Legislature Week in Review: Talk of Special Session

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Legislature Week in Review: Talk of Special Session

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 10:30am -- tim

Through a special arrangement with VBM, Leonine Public Affairs provides a summary of legislative activity in Montpelier for week ending March 17. 2017.

BUDGET TENSIONS, CROSSOVER DEADLINE, AND TALK OF SPECIAL SESSION

Leonine Public Affairs A mid-week press conference by House leadership to "remind" Governor Scott that "Vermonters expect him to present responsible budget proposals" put a spotlight on the tension between lawmakers and the Governor on the development of the FY18 state budget. House leaders in a statement pointed out Vermonters approved 90 percent of school budgets at Town Meeting. They argued the Governor's proposal for school boards to level fund K-12 budgets in order to invest in higher education and early education had been rejected by Town Meeting voters. Governor Scott responded through a spokeswoman that his budget proposal is balanced and put the burden back on lawmakers to come up with a budget of their own if they didn't want to adopt his plan.

This week lawmakers also toiled away to move priority bills out of their respective committees to meet the March 17th crossover deadline. Many of these bills will be referred to the "money" committees, which have until next Friday, March 24th to advance them. While committees worked hard, most long-time State House observers noticed the pre-crossover frenzy that usually grips the building was somewhat muted this year. The fact that this is the first year of the legislative biennium with new legislative leadership, there is a distinct threat of federal budget cuts, and the lack of extra state dollars floating around to spend on pet projects are the most cited reasons for the comparatively quiet crossover week this year. Some of the key bills that made the crossover deadline are summarized below. 

Senate Pro-Tem Tim Ashe announced this week that the legislature should set aside two weeks at the end of October to return for a special session in response to potential reductions in the federal impact that would have a significant impact on Vermont’s budget. Federal funds account for roughly 35 percent of the state budget. 


BUDGET UPDATE 
The House Appropriations Committee is honing in on their goal of reducing a roughly $70 million budget gap. The committee must pass a proposed FY18 budget out of committee one week from today. In order to meet that timeline, Chair Kitty Toll, D-Danville, has set a number of interim deadlines for the committee to meet along the way. She had previously asked the committee to resolve all unanswered questions about the Governor’s proposed budget language by today, and to bring all new proposed language forward by next Wednesday. The committee’s goal is to eliminate the $70 million gap and it hopes to have some revenue available to dedicate to new initiatives. 

IMMIGRATION BILL SENT TO GOVERNOR
On Wednesday, the House gave final approval to S.79, which would prohibit local police from assisting federal authorities with immigration enforcement without the approval of the governor, in consultation with the attorney general. The bill was prompted by President Trump’s executive order that sought to ban individuals from certain countries from entering The United States. S.79 received unanimous support in the Senate, and received tri-partisan support in the house, passing by a vote of 110-24. 

HOUSE COMMITTEE ADVANCES TELECOM BILLS 
The House Energy and Technology Committee this week voted out two telecom-related bills: 

H.216 - An act relating to the establishment of the Vermont Lifeline program. The existing federal Lifeline program provides a monthly discount to phone and internet service to eligible households. This bill would create a state credit for those services. 

H.347 - An act relating to the state Telecommunications Plan. The Department of Public Service is responsible for periodically completing a telecommunications plan outlining the state’s telecom related goals over the next ten years.  This bill would direct the Department in preparing the plan to conduct a series of surveys from the health and human services sector, the public safety sector, the workforce training and development sectors, and the educational sector. 


HEALTHCARE 
The Senate Health and Welfare Committee approved a bill that would study the state’s mental health care system and raise the minimum wage for some mental health workers. The bill, which has yet to receive a number, would require the Agency of Human Services and the Green Mountain Care Board to conduct a series of studies with a goal of creating a plan to reduce the number of psychiatric patients being treated in hospital emergency rooms. The bill also appropriates $30 million to raise the minimum wage of direct mental health care workers to $15. Senators on the committee expect the $30 million appropriation to be reduced and are now working with the Senate Appropriations Committee to reach agreement on funding levels. 

The House Health Care Committee approved a bill that would require the Green Mountain Care Board to provide status reports to the legislature and Office of the Health Care Advocate on the implementation of the all payer model. The bill would also require the Department of Vermont Health Access to provide reports on the status of a recently announced Medicaid accountable care pilot project. The bill has yet to receive a number.


SENATE COMMITTEE ADVANCES "BIO-SIMILAR" DRUG BILL 
The Senate Health & Welfare Committee approved an amended version of S.92 this morning. The bill relates to “biologic” drugs, most of which are relatively new types of drug produced by biological, as opposed to chemical means. The FDA has begun to approve “bio-similars,” which are biologic drugs that are interchangeable with an original biologic drug in terms of treating a particular condition. In essence bio-similars are equivalent in concept to a generic version of a drug produced by chemical means. Under the bill a pharmacist is required, subject to certain exceptions, to fill a prescription for a “biologic” drug with an FDA approved bio-similar drug if, as is anticipated will be the case, the bio-similar is less expensive.

S.103 - CHEMICAL REGULATION 
The Senate Natural Resources Committee approved a bill that would create an “interagency committee” to review and inventory chemicals used in manufacturing in Vermont. The committee would consist of members of multiple state agencies and would be tasked with keeping track of chemical inventory in the state, EPA regulatory changes and implementation of state chemical regulation programs. The committee would also make policy recommendations to the legislature. S.103 will need to be reviewed by the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committees by Friday of next week before going to the Senate floor. 

STATES RISK ECONOMIC SLOWDOWN WITH INCOME TAX PROPOSALS 
The following is an extract from our weekly blog. Click here to read the whole post. 

If states are truly “laboratories of democracy” as is often mused, then the state of Kansas has in recent years turned itself into a veritable science project gone wrong through a series of tax policy missteps coupled with a staunch unwillingness to change course. In 2011, the state implemented an income tax overhaul under the direction of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and with the support of the overwhelmingly Republican state legislature, in hopes of boosting the state economy. As part of the tax package, the state completely eliminated income taxes on small businesses and significantly cut individual income taxes.


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