Last week House Speaker Shap Smith told lawmakers to be prepared for a May 5 end date, but if last Friday’s five and a half hour Senate debate over an expansion of the bottle bill is any indication of the shape of things to come, even that deadline may be overly optimistic. The 146-page Senate calendar on Friday was loaded with 28 pieces of legislation; senators got through a handful.
The bottle bill discussion also led to the pairing of strange bedfellows. It wasn’t the first time there has been an ironic bit of party role reversal in the Senate, and it likely won’t be the last this session. Already, several Republicans and liberal Democrats have joined hands to battle moderate Dems over some of the most controversial issues of the session: marijuana decriminalization, patient directed death, unionization of child-care employers and public ownership of private transmission lines.
This state of affairs has sown discord in the Green Room, largely fomented by members of the freshmen class. Lawmakers have taken to publicly chastising one another on the floor of the Senate and in the media (Seven Days, the Burlington Free Press and Green Mountain Daily). The strife has reached a fever pitch and is now being blamed for a delay in the originally scheduled April 27 adjournment.
As Sen. Claire Ayers, D-Addison, put it on Friday evening, after she gently chided her colleagues for tardiness (the Senate typically starts a half hour after the body is supposed to convene): “The work we don’t do now, we’ll be doing in May.”
Even May 5, at this point, could be cutting it close unless the Senate can buckle down and focus on the key must-pass legislation between now and Friday: the budget, miscellaneous tax, health care reforms, and the environmental fee bills.
If the budget and tax bills go to conference committee by Friday, adjournment on May 5 is a solid bet. If not, chances are slimmer. As of Monday, neither bill was listed on the Senate calendar. In years past, the average interval between the passage of the Big Bill in the Senate and adjournment has been about two weeks.
Members of the House pretty soon won’t have any work left to do. House Speaker Smith has asked representatives to hold Saturday the 28th, the 30th and “should it be necessary, to be ready to come in the 5th (of May).”
One of the issues the House will take up in the interim, Smith says, is H. 718, the Department of Public Service housekeeping legislation that critics of the Green Mountain Power/CVPS merger want to use as a vehicle for an amendment that would require the utilities to refund $21 million to ratepayers. House Commerce and Economic Development is expected to vote the bill out of committee on Tuesday and the legislation will go to the floor on Thursday.
Once the Senate votes out the money bills, there are still many issues between the two bodies to resolve.
Here is a list of key differences the House and Senate have to work out before adjournment:
If there is a General Fund surplus, the Senate wants to use about half the money to issue refund checks worth $30 to $75 or more to property taxpayers. Senators say this is the only way to guarantee the money isn’t absorbed by the education system. The House wants to return half of any surplus to the Education Fund.
“I do have some concerns with whether it actually works or not,” Smith said. “I imagine it will be a subject of some discussion between the bodies. My sense from talking to Janet (Ancel) and Martha (Heath) they were skeptical of it being a good idea. Our feeling is the best way to deal with a budget surplus is to put money in the Rainy Day fund, a federal reduction fund and the rest toward rebasing the Education Fund transfer.”
The General Fund transfer to the Education Fund was “rebased” to 2008 levels, which reduced the total by $27.5 million for 2013. The decrease in the transfer will put more pressure on local property tax rates.
Funding for the working landscape
The House set aside $1.9 million for the “working landscape” bill, which creates enterprise grant programs for agricultural and forestry entrepreneurs. The funding would also cover a full-time “working landscape development director,” along with support staff, fiscal management and operational costs for the fund. The program is designed to foster economic development in the farm and forest sector.
The Senate Appropriations Committee has cut the funding to $422,000 (not including $88,000 for food stamp card swipe machines to be used at farmers’ markets).
Smith says there could be a fight over the funding. “We think this is a great economic development bill that provides monies to entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector,” Smith said. “We’ll fight to put the money back.”
Entergy’s has paid about $7 million per year into the Clean Energy Development Fund since 2005. That payment ended when the company’s license to continue operating the Vermont Yankee expired. Now the Legislature is trying to come up with a “generation tax” on the plant to help sure up the fund, a grant, loan and tax credit program used to subsidize renewable energy projects, particularly solar buildouts.
The House proposed a $3 million tax on Vermont Yankee to shore up the Clean Energy Development Fund; the Senate is looking at a much higher tax, possibly $5 million or more. The assessment will be part of the miscellaneous tax bill, which is expected to move out of Senate Finance on Tuesday.
Sunset on income sensitivity provision
The House miscellaneous tax bill sunsets an income sensitivity provision that included an income and dividend calculation for taxpayers who own property worth more than $500,000. Though the legislation keeps the cap on property values at $500,000, it allows the interest and dividend measures of wealth to lapse. Janet Ancel, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the program, which was adopted at the last minute by the Senate a few years ago, was “terribly complicated” and hit retirees hardest.
The Senate Finance Committee is considering the option of keeping the provision in place.
Redistricting reconfiguration, one more time?
On Friday, the House voted on a voice vote not to confirm the Senate proposal, which reconfigured voting districts in Eden, Charlotte and Hinesburg, and four House districts in Bennington County.
Rep. Donna Sweaney said: “We understand what the Senate has done to our map, but we understand it bumps our deviation to 24 percent.”
The deviation of the House passed map was 18.29 percent. The Vermont GOP has threatened to sue over any map that has a deviation of more than 18 percent.
Sweaney, Rep. Ron Hubert of Milton, and Rep. Willem Jewett of Ripton, were appointed to the redistricting conference committee.
Battling out the vaccine bill
Members of the House and Senate Health Care Committees had their first meeting Friday to resolve their differences on legislation that provides parents a philosophical exemption to vaccination requirements.
The Senate voted to remove the exemption early this month, while the House voted to keep it in place – with some changes – after a four-hour floor debate last Friday. The new version of the exemption requires it be signed annually and asks parents to review information on the vaccines and the risks not vaccinating can pose.
For a tense 15 minutes, the vice chair and chair of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, Sens. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) and Claire Ayer (D-Addison), interrogated Rep. Mike Fisher (D-Addison), the chair of the House Health Care Committee, on the contents of the bill as an audience, which included concerned parents and Health Commissioner Harry Chen, looked on.
The committee agreed to meet again Monday at 3:30 p.m., and Senate Health Care will bring the first proposal.
Fisher, chair of House Health Care, said: “I think it makes sense for the Senate to bring a proposal first. I think it’s worth saying again we heard very much the same testimony as the Senate and recognize the public health issues. I think the House landed in a separate place about how to proceed with that evidence.”
It seems unlikely the Senate will change its stance on the issue. Mullin defended vaccination as a public good.
“The Senate believes that [these] decisions are best made on science, medical professionals, and the departments of health both national and statewide. And that we should not be second-guessing the scientific evidence that shows the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks, and to protect kids and the public health, vaccines are important,” Mullin said.
Mullin also seemed to question the amended version of the philosophical exemption passed by the House, particularly that reading a pamphlet from the Department of Health would change a parent’s mind.
“They didn’t amp up the philosophical exemption at all.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated between 4:45 a.m. and 5:50 a.m. April 23.