison of Chittenden announces his candidacy for a new term as state representative for the Rutland-Windsor–1 district (Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon).  Harrison was first appointed by Governor Scott in 2017 to complete the term of former Representative Job Tate, who was deployed by his US Navy Reserve unit.

Harrison, an independent minded republican, believes strongly in fiscal responsibility and advancing bills that will improve the state’s economic future. He brings a pragmatic approach to issues and knows how to compromise where appropriate.

Jim is the former president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, a position that prepared him well for the challenges of working with a broad group of lawmakers and representing members of the legislative district.

“I pledge to continue keeping district residents informed through bi-weekly email updates, meet and greet sessions and weekly newspaper columns. I take the responsibility of being the state representative for the district very seriously.” said Harrison.

Governor Phil Scott, who first appointed Harrison to the legislature, added, “Jim knows the process and is a respected voice in Montpelier. We need him back working for the people of Vermont.”

A member of the House Government Operations Committee, he has sponsored legislation to improve the state’s economy, improve the efficiency of the legislative process and state government, lower taxes on Social Security benefits, streamline the Act 250 process, consumer protection measures for small businesses and allowing pharmacists to disclose the cash price of prescription drugs, among others.

Since stepping down from full time with the association in 2016, he now works seasonally at Green Mountain Golf Course in Killington.  Jim and his wife, Pat, a registered dietitian, have lived in Vermont for over 30 years and in North Chittenden since 2006. They have two adult children and two grandsons.

Overtime averted…for now

The regular session of the 2018 legislative session was gaveled down at 12:18 am Sunday morning, the conclusion of the 18 weeks allocated in the current year budget. The last few days, especially Saturday, were at times intense and emotional.

When lawmakers arrived back at the State House Saturday, it was not looking at all like the session would adjourn, with a number of bills needing to be yet finalized including the “must pass” state budget for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1.  Additionally, most pieces of legislation to be voted on the last day would need rules suspension to bring a bill up for immediate action if not already on the Calendar (3/4 vote needed), something that was far from certain on some of the more contentious issues.

In the end, negotiators between the House and Senate came to agreement on the major bills necessary for adjournment, but were unable to reach agreement with the Governor. The key item for Scott was the increase in the statewide property tax bill included in H.911. He has been clear all session that he would oppose any bill that included tax or fee increases.

To get agreement with the Governor on education funding would have required the use of more one-time funds than what the legislature had allocated for property taxes. Scott said it was unconscionable to raise taxes on Vermonters when State revenue was showing a surplus. House and Senate budget writers believed a sizable amount of the surplus should be used to pay down some of the unfunded liability in the teachers retirement fund, indicating that move would save taxpayers more money in future years.

It is unclear how many bills will be vetoed by the Governor, but we can be sure that H.911 and H.924 (tax and budget bills), will be among them. Others, such as $15 minimum wage and a new payroll tax to fund a new paid family leave benefit lead a list that Scott has been clear on his objections to lawmakers. What was unusual this year is that the legislature adjourned for the year, without leaving themselves a possible session to take up gubernatorial vetoes. What that means is that any bills Scott rejects over the next few weeks will not become law, period. No votes will be taken by legislators to override any of them.

Once the legislature adjourns sine die for the biennium, only the Governor can call the General Assembly back for a special session, something he all but promised in his final remarks just after midnight Sunday morning, “I’m sure we’ll see each other soon.”  Special sessions are rare in Vermont, but certainly have happened. For example, Howard Dean called the legislature back one time to propose a sales tax increase to avoid a state deficit.

Special sessions cannot necessarily be limited to specific issues though. The legislature could, for example, pass any bill that Scott vetoes and send it to him again. Or, if pragmatic lawmakers prevail, objectionable bills could be amended so that they would pass muster with the executive. The best option, however, might be to do what is absolutely necessary to reach agreement on the budget and education funding bills and keep the session to a couple of days at most.

A more comprehensive recap on some of the legislative initiatives approved this session will be provided later.

Periodic postings and insights on Saturday’s marathon session from vtdigger can be found at https://tinyurl.com/statehouseendgame.

The $58 Million Dollar Question

Will the 2018 legislative session wrap up this week is the $64,000 question or in this case, more appropriately the $58 million question? History tells us when there are deadlines, compromises are made at the eleventh hour and adjournment happens. While we hope that is what happens this coming weekend, I am not so sure at this writing.

Much like last year, the main issue is centered on education funding, specifically the statewide property tax, and the increasing cost of educating our declining number of K-12 students. Student enrollment is down from a peak of more than 100,000 to 76,000 students this year and projected to decline another 7,000 in the next eight years. The Governor has proposed using $58 million of one-time funds to keep property taxes level in exchange for initiatives that hold promise to reduce the cost of education going forward.

Proposals, such as reducing staff ratios, have not been well received by legislative leaders. Scott’s plan would set a target ratio of student to all staff of 5.5 to 1 over the next five years, compared to the current statewide average of 4.3 to 1, the lowest in the country. Statewide healthcare benefits, which held up last year’s session, appear to now have wider support in the State House following the NEA’s change in position to move to a statewide formula.

The onetime money is largely from expected increases in tax revenues this year that are in part due to larger transactions by individuals and corporations from the sale of businesses, anticipated federal tax reforms and a 2017 stock market rally. Additionally, the state received a onetime payment of some $30 million related to the tobacco settlement.

While education funding needs to be resolved in some fashion, there are a number of other issues that legislative leaders appear to teeing up for vetoes by the Governor. With S.103, relating to the process of adding expansion of banned chemicals in Vermont, already vetoed, there are potentially some 15 more that could face the same fate.

For example, the House gave approval to S.105 last Friday that restricts what businesses can include in their waivers (typically required before certain activities like balloon rides), and is strongly opposed by ski areas and many in the outdoor recreational community. Also late on Friday, the House Appropriations Committee advanced without recommendation, S.40, which increases Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 over several years. The motion to advance without recommendation suggests there was not support in the committee to advance it favorably and that House leaders indicated they wanted the bill on the floor. Scott has indicated he is opposed to a state mandated $15 wage over concerns about its economic impact.

Meanwhile the Senate Appropriations Committee did the same thing for a new paid family leave proposal that is funded with a new payroll tax on employees. Again, it is sure to be vetoed by the Governor.

And then there is are new taxes in the clean water bill, S.260.  Other bills contain so called “poison pills” like citizen lawsuits. Could we be facing a record number of vetoes this year? (11 is the current record set by Howard Dean in 1994). Advancing bills to the Governor when it very clear they will be vetoed suggests it is being done to articulate political differences and not in response to actually trying to pass a new measure.

It is my sincere hope that cooler heads prevail in the final days of the 2018 session and the appropriate compromises are made by both the executive branch and majority party leaders in the legislature. It may take some late nights this week, but where there is the will, there is a way.

End Game

With the legislative session scheduled to end by May 12, it remains a bit of a mystery as to how it will all come together. The veto of S.103, a chemical bill, could be a signal that the Governor will stand firm on other bills that impose new taxes and fees, or in his view, hurt the state’s economy.
The only “must pass” legislation is the annual state budget before the session can conclude. With total spending, albeit some differences in priorities, close to the administration’s proposed cap, I don’t believe it will be the budget bill that holds up adjournment this year. However, even small differences can create significant obstacles at times.

It remains unclear to me and perhaps others, how the current stalemate on education funding will get resolved in the final days. The Governor has reaffirmed his opposition to H.911, which lowers property taxes but at the expense of a new income tax surcharge (House version). Town clerks aren’t fans on some of the changes either, as the House version requires them to send out two tax bills, one for education and another for municipal government.

For this week's full report

“Mud Season”

As Vermonters well know, especially those of us on dirt roads, we are approaching mud season. It may not be our favorite time of year, but we take solace in knowing that green grass, warmer temperatures and spring flowers are just ahead. In some respects, this is the “mud season” of the annual legislative session. Some of the bill making and “mudslinging” may not be pretty, but perhaps necessary, as we prepare for adjournment in a few weeks.

With the Governor’s release of a letter listing about 15 bills making their way through the process that he had concerns, it will be interesting to see if the differences can be bridged. While no one wishes for a special Veto session to address any gubernatorial rejections, dates have already been put forth by legislative leaders for mid-June, for just that. The list includes bills that may contain a new tax or fee, or in the Governor’s view, make it harder to grow the state’s economy. The $15 minimum wage proposal is one such bill in his view.

One of the bills dealing with toxics, S.103 is also on the list. It has already been passed by both chambers and sent to the Governor. It allows the Health Commissioner to add new chemicals to the state’s list of banned items in products without the approval of the advisory committee currently in place. Global Foundries, one of the state’s largest employers, expressed serious concern over that change in the bill. We may know, as early as Monday, whether the Governor will veto or sign the legislation.

While the Governor has called for cooperation in addressing his concerns about the list of problem bills, legislative leaders believe they have a job to do that is independent of the Governor. “The governor believes he has a non-negotiable position,” Senate President Tim Ashe said in an interview this week. “The Legislature has non-negotiable positions....”

Meanwhile, a $120,000 allocation to study “decarbonization” is in the budget that passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate. The Governor has been adamant over any new carbon tax or spending more money to study it.

With the legislature scheduled to adjourn on May 11, the next few weeks will determine if the session will be extended to work out differences or the legislature will return in June to fix “must pass” bills like the state budget or education financing.

Second Half of Legislative Session Begins

It was great to see so many people at the town meetings in each of the district towns last week. Bridgewater’s meeting was unique in the sense that it was held at the Long Trail Brewery, which had closed its popular restaurant on Tuesday to allow the town to have its meeting there. I received several great questions on various hot topics in Montpelier from gun control to property taxes and a $15 minimum wage.

And congratulations to all newly elected and re-elected select board members, school board members and other town office holders. These are the folks committed to making a difference in our communities, often serving in volunteer capacities.

As I reported at each of the meetings, last week marked the halfway point of the legislative session. A number of proposals still on committee walls are likely dormant for the balance of the year, while many other initiatives are passing from the House to the Senate or vice versa.

In the wake of marijuana legalization signed into law in January (effective July 1), the Vermont House approved legislation that would allow law enforcement to use a saliva test when driver impairment is in question. The tests could be used to screen drivers for marijuana and six other drugs. While the measure passed the House on a wide margin, passage in the Senate this session is far from guaranteed.

In an effort to keep discussions on a carbon tax alive, the House Natural Resources Committee passed out a bill to spend $100,000 to study the issue some more. H.763 advanced along party lines. The Governor has indicated he does not support a carbon tax nor any bill to spend state money to study carbon taxation.

The House gave approval to legislation, H.614, which would require a fireworks retailer to let customers know that they need a permit to use fireworks and must comply with any local ordinances regulating them.

Ed Funding, School Safety & Coyotes

Leadership in the Vermont House made it a priority earlier this session to address the way we fund K-12 education. The current system, which was born out of Act 60 about 20 years ago and later amended with Act 68, when the sales tax was increased to 6%, is confusing. Many believe there is a disconnect between spending and property taxes when an estimated 70% of Vermont households are getting some type of income sensitivity and don’t see the full impact of approved budgets. Throw in a statewide yield formula and CLA (common level of appraisal) and per pupil spending where not all students are counted equally, it’s no wonder there are many critics of the current system.

The House Ways & Means Committee has been working nonstop since the beginning of January on changing the funding to one that includes higher income taxes, but with lower residential property taxes. It also throws out income sensitivity reductions so the final result is going to be different for each taxpayer. In the coming weeks, we will get a better picture as to the appetite of the Legislature to tackle this issue before adjournment.

The need for better school safety has emerged as a priority for legislative leaders and the Governor in the wake of the horrific shooting in Florida and the threat that was fortunately averted, in Fair Haven. The center of the issue is likely to be a debate over guns and what restrictions should the state adopt.

This past week the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced legislation that would allow law enforcement to seize firearms from a person deemed a risk to themselves or others for up to 60 days. When the bill moves to the full Senate this week, there will be proposals for expanding background checks and potentially other restrictions. The issue will then move to the House where I serve.

I suspect most legislators, as I have, been receiving a wide variety of input from voters in their districts advocating everything from banning guns to not adopting any new restrictions. I will follow the discussions closely and will likely support those changes that make sense and not those that are designed to just score political points. Doing nothing is not an option, nor is just a focus on firearms.

In an effort to keep discussions on a carbon tax alive, the House Natural Resources Committee passed out a bill to spend $100,000 to study the issue some more. H.763 advanced along party lines with Democrats on the committee in support and Republicans opposed. The Governor has indicated he does not support a carbon tax nor any bill to spend state money to study carbon taxation.

And perhaps a little like the items on the town meeting agenda where you least expect it, sparks the most debate, the House spent two afternoons last week discussing and amending a bill that bans coyote hunting completions.  H.636 bans organized competitions, which would make Vermont the first state to do so, if enacted. The original proposal could have also put an offender in jail for up to 60 days, something that was eventually taken out on a 75-64 vote (amendment to remove jail time was co-sponsored by Rep. Buckholtz, D-West Hartford. I supported her effort along with Rep Kimbell, D-Woodstock).  It is important to note that no license to kill coyotes is required and coyote hunting by individuals or groups of hunters is still legal under the proposed legislation.

Key Issues Emerging

The key issues of the 2018 legislative session are now becoming evident. The Senate approved a minimum wage hike to $15 last week, while at the same time, downplaying a proposal for a new paid family leave bill passed by the House last May. Will there be a standoff between Speaker Johnson and Senate Leader Ashe? Or will both bills pass in the end and potentially face vetoes from Governor Scott? A lot can happen in two months….
Last week also saw another horrific gun shooting at a school in south Florida and closer to home, an arrest for an alleged plot for a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. It was the latter incident that caused the Governor, a staunch second amendment supporter, to indicate that everything needed to be open for discussion on how to best protect our students, even our gun laws. The Fair Haven incident this past week, which was fortunately averted, could very well change the conversation in Montpelier.
Meanwhile the House Ways & Means Committee is busy with a proposal to make significant changes to the way the state funds education. A public hearing is scheduled for February 21 at the State House.

Read more

Serious Work of Session Begins

With three weeks under its belt, the Vermont legislative session is beginning to take shape. With legalization of recreational marijuana dispensed with, attention has returned to many of the “pocketbook” issues facing the state and its residents.

Last week, the administration and lawmakers got some good news in regard to revenue forecasts. State economists are now projecting an $8 million increase in revenue for the current fiscal year and a potential $30 million increase for next year. After a number of revenue downgrades over the past 10 years, any change to a positive forecast is welcome news. The economists, however, suggest their forecasts are soft and that the state should use caution given the uncertainties on how the federal tax changes will impact Vermont going forward.
On Tuesday, Governor Scott will be delivering his Budget Address to a special Joint Assembly of the House and Senate. He is expected to reiterate his call for no new tax or fee increases for the second year in a row. This pledge comes in spite of proposals to institute a state carbon tax, paid family leave funded by a new payroll tax, new funding for clean water and estimates of a significant increase in the statewide property tax. There is a strong likelihood of confrontation between the executive and legislative branches before the session is over this spring. There are already rumors of potentially two, not one, dates in June for veto sessions (Veto sessions are necessary when the Governor vetoes a bill and the legislature returns to either override the veto or adopt new legislation to address the Governor’s concerns.)
On a side note, I proposed legislation to institute electronic roll call voting in the Vermont House. With the average roll call vote taking 15-17 minutes apiece (each of the 150 House members are called upon to vote in alphabetical order), it is my belief that we could save at least 10 minutes during each vote and over the course of a session, perhaps save a few days and get our business done early. The Rules Committee, comprised of leaders from both major parties and chaired by Speaker Johnson, tabled the proposal for now. They did, however, agree to continue researching the idea. To my way of thinking, if we are interested in Government being efficient, as well as open, then perhaps we should set an example with this one small common sense step. 

Education funding – Are there any magic answers?

With current estimates suggesting a 7-8% increase in the statewide property tax, education revenues and expenses are going to be under a microscope this session. School boards and administrators have a difficult job to contain per pupil costs as student enrollments are declining. And decisions to close schools are often contentious and unpopular.

Last spring, the Governor proposed negotiating teacher and staff healthcare benefits at the state level, a proposal that was unpopular with the NEA and legislative leaders. In the end, the legislature and Governor agreed to lower education spending by $13 million with targets for healthcare benefit savings. Statewide, those targets were not met, perhaps not even close.

Expect another look at statewide negotiations and a number of other proposals, including staff ratios, to be considered in the coming months. A 7% or higher property tax increase is not palatable for taxpayers or lawmakers.