The legislature will not be in session next week for Town Meeting Day break. Therefore there will not be a newsletter on Friday, March 9. Leonine's next newsletter will be on Friday, March 16
Leonine Public AffairsThe conclusion of this week marks the midpoint of the 2018 legislative session. Because the official crossover deadline for policy bills was Friday legislators were working feverishly to move bills out of committee to ensure the other body has the ability to consider them. However, due to an unusual amount of floor activity the crossover deadline is getting an unofficial extension.
Much of this can be attributed to the sudden shift in the political landscape regarding gun safety legislation. In less than two weeks time most gun safety bills went from being non-starters to must pass legislation. This seismic shift was precipitated by the events in Parkland, Florida and a near miss here in Vermont. Those events caused Governor Scott to completely abandon his previous stance that no new gun safety measures are necessary. He said he was willing to consider and support a number of ideas. The Senate made a significant move by amending an innocuous bill dealing with the storage of firearms by law enforcement to require background checks for private gun sales, thereby closing the infamous “gun show loophole.” Three weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that no elected leader could vote for a gun safety bill and get re-elected. It may be that the exact opposite is true today.
Aside from guns, the House and Senate tackled numerous issues that may have long lasting political ramifications. Because of this, we expect the next nine weeks to be even more eventful than the first nine.
GUNS On Thursday, the Senate amended S.55, a bill dealing with the disposition of unlawful and abandoned firearms to require background checks on private gun sales. The amendment passed by a vote of 17-13. On Friday, they returned for the final reading of S.55 with a further amendment, which also passed by a 17-13 vote, and would raise the age limit to purchase a firearm to 21 years of age. The Senate also passed S.221, which would allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate firearms from individuals who are deemed by a judge to be an “extreme risk” to themselves or others. On Thursday, the House held their own debate on gun reform, which lasted late into the evening. They amended H.675 to lower the standard of proof applied by members of law enforcement when they seize firearms and increased the length of time that a court could order firearms seized. They also approved a measure that creates a felony charge for the possession of a firearm on school grounds with the intent to harm, which is currently only a misdemeanor.
INCOME TAX CHANGES
Earlier this session the administration proposed a series of changes to Vermont’s income tax code to neutralize the increases in state income taxes many Vermonters will pay as a result of the changes made to the federal tax code in December 2017. This week the House Ways and Means Committee adopted a committee bill on a divided vote, H.911, that incorporates a significantly modified version of the the administration’s proposal, adds an income tax surcharge for education financing purposes, and makes other changes to the state’s education financing system. On the one hand the bill would reduce the income tax rate by 0.2 percent but on the other hand it would impose a surcharge of up to 1.0 percent for education financing. At his press conference on Thursday Governor Scott stated that combining the two ideas--offsetting the federal tax changes and using the income tax for education financing--unnecessarily complicates the issue. He was also critical of using the state’s income tax for education financing without there being any provisions to reduce the cost of the education system.
The House approved H.237, which would allow a law enforcement officer to administer a saliva test of a motorist suspected of driving under the influence of drugs. The test will only determine whether there is a drug in a person’s system, and not the degree to which the person is under the drug’s influence. As a result, the test, which can be refused by the motorist, cannot be used as evidence in court. Instead it would serve as a means to determine whether further investigation of the motorist’s condition is warranted. Because marijuana can stay in a person’s system for weeks if not months there was considerable debate on the House floor over the wisdom of allowing such a test.
The House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee advanced H.710, a bill related to beer and wine franchise laws, by a split 7-2-2 vote on Friday. Vermont has one of the highest number of breweries per capita in the country. This was achieved under the current franchise law that has been in place for over 40 years in Vermont. The bill exempts “small” brewers from the “good cause” requirement to terminate a franchise. A “small” brewer is defined as producing 50,000 barrels or less of beer per year and whose products comprise three percent of less of it’s distributor’s total annual sales by volume. Many store owners have voiced concerns that the bill will disrupt the reliable beer distribution system that currently provides a high level of service to them, especially in rural areas of the state. Beer distributors oppose the bill because it will deter investment in the distribution infrastructure and ultimately reduce the choice and variety of beer that Vermont consumers currently enjoy. Distributors are Vermont-based, family-owned businesses that employ approximately 700 Vermonters in high wage jobs with benefits.
The House Transportation Committee voted the annual transportation funding bill, known as “The T-Bill”, out of committee this week. H.917 authorizes the annual Agency of Transportation spending program which is a proposed $612 million for FY2019. The bill would allow VTrans to spend additional federal transportation dollars in the event of a federal stimulus bill. The Trump administration has alluded to new infrastructure programs and the Vermont Congressional delegation has told the legislature that some form of federal funding package is possible in 2018. It is unclear whether a new federal program would provide infrastructure grants that promote public private partnerships or increase funding through the traditional federal transportation formula. The former seems more likely, as it is prefered by the president and Congressional Republicans. Infrastructure grants tend to favor urban areas over rural ones, according to testimony from the Agency of Transportation. This is because they tend to target large municipal improvements that will create a financial return, like a bridge with a toll booth. The return is particularly important in the case of a public private partnership. In anticipation of more public private partnerships H.917 authorizes a pilot project that would allow VTrans to enter into an agreement with a private entity to improve infrastructure.
H.917 also makes a number of other transportation related policy changes relating to signage, abandoned aircraft, electric vehicle charging stations, furnishing alcohol to minors who are involved in an off-roading accident, historic sites and upgrading the state vehicle fleet.
On Friday the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs gave approval to S.269, which deals with blockchain and financial technology. The committee-approved version of S.269 is pared down from the bill as introduced and does four things: establishes a method for certifying a “personal information trust businesses” with the Department of Financial Regulation (DFR); directs DFR to prescribe by rule the timing and manner of reports by personal identity trust companies to the Department and to adopt rules that govern aspects of the business of a personal information trust company; directs DFR to review the potential applications of blockchain technology to the provision of insurance and e-banking; and directs the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, in collaboration with partners to organize a Financial Technology Summit.