Vermont's next Legislature eyeing big-ticket programs 'to support families'
Voters across the state Tuesday decided who they want to represent them in the Vermont Legislature, and Democrats will once again enjoy strong majorities in both the House and Senate.
Lawmakers will face some tough policy dilemmas when they convene in Montpelier in January.
Vermont Public’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld to learn more about the issues the next Legislature might tackle when they convene in Montpelier in January. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mitch Wertlieb: Pete, it seems like every legislative session, there are a few big bills that get a lot of attention under the Golden Dome. Do you have any sense right now of what might be dominating headlines out of Montpelier next year?
Peter Hirschfeld: I’ve talked to a couple dozen lawmakers, advocates and other folks who are going to be involved in the legislative process next year. And the consensus, right now at least, is that child care, paid family leave and universal school meals are going to be three of the big items at the top of the agenda coming into 2023.
Lawmakers tell me that as they’ve talked to voters over the course of their campaigns, they’re hearing that affordability and livability for families — and for young families especially — is a big issue for folks. And they think government has a role in addressing those concerns.
Waterbury Rep. Theresa Wood is a member of the House Committee on Human Services. And she says leadership is contemplating a wide-ranging legislative package to try to move some of those items.
“What we’re trying to do is really put together a package that’s going to support families," Wood said. "And supporting families is going to make Vermont an ideal location for people to stay here, grow a family here, move here.”
So as you hear there Mitch, this isn’t just about addressing concerns of Vermont families that already live here. Lawmakers think that if you create a climate where everybody has access to affordable child care, where you know your kids are going to be well-fed at school, where people can take a couple months off work to care for a newborn, or take care of a sick family member, then you're going to make Vermont a really appealing place for prospective residents to live. And when you get more working-age adults who want to start a family in Vermont, you also address the workforce issues and demographic challenges that currently pose a threat to the state’s economy.
Pete, you mentioned child care, paid family leave and universal school meals. All of those come with substantial price tags. How do lawmakers think they’ll be able to pay for those initiatives?
Mitch that’s an issue that lawmakers are keenly aware of, especially with a Republican governor in the executive branch who’s made it clear that he’s not going to support an increase in broad-based taxes to support new programs.
And some folks are nervous that we’re going to see a fight among Democrats over whether you have to choose between substantial investments in child care or paid family and medical leave.
The goal for child care advocates is to ensure no family spends more than 10% of its annual income on child care costs. By some estimates that could require in excess of $200 million annually in public spending. Paid family and medical leave is also a costly program.
But there is a strain of thought in Montpelier right now that voters are open to more government spending, if it solves critical problems better than the private sector can.
Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, who’s on the House committee that has jurisdiction over tax policy, told me that she thinks federal spending during the pandemic has maybe opened lawmakers’ eyes to the potential of that kind of spending.
“I think that the scale of budgets that we were able to see during the pandemic, and the impact of huge federal spending on our communities, I think and I hope shifted the scale of our thinking somewhat so that it takes a larger number for us to blink," Kornheiser said.
There is of course a number where people do begin to blink. The question is, how big is that number? And will it be enough to accommodate all the things that lawmakers hope to accomplish?
"The impact of huge federal spending on our communities I think and I hope shifted the scale of our thinking somewhat so that it takes a larger number for us to blink.”Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser
Pete, the state has a statutory mandate to reduce carbon emissions by 40% by 2030. But the Legislature’s signature climate bill during the last session fell by the wayside after Gov. Phil Scott vetoed the clean heat standard. How do lawmakers plan to address the issue of climate change in the coming session?
Based on everything I’m hearing, you’re going to see that Clean Heat Standard reintroduced pretty quickly in January. And there seems to be more than enough support among Democrats in Montpelier to pass it again.
The Clean Heat Standard is a program that tries to reduce carbon emissions from heating systems in homes and businesses by putting the onus on utilities and fuel companies to help their customers use greener heating alternatives.
The question is whether lawmakers try to find agreement with the governor this time around, and avoid another veto, or if they can muster the 100 votes in the House that they’d need to override his veto, if Phil Scott does decide to veto the bill again.
Another big climate bill to watch out for Mitch involves something called the Renewable Energy Standard. This is an existing law that requires utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources. A lot of lawmakers want to increase that threshold. And they say doing so could help the state make real progress on meeting that goal of reducing emissions by 40% by 2030.
I know you’ve been talking to a lot of lawmakers Pete. Are there other bills or issues you’re particularly interested in following come January?
I’m looking forward to following the gun legislation we’re going to see coming next year. Proposed restrictions on firearms always makes for tense politics, and we’re going to see at least two pretty significant proposals next year.
Most of the gun deaths in Vermont are suicides. And the bills are going to be pitched as a kind of suicide prevention package. One proposal would require gun owners to store their firearms in locked gun safes when they’re not using them. The other would require a 72-hour waiting period for all gun sales. Proponents say this is one way to prevent people in the grips of a mental health crisis from obtaining a gun they might use to end their own lives.
And finally Pete, Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint is off to Washington, D.C., now to serve in Congress — the first woman to represent Vermont in Congress. Any word on who’ll be replacing her as the leader of the Senate?
Well Mitch, we won’t know for sure until Senate Democrats meet this weekend and publicly indicate who they’ll support. But by all accounts, Chittenden County Sen. Phil Baruth will be Vermont’s next Senate president pro tem.
Baruth currently serves as chair of the Senate Education Committee and clerk of the Senate Appropriations Committee. He’s been in the Senate for 12 years now, which means he has a lot of institutional knowledge and understanding of how the body works, and also knows how to navigate the procedural idiosyncrasies of the body.
The senators I’ve talked to think he’s well-prepared for the position, and folks generally feel like he’ll engage in the listening and consensus building that are key to doing that job well.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: