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Seven Issues to Watch in the Vermont Legislature

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When the Vermont legislature reconvenes this week, it will feature plenty of fresh faces. Nearly 40 of the House's 150 members will take office for the first time — or after a hiatus — and at least seven House and Senate committees will have new leadership.

But don't expect that turnover to result in a fresh set of debates. In fact, the best place to look for legislation that will animate the 2019 session may be the list of 14 bills Republican Gov. Phil Scott vetoed during his first term in office.

The difference this time around: After picking up a dozen seats in November, House Democrats and Progressives will join their Senate counterparts in holding veto-proof majorities.

So what's on the docket? After posing that question to legislators, lobbyists and administration officials, Seven Days identified seven issues to watch in the new session. These aren't necessarily the most significant, the most controversial or the most likely to gain traction — but they stand a good chance of dominating the debate.

A couple of caveats are in order: The governor has yet to outline his own agenda — and Vermont's legislative session is always full of surprises. At this time last year, nobody would have predicted that a Republican governor and a Democratic legislature would work together to pass the state's first significant gun-control laws.

Chances are, though, that these seven topics will generate plenty of heat this winter.

Payday

Two legislative favorites the governor vetoed last year are certain to return this session: a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave.

Senate Democrats will waste little time reintroducing a bill to boost the minimum wage from its current $10.78 per hour to $15 by 2024, according to Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden).

The fact that other states have implemented even more aggressive wage hikes since Vermont last debated the issue should make the Scott administration more supportive of an increase, Sirotkin argued.

Or not.

Scott still worries that state-mandated pay raises would trigger job losses and believes that wages will grow if the economy does, according to his spokesperson, Rebecca Kelley.

"I think people who focus on job losses are really not seeing the upside," countered Sirotkin, who said the policy would result in tens of millions of additional dollars in the pockets of Vermonters who need the money most.

Paid family leave will make a similar return this year.

Last year's bill, which was pushed by House Democrats, would have provided workers up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave or up to six weeks of family leave. It was to be funded by payroll taxes that supporters considered modest but that Scott said would burden businesses.

Kelley said the governor supports voluntary versions of such programs but has concerns about the economic impact of mandatory programs on employers.

One key question: Will Democrats try to override Scott on both bills in the same year — or will they pick their battles?

— K.M.

Waterways and Means

Lawmakers and governors have spent years discussing how to clean up the blue-green algae blooms that turn parts of Lake Champlain and other Vermont waterways the color of pea soup. But they've never reached agreement on a long-term plan to pay for the costly work.

Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said temporary funding for antipollution work will run out this summer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told state officials last year that Vermont's lack of financial commitment could put the state in violation of the Clean Water Act.

"It was bridge funding," Bray said of current spending. "Well, we've crossed the bridge. We need to [land] somewhere."

Environmental advocates, who looked on with frustration last year as the governor threatened to veto every proposed water quality funding bill, are optimistic that this year will be different.

"The governor and the administration have indicated a willingness to spend some money and that's a big improvement," said Brian Shupe, executive director of the Vermont Natural Resources Council. "The only thing missing is a funding stream."

Bray plans to arrive at the Statehouse with a proposal in hand. His legislation would impose an annual $40-per-parcel fee on Vermont properties that Bray said would bring in as much as $14.4 million of the $18 million needed for the work each year.

Scott has indicated that he has a proposal to pay for clean water but hasn't revealed the specifics.

— T.D.

Locked and Unloaded?

After Andrew Black, a 23-year-old Essex man, killed himself with a newly bought handgun on December 6, his family called for a waiting period on firearm purchases to prevent impulsive acts of gun violence. In response, Sen. Phil Baruth (D/P-Chittenden) said he would propose a 48-hour waiting period and a requirement that guns be locked up when not in use.

It's unclear whether lawmakers will have the appetite for yet another divisive firearm debate. Just last year, they mandated background checks for most gun sales, raised the purchasing age to 21, limited magazine capacity and banned bump stocks.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said Baruth's latest proposals would impair Vermonters' ability to protect themselves from wildlife, intruders or abusive partners.

"If somebody is breaking in to your house, you're not going to simply say, 'Wait a minute. I want to go unlock my safe-storage container,'" Benning said.

Scott, who proposed last year's gun laws, doesn't support the proposal, either.

"The governor doesn't believe additional changes to our gun safety laws should be the focus at this time," Kelley wrote in an emailed statement. "As our new laws take effect, it's important to focus on the underlying causes of gun violence and suicides, so we can continue to strengthen the safety of communities, schools and all Vermonters."

— T.D.

A Second Act?

It won't be the sexiest issue the legislature tackles this session, but overhauling the state's landmark land-use law could prove to be one of its most consequential undertakings.

After more than 18 months of work, a state-appointed commission finished its report last Friday on the successes and shortcomings of Act 250 since it was enacted nearly 50 years ago. The law requires large-scale development projects to be reviewed for 10 environmental and community criteria, such as traffic, water quality and aesthetics.

The commission found plenty of room for improvement, according to VNRC's Shupe, who served as an adviser to the commission. "The truth is, Act 250 has become clunky and outdated in some respects, and it does need an update to achieve its vision," he said.

A key commission recommendation is to address climate change by requiring developers to minimize — or at least offset — carbon emissions in their projects.

Project review would be based not only on the size of a development but also on its location to increase protection of sensitive areas, such as waterways and forest lands, said Rep. Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury), who chaired the commission.

The panel noted that the number of impaired waterways in the state has risen from 126 in 2002 to 224 in 2018. It also found that land development in the state has far outstripped population growth in recent decades.

Sheldon said her commission also hopes to strengthen the administration of Act 250 by adding professional staff to the Natural Resources Board and broadening its charge to handle appeals.

The current judicial appeals process can be expensive and intimidating for appellants, Sheldon said, and transferring responsibility for handling appeals to a new board should restore some needed consistency and citizen accountability to the process.

— K.M.

Just Cause

The resignation of one of Vermont's few legislators of color could prompt her former colleagues to take action on a number of racial justice bills.

Kiah Morris, a Democrat who represented Bennington in the Vermont House, dropped her bid for reelection last August and resigned her seat in September, citing family health issues and repeated acts of harassment.

"If somebody can do that to Kiah with impunity and wreak so much havoc in her life, just imagine how many other lives across the state are being destroyed on a daily basis," said Mark Hughes, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Justice for All.

Hughes and other leaders of a broader coalition, the Racial Justice Alliance, plan to push half a dozen bills this year. Some are already gaining traction.

A constitutional amendment that would eliminate references to slavery in the Vermont Constitution has attracted strong support among lawmakers, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) told Seven Days last month.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said her chamber hopes to strengthen impartial policing regulations and create ethnic studies standards for schools — both priorities of the alliance.

Hughes is also seeking to form a commission that would consider whether the state should formally apologize and issue reparations for "the fundamental injustices, the cruelty and the inhumanity of slavery in Vermont."

To those who believe Vermont stamped out slavery with the passage of its constitution in 1777, Hughes says, "Stop pretending that it never happened."

— P.H.

Pot Shot

It's been legal to get stoned in the Green Mountain State since last July and to buy marijuana in neighboring Massachusetts since November. Those changes may satisfy some users in southern Vermont, but cannabis advocates and many lawmakers say Vermont is wasting an opportunity to collect tax revenue and to regulate the potency and quality of cannabis products.

Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover) plans to introduce a bill this year that would legalize the retail sale of marijuana and establish a system to tax and regulate the pot market.

Gov. Scott has opposed expanding access to the drug on the grounds that authorities don't have a reliable roadside test for impairment and that more resources need to be dedicated to youth prevention and education.

Young said he's been working to include recent recommendations from the governor's marijuana commission into his legislation, but he doesn't see a need to delay any longer.

"People can go to Massachusetts right now," he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said Young's bill faces uncertain prospects.

"We've passed it, I think, four or five times in the Senate, so I don't anticipate huge problems there," Sears said. "But I think we'll run into problems in the House and the governor's office."

— T.D.

Changing of the Guard

One of the more closely watched decisions of the legislative session won't be legislation at all, but the election of a new leader for the embattled Vermont National Guard.

Maj. Gen. Steven Cray's pending retirement as adjutant general of the Colchester-based regiment was announced in November following intense media scrutiny of alleged misconduct at the 4,000-strong Guard.

A seven-part VTDigger.org investigation last year into the Green Mountain Boys, as the state's combined Air and Army National Guard units are known, described instances of alleged alcohol abuse, cronyism, sexual harassment and retaliation against a whistleblower.

Gov. Scott downplayed the allegations, saying he didn't see any reason for an independent investigation. Some in the legislature, however, are taking the claims of a toxic environment for women in the Guard more seriously.

"It's a big damn deal," said Rep. Jean O'Sullivan (D-Burlington), who has prodded the Guard to improve its reporting on the recruitment and retention of women.

An internal report on that very subject is due out at the end of the month, and O'Sullivan says she's urged Cray and the author to be "stunningly complete" in their description of the issues.

Whether the controversy will influence the selection of a new adjutant general — and how — remains to be seen. Vermont is the only state in the nation where the legislature elects the Guard's leader.

Two candidates are known to have been lobbying legislators, Air National Guard Brig. Gen. David Baczewski and Army National Guard Col. Gregory Knight.

The current controversy, combined with the fact that the last several adjutant generals have been from the air side of the operation, may well lead to a changing of the guard.

"The army feels that it's their turn," O'Sullivan said.

— K.M.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seven Issues to Watch in the Vermont Legislature"

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