Leonine: Fireworks in January

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Leonine: Fireworks in January

Sun, 01/28/2018 - 6:27pm -- tim

Leonine Public Affairs Governor Phil Scott presented his budget address as the legislature entered a fourth week of intense activity. January tends to be the slowest month for the legislature, as committees and lawmakers get up to speed on issues and await the budget proposal from the governor. This has not been the case in 2018 as January has been defined by a flurry of committee activity and floor action. In addition there have been significant moments like the governor’s approval of the legalization of recreational cannabis and the unveiling of a proposal by the Governor to construct a large, 925-bed correctional facility in Franklin County. Already elevated political tensions increased this week as Democrats scrutinized and in some cases criticized the governor’s proposed budget while Republicans praised it. 

A bill to protect victims of workplace sexual harassment was introduced while lively policy debate continued this week on issues like raising the minimum wage, the regulation of data in commerce, water quality, net neutrality, the regulation of prescription drugs, highway safety and the regulation of chemicals in manufacturing. If January is an indicator, 2018 will be one of the more politically charged sessions in recent memory. 


BUDGET
Governor Scott outlined his FY2019 budget priorities this week in a speech to a joint session of the legislature. The Governor stuck with the core themes that propelled him to the governor’s office in 2016 - growing the economy and the workforce, fighting opioid addiction, and not raising taxes. The governor’s proposed budget includes $82 million of increased spending over FY2018, which he said is below the average wage rate growth of 2.36 percent. The governor’s stated goal is to keep budget growth below the six-year rolling average of wage growth. 

The governor announced a number of proposals to support elderly Vermonters including an additional $20 million for state pensions, the elimination of state income taxes on social security benefits, and more training opportunities for seniors. He highlighted technical education as a priority and reiterated his goal of enticing more people to move to Vermont with a proposal to spend $3.2 million on a targeted marketing program. He announced environmental initiatives to reduce emissions from tailpipes and chimneys, proposed using $1.8 million in VW settlement money to create more electric vehicle charging stations and he urged farmers to turn manure into compost for use as a revenue generating export instead of a water pollutant. The governor proposed new dental health initiatives for children and new programs to support mothers and families struggling with substance abuse. He also proposed $6.4 million for mental health initiatives including the replacement of the Middlesex secure residential facility and construction of a new forensics unit. The governor also reiterated his concerns about school spending and property taxes, saying Vermont’s K-12 infrastructure is designed to support well over 100,000 students but is now serving only 70,000. He proposed a goal of increasing the teacher/student ratio from one-to-four to one-to-five over the next five years through retirement and attrition. 

The governor’s budget address highlighted his commitment to not raise taxes. Immediately after the speech Democratic lawmakers, including House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, Senate President Pro-Tem Tim Ashe and members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees called on the governor to explain how he intends to fund these priorities without raising taxes. The lack of a specific education funding proposal in particular drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers. 


NET NEUTRALITY
Late Friday afternoon the Senate Finance Committee transformed S.289, a bill dealing with the data privacy practices of internet service providers, into a bill dealing with net neutrality. The committee then passed the measure by a vote of 6-1. The amended version of S.289 requires companies that contract with the state to provide broadband services certify compliance with the net neutrality standards established in the bill. The certification requirement would pertain to contracts entered into after July 1, 2018, and would not apply to existing contracts with the state.

The House Energy and Technology Committee took testimony on another net neutrality bill, H.680, which would require internet service providers to be certified by the Public Service Commission as being “net neutral” in order to be allowed to provide internet service in Vermont. The committee will continue to take testimony on the H.680 next week.


DATA BROKERS
On a 8-3 vote Friday afternoon, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee voted to adopt a 49-page draft bill dealing with the regulation of “data brokers.” The committee bill sets forth a definition of “data brokers” and requires such entities to annually register with the Secretary of State. Data brokers will have to disclose whether they allow consumers to “opt out” of the collection and sale of data involving personal information; whether the data broker has a protocol for verifying the bona fide nature of the businesses and the companies who purchase such data from it; and whether the data broker has suffered a breach of the personal information (which is broadly defined) in the year leading up to the filing. Data brokers will also be required to comply with operational and technical specifications concerning the security of the data they possess.

PRIMARY ADULT SEATBELT LAW
On Friday the House passed H.691, a highway safety bill, by a vote of 133-7. The most controversial piece of the bill is a provision that will allow a police officer to stop an adult driver for the sole offense of not wearing a seat belt. Currently, Vermont has a “secondary offense” law whereby an adult driver must be stopped for a non-seat belt related traffic offense and only then can the adult be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. Lawmakers cited a spike in recent unbelted highway deaths as the need for the change. The House agreed to one floor amendment that imposes civil penalties for drivers under 21 years of age who drive while under the influence of a drug.

SEXUAL HARRASSMENT
A tripartisan coalition of House members, along with an Independent, announced comprehensive legislation dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. H.707 is being being spearheaded by Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D- Bradford, but is also supported by House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D- Burlington, Progressive Leader Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P-Middle Town Springs, and Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover. While the initiative is starting in the House, Senators from both sides of the aisle expressed support for it. It was an impressive showing and no small feat to organize this many political leaders from each of the three major parties in Vermont. 

According to Representative Copeland-Hanzas, the bill will offer a way to make real change for every worker in Vermont, will remove the curtain behind which harassers have hidden their crimes and will offer a place workers can go to find the help they need to say to their harasser, ‘no thanks’ to unwanted sexual advances. She stressed that H.707 is designed to curb abuse, encourage women to file complaints and provide whistleblower protections to women who speak out about ongoing harassment in the workplace.


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Source: Leonine Public Affairs, Montpelier, Week 3. 1.26.2018. leoninepublicaffairs.com. Through a special arrangement with Leonine, Vermont Business Magazine republishes Leonine's weekly legislative report on vermontbiz.com.