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As the session nears end, a conversation with President Pro Tem Sen. Phil Baruth

A photo of a man in a grey suit with a blue shirt and glasses, who is speaking in front of a painting of another man.
Zoe McDonald
Vermont Public
Senate President Pro Tempore Philip Baruth, a Democrat/Progressive from the Chittenden Central District, speaks to Vermont Edition as the legislative session nears its end.

The end of this legislative session, and the end of the two-year term known as the biennium, are just a few weeks away. Lawmakers have yet to finalize some of the year’s most significant legislative packages, like ones that would update Vermont's land-use law or the education funding system.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth, a Democrat/Progressive elected to the Senate in 2010, represents Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, and Essex. He joined Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak for a conversation from Montpelier.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Senator, the last time we spoke on Vermont Edition, it was the very first day of the legislative session back in January. What would you say are you and your fellow lawmakers biggest wins from the past four and a half months?

Well, win is one of those words that you don't like to use because it sounds like you're spiking the ball. I would say that I am extremely proud of the work we've done on flood safety, disaster preparedness and climate mitigation. It's a gorgeous day outside right now, and I think when the sun is out, people forget that we have a new relationship with the rivers that make up much of Vermont. That relationship is fraught because those rivers now contain so much more energy and water than they used to when we have a rain event. So we came into this session determined to make changes in the short, medium and long term around how we deal with river corridors.

I'm very proud to say that we passed S.213, which is our major river safety bill. It includes three basic parts. We're taking care of dams— if people will remember during the flooding, there was great concern about dams being overtopped, dams crumbling, and endangering people down the way. Dam safety is a big part of that. There's funding for increased safety, river corridor protections and mapping. Among other things, we need to be thinking smarter about where we develop. We don't want to be putting things in the expanded floodplains. And then our wetlands, I think some people over the years. over the centuries, have thought of wetlands as places that we need to fill and get rid of. We have learned the hard way that we need those lands to absorb the extra water that's coming at us as a result of climate change. In S.213, there are measures to make us a net gain state in terms of year-to-year percentage of wetland. Hopefully, between stronger dams, river corridor mapping and monitoring, and wetland protections, we get more safety in the medium and the long term. And then in the short term, we tried to make people as whole as we could from their losses last summer.

Let's focus just a bit on the short term. Because we're coming upon summertime again, there's always a chance of another flood. How is the legislature helping people recover from the last one?

The first thing that went out was what was called gap business grants, to make businesses whole to the extent we could try to make sure that downtowns like Montpelier don't wind up hollowed out because businesses can't make it through. We found out again, the hard way, that FEMA offers low-interest loans in most cases and not grants. The state stepped in there and I would credit the fast-moving administration, which is what can move money when we're out of session. We got money out to businesses, we got money out at the beginning of the session to municipalities, very flexible funding that allowed them either to use it as a match for FEMA dollars, or other purposes.

I will say in terms of long-term thinking—if you take the Statehouse campus, for instance, I went on a tour of the affected buildings, and they were badly affected, badly flooded. We lost a lot of equipment, we lost electricity, generating ability, we lost heating equipment, so those things are being moved to higher ground. Similarly, for instance, Montpelier put forward a request to have several homes elevated at the riverside or near the riverside so that people in the future could escape flooding on that first level. There is money in the budget that we just passed out to elevate some of those homes. In general, what we're trying to do is bring to consciousness, the idea that the weather is no longer our friend, we're going to have flooding, it's not going to be once in a century. It's going to be once, if we're lucky, every 10 years, but maybe every other year. Like many countries around the world, we're going to have to be thinking about how to get things to higher ground, and that includes our Statehouse complex too.

One of the biggest topics of conversation and debate in Montpelier this session has been school funding. Just a week ago, six more school districts voted down their school budgets for a second time, and schools are now asking lawmakers to help come up with a plan in case they don't have an approved budget by the start of the next school year. What comes next? How do we get out of this?

A couple of things that I would want people to know. First of all, in Vermont, we have always had a three-party consensus around the idea of local control. Especially when it comes to things like school budgeting and school curriculum, the idea has always been that we wanted communities to be making those decisions, so no central budgeting from Montpelier. Now, by and large, that stood us in good stead, we usually had increases anywhere from three to maybe six, seven percent, something like that.

In this particular case, last year, several things came into play in one year. Non-property tax revenue was down, but the value of real estate shot way up, and those two things had a combined effect. We were still weaning ourselves off of federal money that we had used, in some cases to hire people at schools to mitigate some of the problems from the pandemic. And then a number of districts carried those people into their regular budget. But the big driver was health care costs. We have statewide healthcare bargaining and that came in at around 16 percent. When you put all of those things together, it put us in a hole of $200 million plus, and that means that we would have a tax rate of maybe 15 percent, more than double what we would normally have.

The legislature in general, I believe, is working 24 hours a day. Speaking for myself and my office, we're every single day engaged in discussions about how to bring that number down. But beyond that, how do we make sure it doesn't happen next year, and the years following? The House Committee on Ways and Means has released a good basic bill on on what we call the yield and that's the place where we determined tax rates for the education funding system and other necessary measures. What the House did, I think, was to, for the most part, reinstate excess spending penalties that we had suspended a few years back. Those are back in force and the Ways and Means Committee eliminated a lot of the exemptions to those, so they're back in force with more teeth and I think that will help. But I'm also exploring, whether are there ways that we can maybe for the next year or the year following limit the growth of spending from Montpelier to make doubly sure that we don't have such a rise in property taxes two years in a row.

I did want to ask you more about the House Yield Bill, as it's known, because Gov. Scott issued a statement about it that, in part reads, "Vermonters already face a daunting tax burden, too many are struggling to get by and simply cannot afford to see their costs continued to go up." The governor added that he couldn't accept this version of the bill and he hopes the Senate doesn't either. What's your response?

Gov. Phil Scott came forward with his own plan from his tax commissioner Craig Bolio. That plan was immediately shot down by the state treasurer, who pointed out that it would most probably tank our bond rating. That's something that nobody wants, that would be a financial disaster, but it shows the trouble with trying to rush a plan out. To their credit, the House Ways and Means Committee has been working diligently all through the session. What they've got here, I think, adheres to the principle of do no harm. The question in my mind is, does it go far enough? I'm in discussions with joint fiscal about that and we'll see if we can strengthen the bill. I'm confident that they haven't done anything that will worsen things, and in education finance, that's always a threat.

Let's turn to Act 250, Vermont's land use law. The legislature has been working on a few different bills to revamp Act 250, to spur more housing development while still protecting wild spaces. The one that seems to have received the most traction is to merge bills from the House and Senate. First, briefly, what exactly does this bill do, this package?

This is going to be hopelessly inside baseball for most people and so I won't go into the gory details of which bills have been attached to which bills and how they're going to move. I will say that there is a very, very solid plan in place agreed to by House and Senate leadership to move this bill forward. It includes a modernization of Act 250 and it includes lots of stimulus for increased housing, and removing regulation where it's deemed to be prohibiting extra development. There's a broad, building-wide consensus that we are in a housing crisis [and] Act 250 needs to give in some areas, places where we have duplicative regulation.

For instance, in a municipality, like Burlington or Winooski, where you have very robust zoning and infrastructure, do you need Act 250 there to regulate it? I think the consensus by the stakeholders and the chairs of the committees of jurisdiction on both sides has been that you probably don't need that duplicate of regulation, so Act 250 would be eased in some areas of the state. The caps that we've traditionally had on the number of units you could develop would be eased or eliminated. The idea is to produce a surge of housing in the exact places where we want it and not where we don't want it. Part of that will involve statewide mapping for different areas where places where we don't want to disturb the the natural beauty, but we still want to allow some targeted Development Act 250 will still stay in place. In those communities where we already have robust infrastructure and zoning, Act 250 would, in a balancing act, be lifted.

Gov. Scott has already signaled a potential veto, arguing that this package doesn't go far enough in encouraging housing development. Do you have that potential veto in the back of your mind as this as this bill formulates, making sure that once the final version goes through, it'll also have enough support to possibly override a gubernatorial veto?

We've honestly started to hear the word veto so many times with so many bills that it has lost some of its force. The governor is far and away the record holder for the most vetoes in history. His number of vetoes, if you exclude Howard Dean, I think, is maybe verging on more than all the governors preceding him. That's his decision to use the veto that freely, but what it means is that people start disregarding or lessening their thinking about that threat.

We're always concerned to try to get a bill signed. That's the only way it's going to become law other than an override and an override is very difficult to orchestrate. We would like to work with the governor and we believe what we've been doing is adhering to a stakeholder consensus that was worked out, very laboriously, in the off-session. We have historic buy-in from environmental groups, the Chamber of Commerce, the League of Cities and Towns and lots of people are in favor of this balanced compromise that we're pushing forward. By the way, I should say that the Senate plans to move the large bill out that includes the House legislation and our approach that will come out by the end of the week. The goal is to have a conference committee that will have two full weeks to work and reach an ultimate compromise at that point. Here's my prediction, and I may be wrong: I predict the governor will sign it and we will have a joint press conference where we all sing Kumbaya.

Senator, a handful of long-time senators have announced they are retiring, stepping down or won't be seeking reelection next year: Sen. Dick Mazza, Sen. Dick McCormack and Sen. Bobby Starr. In the last election cycle, 11 senators vacated their seats. What does what does this turnover mean for the future of the senate?

It means a lot of things. On a point of personal privilege, as we say in the Senate, I want to say that Bobby Starr is someone who's been such a close friend, such a mentor to me, and I will miss him powerfully. Dick McCormack has been a hero of mine over the years for the way he's handled, among other things, union issues. And then Dick Mazza is someone I worked with on the Committee on Committees very closely and to see his health issues has been hard for all of us.

When you say goodbye to these people who have given their heart and soul for 20 years or more to the institution, it's very difficult. One of the difficulties is that next year, we will have half the Senate, 15 senators or more, will have two years or less experience. That is a sea change. It's to the good in many ways, you get new enthusiasm and new perspectives, but there's a danger that you lose institutional memory, and you lose people who are used to operating the system on a moment's notice. There's a lot more training that goes on and a lot more team building that we have been doing, but that will do a lot more of.

Broadcast live on Tuesday, April 23, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.