What to watch as Legislature prepares to adjourn

The Senate chamber at the Statehouse in Montpelier seen on Feb. 21, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Vermont Legislature is expected to temporarily wrap up its work on Friday, and adjourn until late August. 

But before lawmakers depart, they are planning to finalize about $600 million in spending on Covid-19 relief for businesses, the health care industry, and workers, and advance a series of policing reforms.

The main priority for lawmakers in recent weeks has been to allocate the majority of the $1.25 billion Vermont received from the federal CARES Act in April. 

Those dollars can be used broadly to cover expenses related to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Last week, the House passed a $300 million relief package for the health care industry, H.965, and another bill, H.966, which contains more than $200 million in spending on initiatives including emergency broadband expansion, business relief, and a “hazard pay” grant program for frontline pandemic workers.  

This week, the Senate has been working its way through these proposed packages, and additional proposals to provide aid to the agricultural sector, and local governments.  It is expected to make some changes to those bills before it sends them back over to the House for approval on Friday.

Senators have indicated they want to put more money into a grant program for essential workers, broadband expansion and grants for businesses strained by the pandemic, for example. 

The House is also looking to pass S.219, a police reform bill that requires all state police to wear body cameras and prohibits officers from using chokeholds and other similar restraint techniques. The Senate approved the legislation last week and the House made it a priority to move the measure.

The legislation is expected to have widespread support in the lower chamber after the House committees on the judiciary and government operations spent all of Thursday revising the bill, adding key changes which include requiring the Legislature to pass additional measures in August and in coming years.  

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Lawmakers are taking a break between now and August so that economists have more time to analyze the pandemic’s impact on the state’s economy and revenues before the governor and the Legislature put together a complete budget for the upcoming fiscal year. 

The House and Senate have already agreed on a budget that will fund the first three months of fiscal year 2021, which begins on July 1. 

That partial spending bill will be on the governor’s desk in the coming days, and buy lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott time until September to put together a full budget for the next fiscal year. 

That budget will likely come with spending cuts due to the state’s strained revenues. Vermont is expecting revenue losses to top $200 million next year because of the pandemic. 

When lawmakers return in August, they are also planning on taking up other measures, and to continue work on police reform proposals. This includes working on a statewide model policy for the use of body cameras and amending the state’s “justifiable homicide” statute — which ensures an individual can kill or wound a person legally under certain circumstances, including self defense.

Most concerning to lawmakers in both chambers is the statute’s provision that civil officers, members of the military and “private soldiers” who lawfully are called on to suppress “riot or rebellion” are protected from homicide charges. 

The Democratic leaders of the Statehouse have said that priorities that predate the pandemic, including climate change measures, and establishing a legal marketplace for marijuana are still on the table

On Thursday, the Senate approved the Global Warming Solutions Act, a major climate change bill that would legally mandate the state reduce carbon emissions over the next thirty years.

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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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