Local leaders from northernmost Alburgh to southernmost Vernon collectively exhaled last week when the Vermont Legislature expedited an extension of Covid-19-era options for how and when they can usher in the state’s most debated harbinger of spring, Town Meeting.
But those same officials are back to holding their breath as they wait to learn if Gov. Phil Scott will sign the bill, just days before the start of a state-mandated window for scheduling meetings traditionally set for on or around the first Tuesday in March.
H.42, adopted by the House on Jan. 17 and by the Senate two days later, mirrors short-term, pandemic-safe legislation passed in 2021 and 2022. It allows the state’s 247 cities and towns to temporarily switch from floor voting to ballots, move Town Meetings to a later date and gather governing boards and public information sessions online.
Supporters at the Vermont Municipal Clerks’ and Treasurers’ Association said action was needed sooner rather than later, as communities wanting to meet or vote this March 7 must alert the public between Jan. 26 and Feb. 5.
But the bill has one provision — a temporary suspension of requirements for how school boards word budget ballots — that drew criticism from Vermont Education Secretary Dan French in testimony before the Senate Government Operations Committee last week. Ultimately, the bill was approved in both chambers by all but one lawmaker who voiced a “no” vote.
“It is unclear whether the opposition by the secretary will put H.42’s passage in jeopardy,” the Vermont League of Cities and Towns noted in its latest newsletter, “but there is a possibility the governor will either veto the bill or let it go into law without his signature.”
The uncertainty isn’t sitting well with municipal leaders trying to meet scheduling deadlines through dueling storms of paperwork and forecast snow.
“Towns are going crazy,” said Middlesex Clerk Sarah Merriman, known nationally as bestselling novelist Sarah Strohmeyer.
Scott told VTDigger Tuesday that his office was reviewing the bill as part of its standard legal process: “We're just going through the process like we do with any other bill, making sure there are no unintended consequences.” He pledged to sign it into law “if everything checks out.”
“There is no ‘delay’ on our end,” Scott press secretary Jason Maulucci added in an email. “We have until Thursday to act on H.42, but the governor will do so sooner if the review is complete before then, which I anticipate will happen.”
— Kevin O’Connor
IN THE KNOW
Rep. Emilie Kornheiser's paid family and medical leave legislation has a bill number — H.66 — and a boatload of sponsors: 103, to be precise. Math is notoriously not my strong suit, but I think that's enough for an override (well, on the House side). The Brattleboro Democrat and Ways and Means chair is scheduled to come before House General to introduce her bill Wednesday.
— Lola Duffort
As part of a widespread plan from the executive branch to curb crime in Vermont, the state Department of Public Safety is poised to launch a public dashboard identifying communities with the highest volume of police calls.
The department is already using the map internally, and top officials say a public launch is intended to give Vermonters a transparent view of public safety concerns in near-real time.
Early skeptics, however, say the map gives the misleading impression that Vermont’s cities are disproportionately dangerous. The brightest “hot spots” simply show concentrations of population, they pointed out this week, arguing that without context, the map is likely to stoke unnecessary fear among the public.
— Sarah Mearhoff
ON THE HILL
Newly holding a narrow majority, U.S. House Republicans are holding up a must-pass vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, raising concerns over a federal government shutdown or suspension of key services like Medicare and Social Security.
In a Tuesday interview with VTDigger, U.S. Rep. Becca Balint, D-Vt., called the move a high-stakes “game of chicken.”
“Anything that you can think of that is touched by the federal government, it absolutely would touch those things,” Balint said.
At stake is the basic functioning of the federal government. The year’s appropriations were already set in Congress’s recently passed budget, and without enough funds on hand to pay the balance, Congress needs to raise the debt limit to cover the difference. Saying that they fundamentally oppose the concept of deficit spending, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and his allies are holding up the vote.
— Sarah Mearhoff
ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL (OR NOT)
Crypto bro and “Mighty Ducks” star Brock Pierce has officially ended his Vermont campaign for U.S. Senate, according to a termination form filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday.
The independent mostly self-funded his failed congressional bid, ultimately owing himself nearly $1.3 million upon terminating the campaign. In a separate filing made to the FEC on Tuesday, Pierce said he considers the debt forgiven.
“This written communication shall confirm that I, Brock Pierce, an unsuccessful candidate whom had qualified in the 2022 General Election for United States Senate in Vermont, forgive the indebtedness of the campaign committee, Brock for Vermont, owed to me,” he wrote. “The outstanding balance of $1,295,389 is fully forgiven. Brock Pierce.”
And just like that, as mysteriously as he arrived, he was gone.
— Sarah Mearhoff
WHAT’S ON DECK
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday will kick off a two-day marathon of hearings on H.89, a highly anticipated bill that proposes to shield patients who travel to Vermont seeking reproductive health care, and the Vermont doctors who provide it, from out-of-state investigations. Republican Gov. Phil Scott told reporters at a Tuesday news conference that he hasn’t yet reviewed the language of the bill, but supports the concept of it.
“I don’t know enough about it to comment, other than to say we want to protect anyone who is providing a service here in Vermont,” Scott said.
This week’s hearings on H.89 will mark the Legislature’s first major deliberations on new abortion bills since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last summer.
— Sarah Mearhoff
WHAT WE’RE READING
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.