Politics

Legislature adjourns, ending historic session defined by Covid-19

Adjourn collage
Clockwise from left, the Statehouse door on March 20; a masked Sen. Chris Pearson on April 8; and a Zoom meeting of the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee on April 7. Photos by Glenn Russell and Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The House and Senate adjourned on Friday after sending a state budget bill, police reforms, and a modest land-use law reform to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk, bringing an end to an unprecedented legislative session that was disrupted and defined by the Covid-19 crisis. 

After working out their differences on the spending bill, House and Senate lawmakers passed a $7.2 billion budget that will fund state government through the last nine months of the fiscal year, and allocates the remainder of the $1.25 billion the state was given to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic in the spring. 

For the last six months, lawmakers have met remotely, and until they returned for a special budget session in August, their focus had been almost solely on addressing the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.  

After the Senate adjourned on Friday, Gov. Phil Scott addressed the chamber and lauded the Legislature for its response to the Covid-19 pandemic and passing a balanced budget.

“I’m proud of the Legislature and what it means to our state, and was proud of the way both the House and the Senate regrouped, reorganized and found a way to conduct the work of the people outside the walls of the Statehouse,” Scott said. 

While the Senate finished its work on the budget and adjourned in the early afternoon, the House had to take up a police reform measure while also dealing with a small, but not uncontroversial, change to Act 250. 

The House and Senate adjourned Friday without scheduling a veto session. That means that if the governor decides to strike down any legislation in the coming days, it will be dead, and lawmakers have no opportunity to reverse the governor’s veto pen in an override vote. 

And there are several bills that Scott may kill in the coming days. 

It is unlikely that he will sign S.119, one of the two police reform measures the Legislature passed in the waning days of the session. 

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The Scott administration has also expressed reservations about the scaled-down Act 250. And while the governor has signaled support for legislation sitting on his desk that would create a legal marketplace for marijuana, he hasn’t committed to signing it. 

Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, center, and Rep. Paul Lefebvre, R-Newark
Rep. Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, center, and Rep. Paul Lefebvre, R-Newark, chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife Committee, confer before the start of testimony on Act 250 at the Statehouse on Feb. 7, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Slimmed down Act 250 bill heads to the governor 

The House voted 93-57 to agree with the Senate on a modest 10-page bill aimed at reforming Act 250, the state’s 50-year-old land use law.

Last week, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the modest 10-page version of H.926 — cut down from a bill more than four times the size which the lower chamber approved in late February on a 88-52 vote.

After months of discussion in the Senate, interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, senators decided to narrow the focus to best management practices for trails and outdoor recreation, and begin to address forest fragmentation and development patterns that break up natural habitat.

The bill now establishes new forest block and connecting habitat subcriteria in Act 250, with the goal of avoiding fragmentation of forests and preventing development from breaking up connecting habitat.

The trails section of the bill stipulates that trails and “interested parties” in creating trails can continue to operate through the end of December 2021 without an Act 250 review. A working group will report back to the Legislature early next year, and lawmakers are then mandated to create a framework for managing the demands and needs of the different types of trails in the state. 

Of the two proposals, the part of the bill addressing forest fragmentation has been far more contentious than the regulation of recreational trails.

House Democrats shot down two Republican amendments to the proposal Friday.

Rep. Paul Lefebvre, R-Newark, put forward a change adding language to ensure the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation received additional compensation. Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, then floated a proposal to cut the sections of the bill that address forest blocks and development.

“We have done so much work to find a compromise here and to lose it right at the end would be really disappointing after all of the hard work that’s been done,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.

“I can reassure members that next year if I’m back in this position, Act 250 is something that is definitely going to be a priority and I think we have a lot more work to do,” she added.

The bill now heads to the governor’s desk, but the administration has already signaled he is unlikely to sign the proposal.

Earlier in the day on Friday, Scott said he was concerned about the meager Act 250 bill and that it leaves out key updates that are needed to the land use law.

Senators observe remotely as a quorum of the body meets in person to consider whether to permit senators to vote remotely on April 8, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Latest police reform’s fate up in the air 

The House also signed off on S.119, proposal that outlines when and how Vermont police are justified in using deadly force.

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On Thursday, the Senate had approved the lower chamber’s version of the bill, but made a slight change, moving out the effective date from January 2021 to July of next year.  This amendment was made to give the Department of Public Safety more time to bring its police training protocols in line with the bill.

The legislation amends the state’s “justifiable homicide” statute — which currently stipulates an individual can kill or wound a person legally under certain circumstances, including self-defense — and outlines how and when police are allowed to use deadly force, including chokeholds and other normally prohibited restraints.

As high profile cases of police brutality roiled the country this spring and summer, Vermont lawmakers had said the justifiable homicide law needs to be updated, with a specific focus on its 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.

S.119 changes current law by stipulating that homicide is justifiable when committed by a law enforcement officer who is in compliance with the use-of-force policy laid out in the bill. 

The bill also states that a police officer must immediately stop using deadly force as soon as an individual who has committed a crime is “under the officer’s control or no longer poses an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or to another person.”

The measure also requires the Department of Public Safety and the state’s executive director of racial equity to report to the Legislature next year on developing a statewide model policy on the use of force for all law enforcement agencies in Vermont.

The House approved the bill, which it had originally passed on Tuesday, without debate Friday and sent it to the governor where its fate is uncertain.

The Senate also approved another police reform measure Thursday,  S.124 — which updates and expands police training protocol.

That bill, which the House passed earlier in the week, includes a moratorium on the use of facial recognition technology by police until approved by the General Assembly and requires the Vermont Criminal Justice Council to craft a statewide policy for the use of body cameras in the upcoming months.

If the legislation is enacted, Vermont would join only a handful of states and municipalities — including California and Somerville, Massachusetts — to prohibit police from using facial recognition technology.   

Until an updated body camera policy is presented to the Legislature, the bill mandates that law enforcement agencies must use the justice council’s 2016 policy

The legislation also ties compliance with race data collection of traffic stops by law enforcement agencies, as well as reporting incidents of death or serious bodily injury, to grant funding for police departments.

Gov. Phil Scott prepares to deliver his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Jan. 9, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The one must-pass bill

However, while those two proposals remain in doubt, the governor suggested Friday that he would be able to support the budget bill that’s heading to his desk. 

“So far, so good,” Scott said of the bill during his midday press conference Friday.

“They have brought forward a lot of the initiatives that I had asked to be included. There are some that didn’t get funded that I wanted, but that’s normal, that’s what we do every year, not everyone gets everything that they want,” the governor added.

“But overall I think the budget looks good. We’re living within our means, it’s something that I think Vermonters can be very proud of,” he said.  

The spending bill includes roughly $30 million in “bridge funding” for the state college system to weather a budget shortfall this year as it mulls restructuring options. 

It contains $5 million for a program that would provide stimulus payments to Vermonters who didn’t receive federal payments earlier this year because of their immigration status. 

And it harnesses $53 million of the coronavirus relief fund dollars the state received from the federal government this spring, to help the state’s K-12 schools cover the cost of reopening this fall. 

While there were few differences between the House and Senate’s budget bills, the two chambers had to reach agreement on a few areas of disagreement before they could send a spending package to the governor on Friday.

The House accepted a proposal from the Senate to use $17 million of coronavirus relief funds to boost federal unemployment benefits. In its budget, the Senate redirected money that the governor and House had proposed to use for economic relief for businesses, so that unemployed Vermonters could see higher weekly payments. 

“I think the issue was whether all that $17 million should go to businesses, and nothing to the Vermont unemployed workers,” said Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. 

Earlier this year, the federal government had been paying $600 per week to unemployed Americans, on top of state unemployment benefits.  

Recently, President Donald Trump reduced the weekly amount the federal government pays out to $300. The funding included in the budget will increase benefits for Vermonters to $400. 

The House also agreed to increase funding for the state’s hazard pay program so that employees at retail businesses, including grocery stores can receive compensation for their work on the frontlines during the early weeks of the pandemic. 

In June, the Legislature created a hazard pay program that covers employees in the health care and human services sector. But earlier this month, the Senate expanded the program to include retail workers. The House included $15 million for the program, but senators upped the spending to $22 million. 

The Senate agreed to include money that House lawmakers had prioritized to help the state’s ski industry open up for the winter season during the pandemic. The budget includes $2.5 million to help ski areas ready for business in the coming months.

“They are a huge economic engine in the wintertime,” said Rep. Kitty Toll, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee. 

“Equipment is needed, heaters are needed, tents are needed, because even though it’s outside, they have to accommodate for social distancing and not pouring people into the ski lodges,” she said.

Overall, the budget includes about $80 million in additional grants for businesses that have been strained by the pandemic. 

The House and Senate also came to agreement on how to pay for mental health experts to work in five additional police barracks throughout the state. 

The spending bill redirects about $500,000 in the budget for the Vermont State Police to hire mental health experts to work in five additional police barracks throughout the state. 

Scott included the new positions in his budget proposal, and Senate leaders made this a priority in June, in the wake of calls for criminal justice reform after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. 

The governor and the Senate had wanted to fund the new mental health worker positions by reallocating about $500,000 in the Department of Public Safety — which houses the state police. But the House had funded the positions through the Department of Mental Health. 

In their negotiations, lawmakers returned to the proposal from the Senate and Scott administration, which will fund the positions out of the state police budget. 

“We felt very, very strongly that we wanted to support the model that has been put in place by many states where workers are embedded in the police environment. It helps change the culture and helps inform a better response to call-outs,” Kitchel said. 

After the Senate passed the budget Friday, Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, addressed the chamber for the last time. 

After he lost the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in August, Ashe, who has served in the Senate for 12 years, will not be returning to the Statehouse next year. 

The Senate leader said that while the Legislature’s focus has been on Covid-19 in the last six months, the Senate’s accomplishments over the last few years have been “substantial.” He pointed to legislation the Senate has passed to increase the minimum wage, reform policing, secure long-term funding for clean water initiatives and protect abortion rights in the state.

“While we rightly focus on Covid right now and the impacts it’s having from a public health and an economic point of view, we have really a great body of work that we can point to in just the last few years. That’s a real tribute to the people in the room,” Ashe said. 

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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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