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Legislative Update 01/17/2020
Competing for Attention
Vermont’s tiny Statehouse seemed even more crowded than usual this week as a myriad of outside groups vied for lawmakers’ attention. Advocates sought, with varying degrees of success, to bring media attention, and hopefully public awareness on pension reform, tourism, migrant justice, gun reform, climate change, and homelessness.
It’s entirely unclear how effective these efforts are in a dramatically changed media landscape. For the first time in modern history, there is not a single beat reporter in the Statehouse who writes for a daily print publication. The most robust Statehouse coverage is provided by VTDigger, an entirely digital publication that was founded a mere ten years ago. VT Digger highlights major Statehouse news but is not writing the “first rough draft of history” that daily newspapers used to see as their mandate.
The challenge for outside groups was symbolized by a press event held by the Vermont Business Roundtable on Tuesday to spotlight a new report on the state’s pension crisis. That report underscored the enormous and growing liability that the state is incurring for retired state employee pensions and health care – currently a staggering $4.5 billion, with no sign of slowing. The pension crisis is hardly the sexy stuff of nightly news and doesn’t lend itself well to brief radio spots. Few reporters have the ability to delve into the complexities of the issue and present it in a readable manner to the public.
As the Statehouse reporting pool has shrunk, the number of issues and interests that lawmakers are being asked to address seems to have grown. There are vastly more lobbyists in the building than there were twenty years ago.
The paucity of Statehouse space increases the difficulty for all of these outside groups to be heard. With crowds of advocates seemingly ever-present in the building’s few public areas, lawmakers and the media have to decipher what is newsworthy from the cacophony of competing voices.
In what seems like a perennial and quixotic search for a solution, a House committee heard testimony this week on a report that examined options to expand Statehouse working space. Numerous prior efforts have fallen victim to budget constraints and historic preservation concerns.
Finally, lawmakers are being asked to respond to growing public demands while they receive a salary that has barely changed in decades. Rank-and-file legislators who don’t serve on summer study committees are paid only about $13,000 for half a year’s work. That’s hardly enough to motivate even the most civic-minded public servant. It’s no surprise that as inflation-adjusted salaries have fallen, the average age of lawmakers has risen. And with that rising age comes an inevitable decline in attention span to digest the ever-growing menu of complicated policy choices.
Paid Family Leave bill heading to a showdown
The Senate approved the conference committee report on the paid family and medical leave bill on Friday, with a vote of 20-9-1. H.107 will now head to the House for a vote. Read more
Fate of Act 250 District Commissions hangs in the balance
Last week, in a joint presentation, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the Scott administration proposed a package of changes to modernize Act 250.
State Auditor at odds over water quality spending
In July 2019, the Vermont State Auditor’s office released a report entitled, “Where’s the Money Flowing- Cost-Effectiveness of Lake Champlain Clean Water Efforts.” State Auditor Doug Hoffer spoke with the Senate Committee on Agriculture this week about the report, taking issue with the allocation of funds intended for the reduction of phosphorus in the Lake Champlain basin.
Agency reports on PFAS regulation
The House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on Thursday on the state’s response to legislation passed last year, Act 21, which requires that all public water systems monitor the presence of PFAS substances. Read more
Committee considers regulation of non-compete agreements
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee heard from numerous witnesses this week on both sides of legislation to restrict the use of non-compete agreements. Read more
Brattleboro Retreat provides bed expansion update
The House Corrections and Institutions Committee heard from the Agency of Human Services, Buildings and General Services, and the Brattleboro Retreat on Wednesday on the status of the Brattleboro Retreat’s 12-bed expansion for the most acute mental health patients. Read more
Competency to stand trial debated
The Senate Judiciary Committee took testimony on Tuesday on S.183, a bill that would extend the time a person remains in state custody if the person is adjudicated not guilty by reason of insanity for a homicide or attempted homicide. Read more
Consensus forecast raises revenue estimates
Each year in mid-January, the Emergency Board adopts a Consensus Revenue Forecast. The Emergency Board consists of the four committee chairs from the “money committees” and the governor. Read more
Lead testing will wrap up by the end of the school year
David Englander, Senior Policy and Legal Advisor for the Vermont Department of Health, updated the House Committee on Education on the status of lead testing in Vermont schools and childcare facilities. Read more
Committees prepare to overhaul pre-K
Two key House committees reviewed reports and recommendations this week concerning Vermont’s pre-K system. The House Committees on Education and on Human Services held a briefing to begin framing its work. Read more
Rural Health Task Force presents report to health committee
The Rural Health Services Task Force presented its report to the House Health Care Committee on Tuesday. Green Mountain Care Board member and Task Force Chair Robin Lunge said the task force focused its analysis on rural health delivery in three main areas: workforce, revenue stability, and care management. Read more
Public records debate continues
On Thursday, the Senate Government Operations Committee heard from representatives from the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Association of Broadcasters, the state archivist, the Vermont Natural Resources Board, and the American Civil Liberties Union expressing support for a recent Supreme Court ruling that the costs for public inspection of records can only be charged if a petitioner requests a hard copy. Read more
OneCare Vermont details operations and programming
The House Health Care and Senate Health and Welfare Committees held hearings over two days on OneCare Vermont, Vermont’s accountable care organization. Read more
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For more information about this Legislative Update, please contact Tricia Augeri.