Suddenly we are hurtling headlong into the second half of the legislative biennium. Will it be conducted in person? Will visitors and advocates be allowed in committee rooms – or in the State House, for that matter? Will committee meetings be available to view on Zoom, as was the case last session? Will the COVID case count numbers go up, or down?
We don’t yet know the answers to those questions. We do know that when the second half of the biennium convenes on January 4, legislators will have a lot on their plates. Reports are due from the Pupil Weighting Task Force; the Climate Council, which was charged with drafting a Climate Action Plan by December 1; and the Pension Benefits, Design, and Funding Task Force. In addition, reports and recommendations are due from the Cannabis Control Board and draft recommendations are due from the Legislative Apportionment Board. Although (surprisingly) there is no official tally of reports that the legislature requires from its staff or government agencies, the total likely exceeds 100. While some of them are only a couple of pages, others – such as the Vermont Climate Action Plan – are tomes that take enormous amounts of time and many people’s involvement to complete.
We also know that 2022 is an election year and Senator Patrick Leahy will retire from the U.S. Senate after a 48-year career that served Vermont extremely well. Elections always throw a bit of a curve ball into legislative actions, and this year will be no exception as people decide whether to run for state office or to aim for a congressional seat.
When the session ended last summer, the legislature knew neither what the arc of the COVID-19 pandemic would bring nor how the U.S. Treasury would develop guidelines around how American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds may be used. In 2021, the legislature retained approximately $500 million in ARPA dollars that they expect to appropriate this session. In November, while the Vermont legislature was between sessions, Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (HR 3684), which funds a host of programs and grants that our state legislature will appropriate in 2022.
The legislature is likely to include a recommendation to appropriate $1.5 million in General Fund dollars during budget adjustment to expand committee room capacity in the State House.
Early in the session, your Advocacy staff will work with legislators to pass a bill that establishes the options for holding town and special meetings in 2022 – and, hopefully, for as long as this pandemic constrains our ability to return to “normal’ elections. The Secretary of State has indicated he supports allowing town meetings in 2022 to be held remotely.
Your property taxes likely increased again this year. And, over the course of the summer, most other expenses, from gas to groceries, increased as well. According to the Joint Fiscal Office, the statewide education grand list is expected to increase three percent in FY22. On the state revenue side, tax receipts are running significantly ahead of projections for income, meals and rooms, property transfer, and the Education Fund. Transportation Fund revenues are essentially on target. In the last thirty years, legislators have promised to rein in education costs, but without any modicum of success – while property taxes, which contribute fully one-third of Education Fund revenues, grow inexorably. This year, the Pupil Weighting Task Force’s recommendations may affect how education property taxes are owed and paid into the Education Fund. It is also possible that the legislature could take up the Tax Structure Commission Report – for the first time since they received that report last February.
Throughout the pandemic, local officials have kept the wheels of government turning as new challenges greeted them every day. Both Vermonters and the legislature rely on local officials to continually deliver a wide range of services: to manage local volunteers; to provide emergency medical services, outdoor recreation, afterschool care, and inviting public spaces; to help take care of Vermont’s vulnerable and homeless populations; to provide for farmers’ markets, renewed community celebrations, and safe tourist activities; to provide face masks and protocols for safe socializing; to judiciously spend the direct aid ARPA dollars from the federal government; and shortly to ensure that INVEST in America dollars are spent on long overdue infrastructure needs.
In October, the Special Master of the Apportionment Board sent draft plans and maps for House districts based upon the 2020 Census numbers to Vermont’s boards of civil authority (BCAs). The BCAs had until November 15 to comment on the proposals. Taking BCA comments into account, the Apportionment Board amended its plan and sent it to the Clerk of the House. BCAs have no function in commenting on re-districting for Senate seats, and the Senate re-districting proposal had not been unveiled as of this writing. In the House and the Senate, proposals will be vigorously debated as the districts of sitting representatives and senators will be affected. The legislature must approve the redistricting plan ahead of the November 2022 general election. Please know that you will have many opportunities to comment before the redistricting maps are finalized.
Because 2022 is the second year of the biennium, all bills introduced last year that did not pass may still be taken up, debated, and passed. However, it is more likely that a new bill would be introduced and a new bill number assigned to legislation that legislators hope to pass. An example is S.79, the rental housing bill that passed last session but was vetoed by Governor Phil Scott. The bill included (a) transferring the responsibility for rental housing inspections from the local health officer to the Division of Fire Safety, except in towns administering inspection programs, and (b) a statewide registry of rental housing units, including short-term rentals. We expect that a new bill will be introduced to address the governor’s concerns around the rental housing registry, permitting and regulatory impediments to housing construction, and funding for the Vermont Rental Housing Investment and homeownership revolving loan fund programs.
As your Advocacy staff (Karen Horn, Director, and Gwynn Zakov, Municipal Policy Advocate, VLCT Public Policy and Advocacy), we are here to help you navigate the legislative session and to secure legislation that implements the policies adopted by the VLCT board and membership. Please watch for our Advocacy chats, returning for this session via Zoom on alternate Mondays. Contact us with your ideas, concerns, and commentaries – and let us know what you are discussing with your legislators. It is an honor to serve as your voice in the legislature.