Capitol Recap: Lawmakers dash to pass key bills to beat 'crossover' deadline
The Vermont Legislature has been on break this week for Town Meeting Day, but lawmakers will return to the Statehouse on Tuesday for one of the busiest weeks of the legislative session so far.
Key committees in both the House and Senate will have to finalize work on major bills dealing with housing, child care, paid family and medical leave and other policy proposals.
In the week’s edition of the Capitol Recap, Vermont Public’s Mary Williams Engisch talked with reporter Peter Hirschfeld to find out where things might be headed. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Williams Engisch: Pete, I gather there’s a real sense of urgency around lots of bills in Montpelier right now – what’s the rush for lawmakers?
Peter Hirschfeld: There’s this thing in the Legislature called “crossover.” Crossover is a deadline. And if a bill doesn’t make it through one chamber of the Legislature before crossover, then it’s effectively done for the year. The crossover deadline for policy bills is next Friday, March 17. The crossover deadline for bills that have financial appropriations in them is the Friday after that, March 24. And it means lawmakers are going to be working overtime next week to make sure their bills get to the floor before those deadlines hit.
One of those bills involves the creation of a universal paid family and medical leave program in Vermont. Where does that stand?
It looks like all systems go for a bill that would create the most generous paid leave benefit in the United States. And it would use a mandatory 0.54% payroll tax on most workers the state to fund a new insurance program that would allow workers to take up to 12 weeks off with full pay to care for a newborn, recover from an injury or illness, or care for a sick family member.
That new tax amounts to about $250 for someone making $50,000 a year. And under the legislation in the House, the tab would be split evenly between the employer and the employee.
What’s also interesting about this bill is that it would create a whole new layer of bureaucracy in state government to actually administer the paid leave insurance system. Gov. Phil Scott favors a voluntary paid leave program. He also says Vermont should enlist a private-sector insurance company to run the program. He says this is complicated stuff that’s best left to established experts in the field.
But Brattleboro Rep. Emilie Kornheiser says private-sector insurance companies answer to shareholders, not Vermont workers.
“And the further away we move from government-administered programs toward privatizing programs, the less accountable those programs are to the folks that are being served by them, the folks that designed them, and to taxpayers," Kornheiser said.
This bill is going to get voted out of the House Committee on Ways and Means on Tuesday or Wednesday, it looks like, and then another vote in the House Committee on Appropriations. It by all accounts has the votes to pass on the House floor, and then we’ll get to find out whether the Senate is comfortable with the size and scope of the program the House is poised to adopt.
Child care is another big issue lawmakers are hoping to tack this year. What’s the status of that legislation?
The Senate Committee on Health and Welfare has been going through this legislation with a fine-tooth comb, and one of the big decisions we’re going to see next week is, "How many more Vermonters does the Legislature want to provide child care subsidies to?"
Lawmakers were initially looking at subsidies for families making up to 425% of the federal poverty level – which is about $127,000 for a family of four.
Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons now says lawmakers might want to go even higher than that.
“We are very interested in raising that coverage for providing at least some support for families, perhaps up to 600% of poverty," Lyons said. "So we’re debating right now, is it 475% of poverty? Is it 500%? Is it 600%?”
If they go to 600%, Mary, then it means 80% of families with young kids are going to be eligible for child care subsidies. It also means, of course, that it’s going to become a more expensive proposition.
I’ll also note that when this bill was introduced, lawmakers wanted to require public schools to provide full-day pre-kindergarten for all 4-year-olds in the state. They’ve gotten some pushback on that proposal from both child care providers and some school districts that worry about whether they can manage that new workload. And it looks like the bill that passes out of the Senate in a couple weeks will sort of hit the pause button on that new pre-K framework.
And finally, a lot of Vermonters are looking to the Legislature to do something about the housing crunch. What do prospects look like for that legislation?
The big question for the housing bill in the Senate right now is whether lawmakers are going to retain the provisions that would eliminate Act 250 oversight for certain high-priority housing projects.
There are a lot of developers and housing advocates who say Act 250 – that’s Vermont statewide land-use law – has become a barrier to the construction of new housing in the state. But there are a lot of lawmakers and environmental advocates who say if you lose that regulatory oversight, then you’re going to get housing in places it doesn’t belong.
More from Vermont Edition: Equity and environmental goals collide with new housing bill
Next week, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources will hold a big vote on that housing bill, and we’ll find out then if those proposed Act 250 overhauls clear their first big hurdle.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: