House, Senate search for compromise on child care financing package
Vermont lawmakers have kicked into overdrive as they wrap up the second-to-last week of the 2023 legislative session. On Friday alone, the House and Senate approved legislation tied to universal school meals, a 72-hour waiting period for gun purchases and a $120 million state infrastructure package.
But some major policy questions are still unresolved as the Legislature races toward a May 12 adjournment.
Vermont Public’s Jenn Jarecki spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld to learn more about what negotiations will look like between the House, the Senate and Gov. Phil Scott over the next week. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenn Jarecki: Child care and paid family leave are two big issues you’ve been following throughout the session. Let’s start with paid leave — where does that legislation stand right now?
Peter Hirschfeld: Paid leave is officially dead, for 2023 at least. Vermont Democrats campaigned heavily on paid family and medical leave during the last election cycle. And this bill was one of the biggest priorities for the House of Representatives heading into this session. But it turns out that a lot of Senate Democrats have some serious misgivings about the $117 million price tag on the bill, and the payroll tax that would be needed to fund it.
We reported last week that the Senate did not have the votes to pass the paid leave bill. And VTDigger reported yesterday that House Speaker Jill Krowinski is conceding defeat this year, though she plans to give it another go in 2024. A lot of people put an extraordinary amount of effort into building the campaign for this legislation. But this is the time of year in the Statehouse when the best laid plans can disintegrate into nothing. And paid leave advocates find themselves again on the losing side of things in Montpelier.
So, bad news it sounds like for supporters of paid family and medical leave. Is the child care bill at risk too?
There is still consensus support in both the House and Senate for a substantial increase in funding for child care subsidies. And this piece of legislation is at or near the top of the priority list for leaders of both chambers. But House and Senate lawmakers are still at odds over how to raise the $150 million or so dollars that would be needed to fund the package annually.
The House Committee on Ways and Means has landed on a revenue package that would use increases in the corporate and personal income tax to finance the new spending. The Senate though prefers a payroll tax, and I talked to one key Senate lawmaker this week who is adamantly opposed to any increase in the income tax.
If lawmakers want to be able to pass this bill by May 12, they are going to have to come up with a compromise plan by Monday at the latest. And then they need to make sure that compromise is going to win support from rank-and-file members in both chambers. This is the major outstanding issue lawmakers have left to resolve. And we’ll have a much better sense by midweek next week of where this is legislation headed.
Housing has been another major issue in Montpelier this year. There’s been a lot of disagreement over whether Vermont should relax zoning and permitting regulations, to make it easier for developers to build affordable housing. Any breakthroughs on that front?
It looks like House and Senate lawmakers have arrived at a grand bargain of sorts that has won at least grudging acceptance from the key constituencies involved with this debate. Some lawmakers see Act 250 as a major impediment to the construction of new housing. Other lawmakers view Act 250 as the one thing that’s protecting this state from falling victim to sprawl and environmental degradation. A compromise measure in the House would see some limited but potentially meaningful rollbacks of Act 250 jurisdiction in downtowns and village centers. Developers and officials in the Scott administration say it could spur new construction that wouldn’t otherwise happen. And environmental watchdogs say it retains enough protections to prevent any worst-case scenarios as it relates to overdevelopment.
This issue will be back next year though. The Legislature has commissioned two studies of Act 250, and you can expect this to be on the front burner again in 2024.
The governor issued his first veto of the year this week, on a bill that would create a new system to decrease carbon emissions from heating fuels. Do Democratic lawmakers have the votes to override that veto?
House and Senate leaders say they do indeed have the votes. The so-called Affordable Heat Act would direct the Public Utility Commission to come up with a new system, whereby fuel dealers would have to undertake activities that reduce their customers’ fuel oil consumption in order to avoid paying extra premiums basically for that fuel. Gov. Phil Scott isn’t a fan of the concept, and says it could lead to an increase in heating costs for low-income Vermonters. He also says the Legislature should be required to sign off on whatever system the Public Utilities Commission comes up with before it goes into effect.
Democratic lawmakers say this bill will help Vermont made needed progress on decreasing carbon emissions. They also say it’ll help low-income Vermonters reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, and provide a sort of insurance against the kinds of wild spikes in the heating fuel prices we’ve seen over the past two years. They also say that a future Legislature will, in fact, have to approve this clean heat standard before it goes into effect.
Leaders in both chambers say the veto override attempt could come on Tuesday, and we’ll find out for sure next week what happens next with this bill.
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Peter Hirschfeld: