Legislative Report 5/20/2015 - End of Session

Remember the Rubik's Cube? I always had a hard time solving that 3D, 3-axis puzzle. The last week of the legislative session seemed like trying to solve a giant Rubik's cube of legislation. Fourteen bills were assigned to Committees of Conference because the House and Senate could not agree on details in the versions each chamber passed. In addition to those bills, the Immunization bill (H.98), the Water Quality bill (H.35) and the Energy bill (H.40) still had not been settled.

Early in the week the House Health Care Committee took a couple more days of impassioned testimony on whether to retain the philosophical exemption or to remove it before finally bringing it to the full House for a vote. The hours-long debate on the floor reflected the range of opinions heard in testimony. Several amendments were offered before the House voted to remove that exemption while retaining the religious and medical exemptions. The 85 to 57 vote crossed party lines as individual legislators made up their own minds on the legislation. Following the decision on vaccine exemptions, the House voted quickly to concur with the Senate on proposed amendments to the Water Quality bill, which will put Vermont on the path to reducing phosphorous runoff into its lakes and streams.
By Friday afternoon most of the conference committees reported agreement on all but the Budget, Revenue, Health Care, and Education bills, and the Senate was still debating amendments to the Energy bill. Earlier in the afternoon we passed the very important Child Protection bill (S.9) which requires any mandated reporter who reasonably suspects abuse or neglect of a child to report it to Department of Children and Families instead of to a superior, and it improves cross-agency communication for child welfare cases. Typical of the "hurry up and wait" character of the session's final days, the House was repeatedly recessed to await updates on the status of conference committee negotiations.
Friday evening we received from the Senate its amendments to the Energy bill, and the House quickly concurred in its passage. The Senate left the provisions adopted by the House and added provisions regarding siting of solar energy projects. They include giving municipalities automatic party status in Public Service Board hearings, defining minimum setback requirements, and allowing municipalities to define screening requirements. Passage of this bill satisfies the objections Connecticut and Massachusetts had regarding Vermont's double-counting of renewable energy credits (RECs) and avoids the loss of $50M in annual revenue for our utilities, thereby avoiding a potential 6% increase in electric rates.
Saturday brought the passage of the Education bill and the Health Care bill. The Health Care bill had been trimmed back considerably because of an inability to agree on funding. What remained was a 33 cent/pack cigarette tax increase and subjecting soda to the 6% sales tax. The package contains $3.2 million in new state health care spending, which is eligible for roughly another $3 million from federal matching funds. The money will be used to level-fund Vermont Health Connect subsidies for out-of-pocket costs, target increases to Medicaid rates, and invest in initiatives to strengthen the primary care system.
As late as Saturday afternoon negotiations were still going on among the House and Senate leadership and the Governor regarding how the agreed upon budget would be funded. $53M in program cuts had been agreed upon with the expectation that $30M in additional revenues would have to be found. This represents $3M more in cuts and $5M less in revenues than originally passed by the House. Finally, around 10 PM the final agreements were made and the House gave final approval to the Budget. After the traditional speeches from the leaders of the Progressive, Republican and Democratic parties, the Speaker of the House, and the Governor, the session was gavelled to a close just before 11 PM.
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).