2020 Legislative Recess Report

A special thanks goes out to the AGC/VT lobbying team William Shouldice and Associates, LLC for the report below. The team includes Heather Shouldice, Tess Kennedy, Cheri L’esperance, and Emma Shouldice. 

Recess until August 25th

The Vermont General Assembly has called for an official recess until mid-August. The recess was needed on several points: a need to take a step back and see how revenue collections come in over the next 2 months and to allow Legislators to return to their families and day jobs. With the session already going into overtime by more than 6 weeks, patience was running low and emotions were running high. In the Senate, leadership was trying to ram through changes to the Act 250 permitting for land use development. The law, 50 years old, has been considered for almost four years but the Senate in earnest has not taken substantial testimony and in the days of “zoom” meetings, typical discussions and legislative engagement has been challenging and limited. At best, any provisions to change this law should wait until fall or 2021. The legislature also focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while at the same time encouraging people to move here. Apparently, that is as long as they do not bring their cars.  The message being sent from Montpelier to Vermonters has the appearance of being out of touch with what is happening in Vermont’s economy.

Both Chambers spent much of the week on the floor debating bills. Technology again became an issue, meeting with Committee Chairs and committee testimony was not made public for viewing. Many outsiders said this does not have the appearance of transparency. The review of some amendments to both budget bills and CARES Act bills were not warned or viewed.

For more than 2 days Committees and floor debates were consumed with whether state employees should retain their current contract or take a pay cut. Not only did the majority support allowing the current contract to remain in place with wage increases, the Legislature added a provision that would increase Legislative pay increases by the same percentage as state employees. The optics of the legislature increasing their pay in the middle of a pandemic and 12% unemployment seemed like the General Assembly had clearly lost their focus of restarting Vermont.

The Associated General Contractors of Vermont testified in the House Transportation Committee to access CARES Act funds for losses the contractors have experienced due to COVID-19.  The committee members heard from Matt Musgrave and recommended a carve out $3 million for which contractors could apply for funds.  Testimony has been clear that CARES Act funds can provide grants for losses which are incurred from the Executive Order in March through September. Grants for fixed costs would not be included as they do not meet CARES Act spending rules but could be eligible under EIDL (Emergency Insurance Disaster Loan).  The Agency of Transportation testified they were not aware of contractor losses but there were some delays. Despite AOT’s testimony, the Transportation Committee included a recommendation for a $3 million carveout for contractors.

Throughout the spring it has been a battle for all involved – legislators and business owners – on how to use the federal assistance dollars within the guidelines set by congress. In the final days of deliberation to allocate CARES Act funds, the House Appropriations and other committees decided to remove the $3M contractor carveout and opted to increase funds for grant programs available to businesses

H.961 An act relating to making first quarter fiscal year 2021 appropriations for the support of State government, federal Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) appropriations, pay act appropriations, and other fiscal requirements for the first part of the fiscal year

The House Appropriations Committee concurred Senate proposal budget for FY 2021.   The bill has been sent to Governor Scott for his approval.

 

  1. 350 – An Act relating to creating emergency economic recovery grants; signed by Governor June 19, 2020

This bill proposes to provide funding and parameters to award emergency economic recovery grants from the Coronavirus Relief Fund in two categories of grants: (1) $50M to businesses that have 1 or more employees, pay sales and uses taxes or rooms and meals taxes, and have suffered a 75% revenue loss; (2) $20M to businesses that have 1 or more employees and do not pay those taxes and suffered a 75% revenue loss.

The $50M in business grants will be made available through the Vermont Department of Taxes. This week the Tax Department issued preliminary guidance for businesses that pay the sales and use or meals and rooms taxes to prepare to apply. While not all the details of the Vermont Department of Taxes grant process are available yet, there are 3 critical steps the Dept. of Taxes recommends you undertake for your business ahead of the application being released:

 

  1. For businesses with a myVTax account, file all of your sales and use and meals and rooms tax returns through the April 30, 2020 period. They are also encouraging the filing of returns for the May 31, 2020 period. The Department of Taxes will be using the data from these Tax returns to verify a 75% or greater drop in total sales subject to these taxes, which is a requirement to qualify for a grant. If you have not filed all of these required returns, you may be deemed ineligible for the grant.
  2. Ensure you are in good standing with the Vermont Department of Taxes. Good standing means that all required tax returns for your business are filed and taxes are paid, or if you owe any taxes that are past due, you are in a payment plan. Any taxpayers who are otherwise not in good standing may be deemed ineligible for the grant.

 

The Vermont Department of Taxes will be confirming grant applications qualifying by utilizing sales and use and meals and rooms tax returns from your business.

 

Information about the $20M for grants to businesses that do not have a meals and rooms or sales and use tax account will be available at www.accd.vermont.gov as soon as possible, check the site frequently for updates.

 

S.339 An act relating to miscellaneous changes to laws related to vehicles, sent to Governor

This bill makes miscellaneous changes to laws related to motor vehicles, including these changes:

 

  • Agency of Transportation pilot project for Lighted Safety Paddles on 10 or more projects during the FY21 and FY22 road project seasons; report to Legislature findings on success of paddle use
  • Authorization for DMV to develop a centralized online permit system for weight & length permits
  • Amend fines and penalty point for violations in work and school zones
  • Extends sunset for use of Automated License Plate Recognition Systems

 

The Senate Transportation committee added an 11th hour amendment to study the municipal permit process including safety and structure issues that prompt municipalities to require a special permit for truck travel on municipal roads. The amendment was born out of testimony about the required truck permit on Route 4 through the town of Woodstock, which has caused much controversy.

 

The House concurred with Senate proposal of amendment and the bill passed.

H.942 An act relating to the Transportation Program and miscellaneous changes to laws related to transportation, sent to Governor

The bill includes the Agency of Transportation’s (AOT) proposed FY2021 budget totaling approximately $640M. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, approximately 60% of the budget approved in H.942 has been included in the 1st quarter. When legislators return in August, they will finalize the remaining three quarters of the FY21 State budget, including the Transportation budget for the rest of the fiscal year.

 

The House concurred with the Senate proposal of amendment for shifting more funds to transportation initiatives that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and passed the Transportation Bill.

 

Chart of approved Transportation spending (refer to yellow Senate column for final) can be found here.

 

H.552 An act relating to the Vermont Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Pollution Control Revolving Fund, Sent to Governor

This bill makes clarifications to the administration of loans to private entities for clean water projects from the Vermont Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Pollution Control Revolving Fund.

 

The bill contains mostly technical changes to how funds are administered but it does make 2 changes of substance:

  • Allows for debt to be incurred by municipalities without voter approval in certain limited circumstances relating to clean water projects
  • Expands the Default and Disadvantaged Municipality Loan terms for the Drinking Water Revolving Loan Fund.

 

Senate Natural Resources and the Senate Appropriations Committed by reported favorably on the bill as passed by the House.

 

The Senate passed the bill on a voice vote. The bill returns to the House to be sent to the Governor for signing.

 

H.955 An act relating to capital construction and State bonding budget adjustment, sent to Governor

This bill adjusts the FY2021 capital construction budget, a bi-annual bill to decide the capital construction budget for 2-years.

The House and Senate agreed to an increase of $13.2M in capital project spending for FY21, matched by funds available. The spending increase is $12.6M over what the Governor recommended for adjustments to capital construction for FY21. Included in the bill are the following:

$2.7M – Building & General Services
$2.3M – Agency of Human Services
$570K – Agency of Natural Resources for public water systems with PFAS

$2M – Relocation of Dept. of Public Safety Middlesex Field Station

$2M – Vermont Housing Conservation Board

$2.1M – Lamoille Valley Rail Trail

 

The House concurred with the Senate proposal of amendment. The bill will be sent to the Governor for signing.

 

Capital Spending Budget Adjustments.

 

H.966 An act relating to COVID-19 funding and assistance for broadband connectivity, housing, and economic relief, Sent to Governor

This bill appropriate State Coronavirus Relief Funds to various broadband, housing, and other economic initiatives in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.

 

Senate Appropriations amended the House passed bill to allocate $214,200,000 from the Coronavirus Relief Funds (CRF) for economic assistance to businesses and individuals, housing programs, and broadband initiatives, which include but are not limited to:

  • $82M – Emergency economic grants for businesses in VT as created in S.350 (already passed)
  • $2.5M – Working Lands Enterprise Fund for agricultural businesses
  • $5M – Vermont Community Loan Fund for grants to women and minority owned small businesses
  • $1.5M – grants through the Outdoor Recreation Business Assistance Program
  • $5M – Dept. of Tourism & Marketing to create Re-Start Vermont and provide professional and technical assistance to Vermont businesses
  • $5M – Southeastern VT Community Action for statewide program Restaurants & Farmers Feeding the Hungry
  • $13M – Grants to local governments for reimbursement of eligible COVID-19 expenses
  • $2M – Grants to municipalities to digitize land records for online access
  • $9M – Vermont Housing & Conservation Board
  • $5M – Foreclosure protection program
  • $25M – Rental Assistance Program
  • $6.2M – Create Re-Housing Recovery Program to provide grants to refurbished blighted properties
  • $17.5M – Accelerated Broadband Connectivity Program to achieve State’s goal of universal access
  • $8M – Utility Rate Payer Assistance Program

 

This stimulus bill will serve to stabilize Vermont’s economy throughout the COVID-19 emergency with a goal of preventing business closures, homelessness, and economic instability for Vermonters.

 

Late Friday afternoon an amendment was offered by Senator Sirotkin, (D-Chittenden), to include a program for gift cards given out to frontline workers. The amendment was approved on a voice vote.

 

The Senate passed the bill as amended. Upon third reading, the Senate passed the bill on a voice vote. Having considered the Senate amendments, the House concurred with the Senate proposals of amendment by a vote of 132-2. This economic recovery bill will go to the Governor for signing.

 

S.342 An act relating to temporary workers’ compensation amendments related to COVID-19; Sent to Governor

This bill proposes to grant the Commissioner of Labor temporary authority during a declared state of emergency related to COVID-19 to amend or waive certain requirements and deadlines under the worker’s compensation laws and to provide a presumption that certain workers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 are entitled to workers’ compensation for the disease.

 

The bill puts workers into 2 groups: (1) addresses workers compensation benefits relating to COVID-19 for frontline workers, (2) addresses workers’ compensation benefits relating to COVID-19 for non-front-line workers.

 

Frontline workers, shall be presumed to be compensable provided that:

  1. Received a positive laboratory test for COVID-19 between April 1, 2020 and January 15, 2021 or a diagnosis from a licensed medical professional
  2. Have an elevated risk of exposure to COVID-19

Non-frontline workers shall be presumed to be compensable provided that:

  1. Received a positive laboratory test for COVID-19 between April 1, 2020 and January 15, 2021 or a diagnosis from a licensed medical professional
  2. Had a documented occupational exposure to an individual with COVID-19

 

However, the presumption for non-frontline workers shall not apply if it is shown at the time the employee was potentially exposed to COVID-19:

  • The employee’s place of employment was in compliance with the Restart Vermont WorkSafe Guidance in place at the time of exposure
  • The employer can show the employee participated in activities outside of work that increased risk of exposure; or
  • A COVID-19 vaccine is available and refused by the employee

 

The Department of Financial Regulation will implement guidance to prevent a business’ workers’ compensation rating from being impacted by COVID-19 claims.

 

The bill also includes the annual rate setting for Workers’ Compensation rates in Vermont, the rate is the same as last year. The Senate concurred with the House proposal of further amendment and passed on a voice vote.

 

Notable Bills held over until August:

FY 2021 Q 2-4 Budget

S.227 An act relating to the provision of personal care products by lodging establishments

The Senate passed S.227 with amendment to provide the Secretary of Natural Resources the ability to grant a variance under Covid-19. The House as of late has not made this bill a priority to pass but could be considered after the Legislative recess in August.

 

S.295 An act relating to restrictions on perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances and other chemicals of concern in consumer products

The bill is aimed at restricting the use of PFAS, manufacture, sale, and distribution of food packaging, rugs/carpets, and firefighter foam

After the Senate approved S.295, the bill was referred to House Human Services. Due to time constraints, the committee will likely take the bill up when the legislature returns in mid-August.

 

S.237 An act relating to promoting affordable housing

This bill proposes to adopt miscellaneous provisions to promote access to affordable housing. The Senate voted 28-0 to amend the bill as offered by Senate Economics, Housing and General Affairs and voted to pass the bill. The bill was referred to the House for consideration whereupon no further action is being taken at this time.

 

H.926 An act relating to Act 250 changes

The bill contains changes to Act 250 which have been worked on for 4 years. Having passed the House prior to the COVID-19 emergency order in March, the bill sat idle until this week when Senate Natural Resources passed it out of committee.

 

The bill was referred to Senate Finance and due to time constraints and the need for all committees of jurisdiction to have time for testimony and consideration, the Senate will postpone action on this bill until August.

 

H.688 An act relating to addressing climate change

This bill creates a legally enforceable system by which Vermont will reduce its statewide greenhouse gas emissions and establish strategies to mitigate climate risks and build resiliency to climate change.

 

The Senate passed the bill on Friday which allows citizens to sue the State if it does not reach emissions goals set by a newly formed Climate Council. The bill puts the onus on the state to reduce these emission levels after the federal government pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, which would have required these same reductions.

  • 26% below 2005 levels by 2025
  • 40% below 1990 levels by 2030
  • 80% below 1990 levels by 2050

 

An appropriation of $972,000 to support any administrative costs or resulting actions was removed by Senate Appropriations and will be revisited later. The Agency of Natural Resources has repeatedly stated they support the efforts in the bill but have serious concerns about ANR being able to execute the goals without any funding.

 

After passing the Senate, the bill returned to the House for concurrence. Due to time constraints, the House will postpone further consideration of the bill at this time