The 2019 Vermont Legislative session started out with great expectations due to the supermajority gained by the Vermont Democrats in the 2018 election. The legislatures biggest priorities which were a paid family leave program and an increase in the minimum wage to $15/hour failed to pass both chambers by the end of the session. The disappointment held by the authors of those bills has been echoed by the press and public since adjournment of the House on May 24. The Senate attempted to extend the session by refusing to sign a joint resolution with the House to adjourn on the 24th hoping that public pressure and an opportunity for more negotiation could continue their work. The Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle-Chittenden) refused and Senate voted on the joint resolution to adjourn on May 29.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort that staunched those major policies it was the sheer overwhelming complexity of the bills. Both minimum wage and paid family leave passed out of the chamber of origin extremely fast. While being extremely rich in ideals the original versions left out many details and many consequences left unanswered. Minimum wage was challenged by wage compression, pushing people over the “benefit cliff” and how to handle Medicaid providers. The paid family leave program which began as a mandatory program with 100% wage replacement for 12 weeks for family or medical leave turned into a debate whether to use a third party to administer the funds, what or who could claim benefits and whether companies offering similar benefits could opt out. These issues will return to be negotiated in the 2020 session.
The rewrite of Act 250 after a yearlong study group and feverish attention rests dormant in the committee of origin. The House Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife committee took intense testimony from activists for and against the program changes. Draft language was introduced but never received introduction to the House floor. The complexity of the proposal, several changes to the committee including the chair and disagreement of priorities are the likely reason this bill will take several years to pass, if it ever does. Many believe that the process itself should be scrapped then replaced with an easier and more predictable permit process for the future.
The Associated General Contractors of Vermont started the session tracking and participating in over 32 of the over 1200 bills introduced that would have a direct impact on the construction industry. Some of the issues we faced were expansions to a cap and trade program, increased penalties for overweight vehicles, municipalities issuing state permits, prevailing wage changes, privatization contracts, and licensing of general contractors for weatherization work. We were successful in promoting good bills and avoiding the bad ones. None of bills mentioned in this paragraph advanced this year but may return in 2020.
Below you will find a list of bills that AGC/VT followed that did vote out of their originating chamber. See the winners and losers below:
S.163 Misc Housing- This bill intended to create a system for monitoring rental housing and create a registration system for home building contractors. AGC/VT had its attention on the home builder registration and how it would impact our members. We met with the Office of Professional Regulation many times to discuss who and how people could become required to register with the goal of protecting our members who perform sub-contractor work only. In the end, after testifying multiple times in legislative committees the policy would only apply to residential home contractors who contract directly with homeowners for jobs over $2500. This would exclude a subcontractor working for a general contractor who is registered under the law which is a success for our members. The bill ultimately was held up and did not get a vote on the House floor. It is expected to return next year. This was a success for our legislative team.
H.439 Weatherization- This bill would increase payments to weatherization companies by approximately $4.5 million per year and would be paid for by doubling the fuel surcharge on dyed diesel, and other energy sources. Ultimately the bill did not pass as the Senate decided that instead of doubling the surcharge that removing exemptions for nonprofits would raise the money necessary to increase weatherization spending. This was a success to AGC/VT members and residents of Vermont who do not want increased fuel taxes. This was a success for our legislative team.
H.529 Transportation Bill- This bill which is required to pass annually to fund the states transportation needs included more intermodal transportation policy than before. It includes several provisions to curb greenhouse emissions by creating an electronic vehicle program, a study on rail transportation, and studies on how to attract more people to public transportation. Funding for roads and bridges remained largely the same as years passed with the legislature approving approximately 2/3’s of VTRANS request. The bill has passed both chambers and the Governor is expected to sign it in to law. This was a success for our legislative team.
H.533 Workforce Development- AGC/VT testified multiple times in support of this bill. Intended to improve our workforce it directs funds towards Vermont Technical Colleges, Vermont Training Program, Career Technical Center programs and to industries that have training needs including construction. In addition to the funds it creates a new American worker program, a program to remove barriers to employment and several other workforce initiatives. The bill has passed both chambers and is expected to become law. This was a success for our legislative team.
S.108 AG Enforcement of Misclassification- This bill originated from a report by legislative council that estimated losses in payments to workers comp and the unemployment insurance program. It was intended to allow an aggrieved party to file a complaint with the Attorney Generals office if the Department of Labor refused or ignored. The language once written created the ability for and individual or organization to file complaints with both DOL and the AG office where separate investigations could occur, with separate outcomes and potentially two sets of penalties if found guilty. AGC/VT testified vigorously against the dual enforcement regime and supported a more logical method based on thresholds that would trigger the AG involvement. Ultimately after much debate the bill made it to a committee of conference that was unable to reach agreement before the House moved to adjourn for the year. AGC/VT will closely monitor this bill in the future to fight against the dual enforcement option that would be a burden to employers. This was a success for our legislative team.
S.37 Medical Monitoring- This bill was originally vetoed by Governor Scott in 2018. Then and in the original form that was introduced this year would have created a system for the victim of a toxic exposure to require the user or property owner of the toxic to provide life long medical monitoring for latent diseases. In its original form monitoring could be awarded to someone even if the user was conducting state permitted work and substances not listed as dangerous. AGC/VT was among a list of over 30 business organizations who opposed this language and the result was a bill that passed both chambers that created the threshold of “tortuous conduct” in a large facility to be awarded monitoring. “Tortuous” meaning a violation of law, negligence, product liability, or abnormally dangerous activity. The draft that passed also requires the substance is listed in one or more locations such as the EPA, OSHA or Vermont ANR. The bill is now on the Governors desk for his consideration.