Lawmakers prepare to work on pre-pandemic priorities

The Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Since mid-March, Vermont lawmakers have focused on responding to the Covid-19 crisis, putting other legislative priorities on pause

Now, as the Democrat-controlled Legislature begins to take up bills that predate the pandemic, legislators say major measures that had been on track to pass — including Act 250 reform, establishing a legal marketplace for marijuana, and sweeping bills to fight climate change — still stand a chance. 

“I would say nothing that was listed as a priority at the beginning of the year is off the list,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden.   

“And now the question is, how much time and capacity we have to get to them,” Ashe said. 

Ashe said lawmakers will have flexibility to take up other legislation now that immediate emergency demands from Covid-19 have let up.

“It's just a matter of time, distance, technology, and making sure that we're always available to focus on Covid-19 issues at a moment's notice, and not get pulled away down some legislative wormhole when people's lives, their livelihoods, are on the line,” he said.  

Lawmakers, who are now working remotely, have only weeks before they plan to recess in June. Before they break, they plan to pass a partial budget bill to fund the first quarter of the fiscal year, which starts July 1.

But they will have to return in August to finish the full year’s spending package, when they hope to have more accurate projections about the pandemic’s impact on state revenues, and a clearer understanding of how federal Covid-19 relief dollars can be spent. 

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said the priority in the coming weeks will be passing budget bills and determining how the $1.25 billion grant the state received from the federal CARES Act will be allocated. 

The expected return of lawmakers later in the summer gives them more latitude to work on legislation that isn’t related to the budget, or the pandemic. 

“We’ve got two significant sessions, the remainder of this session now, and follow-up in August to figure it out,” Johnson said. 

Though, inherently, there are some priorities from the beginning of the session that won’t make it across the finish line, she said.

“There will be big chunks of things that just get left on the cutting room floor,” she said. 

The House speaker has said she wants to avoid taking up highly “contentious” legislation during Covid-19, as lawmakers have to work remotely. 

She has already told Republicans that she will not take up H.610, a bill that had been a priority of the House Judiciary Committee, and would give courts greater authority to seize guns from domestic abusers

Establishing a legal marijuana marketplace

Before lawmakers began working remotely in March, the House passed legislation that would legalize marijuana sales, and appointed a conference committee with the Senate to reach an agreement on the bill. 

Vermont legalized marijuana possession and cultivation in 2018, but has not legalized a market for the drug. 

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a proponent of taxing and regulating marijuana, is still hoping the bill, S.54, makes it to the governor’s desk this year. 

“The longer it takes, the longer we have this sort of Wild West situation we have where we have it legalized but we don’t have any place to buy it,” Sears said. 

He added that a regulated market would create jobs as the state is recovering from the economic toll of Covid-19. 

“I think that during a recovery period you want to have as many jobs as possible,” Sears said. “This is going to create jobs. It’s also going to bring revenue to the state.” 

Johnson said passing the bill is still a possibility. 

“We will still have those conversations to see if we can do that this year,” she said. 

But she has some concerns about setting up a new regulated marketplace at a time when the government is already extended because of Covid-19. The legislation would require creating a new body, the Cannabis Control Board, to regulate the new market.

“It is something that is demanding a lot of state government in setting up a new entity, and state government is running at capacity right now,” Johnson said. 

The control board’s operating expenses would be about $1 million per year; Johnson noted that setting up a legal pot market would require temporary deficit spending at a time when the state is already facing wide budget gaps.

According to the Joint Fiscal Office, legal marijuana sales wouldn’t bring in enough revenue to offset the operating costs of overseeing the market for three years. The House speaker said that a possible fix to this problem could be pushing back the marketplace’s roll-out.

Act 250 reform

Before the pandemic, lawmakers in the House passed a major reform of Vermont’s land use law, Act 250. House lawmakers worked for more than a year before passing the legislation. 

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, where the legislation has been sent, said that it’s possible that if the Senate doesn’t have enough time to review the entirety of the House’s work, it could pass a portion of the reform package. 

“It may be that we can distill out of that larger bill something meaningful to move forward and make progress on,” Bray said. 

At the same time, he said that he doesn’t want to rush the Senate’s work on the bill. 

“Act 250 is a foundational piece of law that has influenced literally how Vermont has grown and developed for a half century. So if we are short of time, we won’t move a bill that we can’t carefully vet,” he said.  

“It’s like development DNA of the state of Vermont — you should be very careful in messing around with the genome,” Bray said. 

Climate change 

Democratic leaders had also teed up a series of climate change bills before Covid-19 struck. 

One of the bills, the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” which passed the House in February, would mandate that the state meet strict carbon emissions reduction targets. 

Bray hopes his committee will be able to move the legislation, but said that it will come down to timing. 

“What I want to make sure is that we have, before we dig into it, that we know we have enough time to do proper work on it,” Bray said. The Senate has also been working on a bill, S.267, that would require utilities to buy 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

For the first time since the Covid-19 emergency began, the Senate took up climate change legislation last week. 

In a vote on Thursday, senators approved S.337, legislation that would give electric efficiency utilities the flexibility to spend some of their funds on transportation and heating efficiency projects. 

Senators also greenlighted S.175, which requires Vermont to develop a statewide climate change response plan by the end of the year. 

Kit Norton contributed reporting. 

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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