Legislative preview: Action to heat up this week as Vermont lawmakers play beat the clock


MONTPELIER -- It's countdown time at the Statehouse. With adjournment set for no later than May 10, lawmakers are pressing to work through the money bills and must-pass legislation to make the deadline.

That means floor work Monday, long stints in the wells of the Senate and House and more than likely a few sessions that stretch past the dinner hour. As per usual, the final tussle will likely be over the tax bill. Another contender for bitter end bickering is a school board and district consolidation bill, which is a priority for the House and Gov. Peter Shumlin, but doesn't have the support of the Senate.

As the end game nears, lawmakers must decide which bills will make it past the finish line and which must be taken up the next biennium. The prevailing wage bill, which would require contractors who work on some state projects to meet federal pay and benefit standards is stuck in the Senate, as is a ban on handheld cellphone use while driving. S.91, a study that would assess the impact of converting public schools into privately run institutions, has been ordered to lie in the House, and it is unlikely to be revived.

House Speaker Shap Smith announced last week that members will meet in the morning every day through the end of the session, with the exception of the 1 p.m. Monday session, which will tee up a full slate of controversial bills, including H.883 (school consolidation), S.252 (health care reform), S.220 (jobs bill), S.239 (toxics regulation) and S.295 (pretrial services for crimes committed by drug-addicted Vermonters). Later in the week, lawmakers will take up H.673 (teachers' health care retiree benefits) and S.287 (court-ordered, involuntary treatment of medication of psychiatric patients).

The Senate has its hands full with the $1.4 billion General Fund budget bill and tax legislation this week. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell told lawmakers to be prepared for evening debates.

Disputes over the money bills, especially the budget, will likely be less intense this year in conference committee. The miscellaneous tax bill, however, could lead to some infighting in between the governor's office, the Senate Finance Committee members and House Ways and Means Committee representatives. The governor wanted to raise $14 million in taxes on health care insurance claims; the House opted to tax snuff and e-cigarettes; the Senate, meanwhile, is looking at $3.5 million from a tiered assessment for employers who do not offer health insurance or whose workers use Medicaid.

And then there is the matter of a gross receipts tax on fuel oil. A slight increase would raise $2.5 million for low-income weatherization. Whether the proposal will have legs in the waning weeks of the session is an open question.

Senate Finance has not yet resolved questions about the property tax bill, which raises rates by 7.5 cents per $100 in value for non-residential property owners and 4 cents for residents. The committee is skeptical of the use of one-time monies to buy down the residential rate. Senators have also expressed concern about reducing the renter rebate and extending a cliff for high-income earners.

H.883, the school district consolidation proposal, sets up a six-year timeframe for the formation of expanded supervisory unions with unified school boards, budgets and streamlined administration. The measure has taken six weeks for the Democratic leadership to push through the House. Members are nearly equally divided on the question of whether the state should mandate consolidation of more than 270 districts into 45 to 55 education governance units that would serve 1,000 to 4,000 students.

The bill's fate in the Senate is uncertain. Senators have not received the legislation yet, and are not predisposed to approve it without full vetting, despite Gov. Peter Shumlin's press for passage. Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell told WCAX that H.883 would be "an extremely heavy lift" for the Senate.

The toxics bill, which will give the state the authority to regulate chemicals used in products for children, has been opposed by a number of major Vermont manufacturers, including Green Mountain Keurig and IBM. (Seventh Generation is a proponent.)

Because the teacher's retirement compromise was only recently announced it will be voted on as a standalone measure in the House; H.673 has been built into the Senate Appropriations bill.

The Senate and House are expected to compromise on a minimum wage bill. The House wants to institute an increase from $8.73 to $10.10 in January 2015, while the Senate is looking at a four-year rollout of the increase which would start at $9.15 and end up at $10.50 in 2018.

It's hard to say at this point what surprises may pop up at the end. The only sure thing is, there will be surprises.


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