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Legislative Update – Week 8

This week’s Legislative Update is sponsored by:

February 28, 2020

Every year there is a mad dash to Town Meeting week and this year was no exception. This week the House took up and voted on the Governor’s minimum wage veto, cannabis commercialization, and Act 250 changes, leaving many members very grateful to have the chance to return home for a week. Town Meeting week is an opportunity to engage with your legislators on issues you’ve read about in our newsletter. Please take this opportunity to let them know how you feel. You are the business community’s best advocates.

When the legislators return, they will be staring down a March 13th cross-over deadline. Crossover is the deadline by which a bill needs to move out of its committee of jurisdiction if it is to continue being worked on this year. There is a later cross-over date of March 20th for bills that must pass through a money committee. 

In this week’s newsletter; 

Legislative Breakfast Series

Our Legislative Breakfast Series is designed to provide direct access to legislators and decision-makers in Montpelier to ensure that our business community’s voice is heard. Join us for the opportunity to connect and enjoy a hot breakfast on a cold morning.
We’ll be sure to see you at the next breakfast on March 16th at Costco!
Thank you to New England Federal Credit Union for sponsoring our Legislative Breakfast Series.

House Minimum Wage Veto Overridden 

On Tuesday the House overrode the Governor’s veto by a vote of 100-49. S.23 will raise the Vermont minimum wage to $12.55 over the next two years. Last week the Senate voted 24-6 to override as well, meaning the bill will now be law. The bill represents half of that the Senate proposed as the minimum wage last year, so inevitably the House and Senate Democratic leadership will come back next year for the second half of that proposal. Want to know how folks voted and why some of the key votes switch their positions? Take a look at this report from VTDigger.

Act 250 Chopped Up; Pushed Along 

Last Friday, the House Committee on Ways and Means amended H.926 to remove funding due to the large fiscal note associated with the new Natural Resource Board, forcing the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish, and Wildlife to remove that section. This substantial change cut half the bill out and destroyed the consensus formed between the environmental advocates and the Administration. 

The bill kept the House on the floor debating late last night as members tried to understand the complexities of the 50-year old program; made more difficult by cascading levels of amendments. For many members, this was the first they’d seen of the bill. It wasn’t until the House broke to caucus that the body learned that an entire town would now be under the jurisdiction of Act 250 based on the elevation threshold change to the program. Based on that realization, the House passed an amendment to increase the elevation threshold back to its original 2,500 feet.

The tired House body made change after change, and one could infer, that given more time, more changes would have been made and more would have been undone. Bipartisan attempts were made to send the bill back to committee or delay until after town meeting week when members could better understand the bill, however, the House eventually voted 88-52 to pass the bill. 

Over the last three and a half years of input on modernizing Act 250, constituents and stakeholders have clearly asked for new, modern criteria to cover new threats to our environment, make the program more predictable and streamlined, with less duplicative process. In short, there was a general consensus that the program should be expanded and improved. The final version of this bill only does the first of those two things. 

So, what does this bill do? 

  • Under this bill, cases will continue to heard at the nine District Commissions with their per diems increased. Commissions will now also hear appeals of enhanced designation. 
  • Language was added revising the statutory authority on the use of other permits to demonstrate compliance with Act 250 criteria, however, the bar was also lowered to rebut those presumptions.
  • The bill attempts to make it less difficult to develop in Designated Downtowns and Neighborhood Development Areas by removing them from Act 250 jurisdiction. However, it does provide an avenue to appeal designation decisions. A pathway to having a Designated Village Center released from Act 250 came up in a floor amendment. 
  • Restrictions are increased in a variety of ways;
    • A new trigger for commercial or industrial construction or improvements within a 2,000-foot radius of a highway interchange.
    • Amendments made to protect forest blocks such as a 2,000-foot road rule.
  • New criteria were added relating to;
    • Environmental justice – requiring that in addition to other criteria, “no group of people or municipality will bear a disproportionate share of the negative environmental consequences of the development or subdivision.”
    • Climate adaptation – in addition to other criteria, a project needs to meet “building orientation, site and landscape design, and building design that are sufficient to enable the improvements” to adapt to climate change.
  • Many criteria were amended, including transportation, energy conservation, and public investment.  
  • Capability and Development Plan Findings will be adapted to include ecosystem protection and GHG emissions. There is also a study in the bill to better understand how the CDP and maps can be better used.  
  • To be used in Act 250, the bill requires that local and regional plans must be approved as consistent with the statutory planning goals and clarifying that local and regional plan provisions apply to a project if they meet the same standard of specificity applicable to statutes. The bill establishes a pre-application process to allow municipal and regional planning commissions to weigh in on a project before the Act 250 permit application is filed.
  • A new process is created that would allow properties to be released from Act 250 jurisdiction; meaning a permit can be extinguished for change of use or zoning changes.
  • Air and water pollution criteria were split into three criteria. Air was expanded to include air pollution, such as air contaminants, greenhouse gas emissions, and noise. Water was split into water and water systems.
  • Clarifying the definition of “commercial purpose” so that it is not necessary to determine whether monies received are essential to sustain a project. This was previously defined by rule and caselaw.
  • The bill stops short of including river corridors and instead changes the scope of ANR’s Rivers program and requires ANR to create a permit for Highest Priority Rivers.
  • Asks the Executive Director of Racial Equality to review Act 250 to assess the extent to which it has affected racial inequity by 2021. 

Cannabis Commercialization 

The House voted 90 on 54 on Wednesday to give the go-ahead for retail cannabis sales in Vermont. The bill will now head back to the Senate to be concurred with and ultimately the final version will be decided upon by a committee of conference. One major difference between the two versions is the absence of a local option tax in the House bill. 

The bill establishes a five-member cannabis control board and taxes the products at a 20% tax rate. Revenues from the sales will be directed to education and prevention while fees will cover the cost of regulation. The bill also sets up labeling and testing standards. Finally, the amendment passed on the floor will limit the advertising of cannabis products. 

The bill will face its greatest obstacle, a potential veto from the Governor, who has said he cannot support the bill without a controversial provision that would allow roadside saliva testing without a warrant.  

Ban on PFAS Would Have Broad Impact 

On Friday of last week, and again this Friday, the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare took a preliminary look at S.295 which would ban the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS. PFAS is ubiquitous in products such as in firefighting foam, food packaging, and residential rugs or carpet. To make matters even broader, Legislative Counsel acknowledged that the bill defines PFAS very broadly to include “a class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom.” The committee plans to take more testimony and will likely try to get more testimony in the week after town meeting week and pass something before the crossover deadline. 

Renewable Energy Standard Debate Continues 

The discussion continues around a bill that would require the state utilities to receive 100% of their energy portfolio from renewables. There is broad consensus in support of the overall 100% goal, however, utilities and those advocating for ratepayers worry that the requirement that 20% of that electricity comes what’s called Tier II, or small scale, in-state generation could increase electric rates by 4-11%.

Utilities offered a compromise version in which they move to a 100% RES, however, they have more flexibility around where the energy comes from in the 20% Tier II requirement. While it was the goal of many senators to move the bill out of the Committee on Finance before Town Meeting week, difficulty resolving issues around the cost mean the bill will need to wait until after Town Meeting week. LCRCC and other business organizations sent a letter to the committee encouraging a more cautious approach advocated for by the Department of Public Service. 

Transportation Demand Management Mandate Proposal Scaled Back 

The House Committee on Transportation had been quietly working on a proposal as part of the miscellaneous transportation bill which would require all employers with more than 50 employees to design and implement a transportation demand management plan. On Tuesday, after input and concern, the committee loosened the language to create a pilot program and study. The pilot will allow employers with more than 500 employees, or businesses in a Designated Downtown of more than 25, to access the services of their local area transportation association to develop and implement a transportation management plan. The new language can be read here

Laundry List 

  • The House Ways and Means Committee continued its work on corporate income tax this week with a potential consensus from the Administration. The committee is considering a deliberate, multi-year transition to single weighted sales and changing to a Finnigan model. Here is a helpful primer on the subject
  • The House Committee on Healthcare is looking for revenue to pay for lowering the cost of primary care and is looking to specifically studying increasing taxes on individuals making over $100,000 to pay
  • A proposal to create a constitutional amendment making gubernatorial terms 4-years has died in committee. Proponents of the change have long asserted that a longer term for Governors would allow more long-term planning and continuity in government. Vermont is one of only two states that still has a two-year term. 
  • The House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs continued work this week on H.492 which would create a homeless bill of rights. Testimony raised concerns that under this bill an employer could be seen as violating a new protected class if they ask for two forms of address as required by federal law. Additionally, a question arose as to if taking action to address employees’ tardiness and missing work might be seen as discriminatory if it is due to housing status.   
  • VTDigger published an enlightening report this week concerning how changes in the census process could negatively affect Vermont as an unintended consequence of adding more “noise” to data in the hopes to increase respondents’ privacy. Read the full story here

Concerned or need to learn more about anything in this newsletter? Email our team at [email protected]. 

We look forward to working with you this session.
The Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce Advocacy Team

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Tom Torti, President
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Cathy Davis, Executive Vice President
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Austin Davis, Government Affairs Manager
Thank you to this week’s sponsor of the Legislative Update: