The last couple of weeks of a legislative session are marked by a frenzy of movement as bills pass back and forth between the House and Senate with proposals of amendment and further proposals of amendment. When agreement can’t be reached through the amendment process, conference committees are appointed to work out a compromise acceptable to both chambers.
This year the processes worked smoothly, and agreements were able to be reached on most of the key bills. But there were a few disappointments.
The governor used his veto pen liberally. An earlier veto of a housing bill resulted in going back to the drawing board to remove or adjust provisions he objected to.
Another was the ban on firearms in hospitals which contained a provision to close the “Charleston loophole,” which allowed a firearm to be purchased if a federal background check didn’t complete in three days. Senate bill S.30 required a completed background check, regardless of how long it took, for a sale to be legal, which the governor felt was unacceptable. A compromise was reached to permit a sale after seven business days if the background check didn’t complete, and the governor signed the bill.
After a summer of negotiations involving legislators, representatives from the teachers’ and state employees’ unions, the State Treasurer and the Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, a pension bill was passed with the agreement of all parties to the negotiations. The bill, S.286, passed with unanimous support in the House and Senate.
Because the bill didn’t include allowing defined contribution plans (401(k)-type plans) for new employees, a last-minute demand of the governor, he vetoed it. The consensus is that including that option would undercut the sustainability of the pension system and bring us back to square one. For the first time in Vermont history, the veto was overridden by unanimous roll-call votes in the House and Senate.
Two more vetoes, one on a Burlington charter change that required a just cause for evictions and another on the Clean Heat Standard bill, H.715, which my committee worked on, were upheld by a one-vote margin. With 100 votes required to override, both override efforts failed on a 99-51 vote, very disappointing on both counts.
The governor objected to the Clean Heat Standard bill after it was passed by the House because the costs are unknown, and there would be no chance for the legislature to weigh in after the Public Utility Commission designed the program. With that objection in mind, the Senate amended the bill to require legislative review and approval of the program before it could start. He vetoed the bill anyway.
Vetoes aside, the session was very productive because of the huge influx of federal American Rescue Plan Act and infrastructure bill money. Bolstered by strong state revenues, many programs were enacted using one-time federal money to help low- and middle-income Vermonters, children, students and workers who have been struggling in the COVID-impacted economy. These appropriations included $95 million for broadband; $70 million for housing, including $20 million for the “missing middle” and manufactured housing; $26 million for mental health, developmental disability services, and home health care; $138 million for workforce development, including nursing education, skilled trades and worker re-training; $35 million for the Vermont state college system; $50M for IT systems modernization; $215 million for climate initiatives including weatherization, municipal energy resilience, advanced electrical metering and electric vehicle incentives; $104 million for clean water initiatives, including municipal water and wastewater systems; and many other services for a total budget of $8.3 billion.
In his closing remarks to the House just prior to our adjournment on Thursday evening of May 12, Governor Scott praised the legislature for its work for the people and the economy of Vermont.