By: Matt Musgrave, Deputy EVP/Government Relations Director, AGC/VT
The 2019/2020 Vermont legislative biennium opened on January 8th with our legislators settling in to new committees, meeting new members and a fresh start on their initiatives. We have 41 new legislators, many new committee assignments, and 8 new committee chairs. Statewide leadership remained much the same with Governor Phil Scott, Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, Attorney General TJ Donovan, Secretary of State James Condos and Treasurer Beth Pierce who ran successful campaigns to hold their positions.
The Senate committee chairs remain largely unchanged except for two assignments due to members not returning this session. Senator Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) replaced retired Senator Peg Flory (R-Rutland) as chair of the Committee on Institutions and Senator Ginny Lyons (D- Chittenden) replaced Senator Claire Ayer (D-Addison) who did not run for office as Chair of the Committee on Health and Welfare.
There are some notable changes to the composition of the Senate committees: Re-elected Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D-Chittenden) has joined the Transportation committee chaired by Senator Dick Mazza (D-Grand Isle); Senator Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) who is known for promoting gun legislation has moved to the Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Dick Sears (D-Bennington); and Senator Chris Pearson (P/D-Chittenden) has moved from Government Ops and Natural Resources/Energy to the committees on Agriculture and Finance.
The House of Representatives has 40 new members and some big committee changes by re-elected Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle) including 6 new committee chairs. Most notable of the chair moves is Representative Patrick Brennan (R-Colchester) being replaced by Representative Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) on the Committee on Transportation. There were 6 other new chairs due to retirements: Rep. Kathryn Webb (D-Shelburne) to Education; Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) to Government Ops; Rep. Tom Stevens (D-Waterbury) to General; Housing and Military Affairs; Rep. Timothy Briglin (D-Thetford) to Energy and Technology; and Amy Sheldon (D-Middlebury) to Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife.
The Senate Chamber has retained its Democratic supermajority, but the House of Representatives is treading in to new territory with Democrats ousting several longtime Republican held seats. During 2017/2018 biennium Governor Phil Scott vetoed a record number of bills including a $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, several budget proposals, 2 toxic substance bills among others. Governor Scott was able to sustain the vetoes with the help of 53 Republicans in the House of Representatives. This biennium things are different with only 42 Republicans in the House means that enlisting conservative Democrats may the only opportunity to sustain a veto.
Among the 40 new faces in the House 11 of them are below 40 years old. There are also 4 new members under the age of 25. These young people have moved to assemble a bipartisan “Youth Caucus”. The caucus hopes to bring new ideas perspectives to the House chambers.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe has announced his intention to amend Vermont Constitution to include abortion protection, removal of references of slavery from the document, and extending the gubernatorial term from 2 to 4 years. Changes to the constitution are rare which require a 2/3 vote in the Senate followed by a majority vote in the House, then it waits for the next biennium with newly elected legislators approving by a majority vote before being put in front of the voters for ratification.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has announced priorities regarding the $15 minimum wage, paid family leave, clean water funding, early childhood education and child care. The House is also expected to take up marijuana regulation and amending the states development regulation known as Act 250. New House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife chair Rep. Amy Sheldon spent the past two years working as the chair of the Act 250 Commission “The Next 50 Years” which was charged with finding efficiencies and new protections for Vermont’s landscape.
With all the new faces, the ability to override a veto and increasing demands from our legislature this biennium promises to be full of excitement. I look forward to working with our lobbying team to keep AGC/VT informed, working with our legislative committee to form our policy positions and teaming with members to bring expert testimony to support our industry. Please reach out to me if you have any questions or would like to be a part of the process.