Business & Economy

Legislature passes narrowed consumer protection bill

[T]he Vermont Legislature has passed a consumer protection bill designed to regulate fantasy sports contests, help people keep up with their property tax payments, and move closer to reining in home improvement fraud.

Both the House and Senate voted to approve a report from a conference committee, a joint panel that negotiated a final bill based on the versions passed earlier by the House and Senate.

The bill, S.136, now goes to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

Michael Sirotkin

Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, speaks on the Senate floor. File photo by Anne Galloway/VTDigger

The conference committee decided to remove several consumer protection measures that the House Commerce Committee had folded into S.136 after the Senate passed an earlier version.

The final version of S.136 places rules on fantasy sports companies. The companies would need to adopt policies that make the games fairer, such as not allowing the owner or professional athletes to participate in the fantasy contests.

The Agency of Administration would be required to report back to the Legislature on what registration fees to place on fantasy sports companies, what mechanism to use for taxing the companies, and how much to tax them.

“Eighty thousand or more people engage in fantasy sports in the state of Vermont, and it’s a good thing to get some consumer protection and regulation around the whole industry,” said Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, who sat on the conference committee.

In 2016, senators scuttled a bill to regulate fantasy sports when the attorney general’s office said daily fantasy sports contests violated the state’s gambling laws. But the attorney general’s office now supports the bill.

“Our position has been that it’s better to regulate the industry so that there are rules of the road and so that consumers have an expectation that fantasy sports has a backstop for consumer protection,” said Chris Curtis, the director of the attorney general’s Public Protection Division.

S.136 would also change laws governing home escrow accounts. Those are accounts that people take out through banks so they can make monthly payments to the bank and pay their property taxes.

Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Coventry, said the changes are designed to make it easier for low-income people to keep up with their property taxes.

The bill allows people to request a recalculation of their escrow payments if their property taxes are adjusted after the initial escrow calculation. Payments can be set too high if people forget to file certain paperwork right away. The change would help people who pay taxes based on their income and not their property value, Marcotte said.

He said those people who were paying too much would otherwise get their money back at the end of the year, but they would be better off having their money upfront. A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck, Marcotte said.

The Senate’s original version of S.136 sought to prevent home improvement fraud. That version would have required written contracts for home improvement projects that cost more than $10,000. The contracts would have had to have specific disclosures for consumers.

The conference committee recommended, and the Legislature passed, a version that requires the secretary of state’s Office of Professional Regulation to perform a comprehensive study that looks around the nation and recommends how Vermont should regulate the home improvement industry.

“We got commitment from the secretary of state that there will be a thorough review of the whole industry,” Sirotkin said. He said the scope of that review will go “far beyond” written contracts and will address licensing, bonding and other issues.

Curtis has said his office received 216 calls related to home improvement fraud in the past two years for alleged fraud totaling $1 million. He said he is confident the Legislature will move forward with regulation once the study comes out.

“Sometimes the first year of the biennium is the opportunity to raise those issues, and we fully expect that those issues will continue to be of concern to Vermonters, and we expect the Legislature to act on them,” Curtis said.

“Our hope is that if there is some action in that area, that it will lead to a reduction in the number of consumer complaints that we receive on an annual basis,” he said.

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Erin Mansfield

About Erin

Erin Mansfield covers health care and business for VTDigger. From 2013 to 2015, she wrote for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus. Erin holds a B.A. in Economics and Spanish from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where she also attended journalism school. Erin has worked in public and private schools across Vermont and interned in the U.S. Senate. She has been published by the Columbia Journalism Review and the Society of Professional Journalists. She grew up in Killington.

Email: [email protected]

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