Pass/Fail: Recapping The Fate Of 24 Bills From Vermont's 2019 Legislative Session

May 25, 2019

Vermont's 2019 legislative session has (sort of) come to a close. We look back on what ultimately happened to a number of bills that generated conversation over these past months — as well as ones you may not have heard as much about.

Note: A few of these bills are still awaiting Gov. Phil Scott's signature. We've noted instances where it is unclear how the governor will proceed, and we will update those sections once we have a final answer.

At the start of the session, we laid out six issues to watch during the 2019 legislative session:

  1. Paid family and medical leave
  2. A $15 minimum wage
  3. Clean water funding
  4. Act 46
  5. Establishing a retail cannabis market
  6. Abortion rights

We did keep a close eye on those particular ones these past few months, so click on a topic just above — or scroll on down — to see how those six issues shook out. 

(We also tracked a bunch of other bills, too — click here to jump down to our "even more" list.)

1. Paid family and medical leave

The push to create a statewide paid family and medical leave program was one of House Democrats' biggest priorities in 2019. In April, they passed legislation that would have given parents 12 weeks of paid leave to take care of a newborn, or eight weeks of paid time off to deal with a personal medical crisis or to tend to an ailing family member.

In order to raise the nearly $80 million annually it would cost to fund the program, the legislation would have imposed a 0.55% payroll tax on virtually every worker in Vermont.

Many senators balked at the price tag, and winnowed the proposal significantly: the Senate’s version would have pared down the program’s benefits, mainly by eliminating any paid leave for the purposes of dealing with a personal injury or illness. But that plan was also cheaper, requiring only a 0.2% payroll tax.

Late-session negotiations yielded a number of proposed compromises. House and Senate leaders, however, were unable to reach a deal. And while Senate lawmakers passed a paid leave bill in the waning minutes of the 2019 legislative session, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says her chamber won't move on the proposal until 2020.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott had indicated he’d veto the paid leave measure, even if Democrats managed to pass it this year. Scott says he support a paid leave program, but only if workers can sign up voluntarily. Lawmakers’ program involves a mandatory payroll tax, which Scott says many workers can’t afford.

2. A $15 minimum wage

While the Senate moved relatively quickly in passing legislation that would have raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024, a significant number of House Democrats worried about the impact on businesses (especially those on the border with New Hampshire), and they also voiced concerns about how the legislation would affect payroll costs at Medicaid-funded community health care providers.

The House dialed back on the Senate plan, opting instead for a bill that would raise the minimum wage annually by 2.25-times the rate of inflation. Barring an economic downturn, the proposal was projected to get the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.

Weeks of shuttle diplomacy between House and Senate negotiators failed to deliver a compromise to which both chambers could agree. The Senate ended moving a bill without the House, passing legislation that would raise the minimum wage to $12.20 an hour by 2021. House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, however, says her chamber won't take up the minimum wage legislation until 2020.

Lake Champlain in July 2018. Figuring out how to fund clean water initiatives in Vermont was an issue during the 2019 legislative session.
Credit Meg Malone / VPR File

3. Clean water funding

In January, Gov. Phil Scott delivered a proposal that would have generated the necessary revenue to fund clean water initiatives without raising a dime. Instead of raising new taxes for the clean water effort, Scott wanted to redirect the estate tax and portions of the property transfer tax to help Vermont come up with the approximately $25 million a year the state will need to meet its clean water obligations.

Lawmakers, however, initially said the governor's plan would shortchange other areas of state government. So lawmakers considered several revenue proposals — a sales tax on “software as a service,” for instance, and a per-parcel fee on property owners.

A late-session development, however, compelled lawmakers to rethink the wisdom of Scott's approach to the clean-water dilemma. Fiscal analysts are now projecting a year-end budget surplus. And lawmakers say they can use that money - i.e. existing state revenues - to fund clean water efforts.

Lawmakers say they've achieved their goal of establishing a long-term, dedicated revenue source for water quality, notwithstanding their decision to use existing revenues to fund the program. That's because new language in the tax bill redirects 6% of the rooms and meals tax - about $12 million annually - to a clean water fund.

That provision will leave a hole in the state's general fund budget every year; fiscal analysts say the increased revenues that fueled this year’s budget surplus will likely reappear in future years, and supply the funds needed to fill that hole.

But that projection, they say, comes with a “caveat.” Fiscal pressures next year and beyond, according to the analysts, may require alternate uses of revenues that would otherwise be used to backfill the hole left by the reallocation of the rooms and meals tax. And they also say an economic downturn could create new and unexpected budget pressures in the future.

4. Act 46

Last November the State Board of Education ordered nearly 50 school districts across Vermont to merge into larger governance units, as a result of Act 46.

The state board’s order gave districts only until June 30 to complete their mergers, and many school board members and lawmakers said that wasn’t enough time to organize the transition. Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate considered legislation that would have delayed at least a portion of those mergers for one year.

After months of intense internal wrangling between House and Senate lawmakers, the Legislature ultimately decided to do... nothing. House and Senate negotiators were unable to agree on which districts should have more time to complete their mergers, and as a result, none are getting more time to make the transition.

The ability to measure impairment with a roadside test proved to be a complicating factor in tax-and-regulate legislation this year.
Credit Labuda / iStock

5. Establishing a retail cannabis market

When the 2019 session began, supporters of legislation that would allow the state to tax and regulate the retail sale of marijuana thought the chances were pretty good that the proposal would make it through both the House and the Senate during the first year of the biennium.

In late February, the Senate gave its approval to the tax-and-regulate bill by a vote of 23 to 5. But the legislation did not address two of Gov. Phil Scott’s major concerns: implementing a roadside test to measure the impairment level of a driver and providing additional money for education and prevention programs.

When the House began its review of the bill after the March Town Meeting Week break, the Judiciary committee wrestled with a proposal to allow law enforcement officers to administer a saliva test if they suspected that a driver was operating their vehicle in an impaired manner.

The debate over driver impairment grew more complicated when the committee took testimony that the saliva test would reveal the presence of marijuana in an individual’s system, but not specific impairment levels. Questions were also raised if law enforcement officials would need a warrant before administering a saliva test.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson announced that she didn’t want to “rush” the bill through the House in the final weeks of the system, saying that “the policy issues should determine the timetable – not the other way around.”

Johnson said the legislation would be held over until the 2020 session so that a more comprehensive approach could be developed to a number of the outstanding questions, including driver impairment, taxation levels and a town’s ability to prohibit a retail pot store to operate in their community.

— Summary contributed by VPR's Bob Kinzel

6. Abortion rights

The arrival of a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court last year has galvanized abortion-rights advocates, many of whom say Roe v. Wade is now under threat of being overturned.

Democrats in Montpelier, as well as some Republicans, shared those concerns. Lawmakers moved ahead with two measures that would to affirm women’s right to an abortion in Vermont:

  • Lawmakers completed the first step in a two-year process needed to change the Vermont Constitution. The proposed constitutional amendment, which passed by super-majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, would “ensure that every Vermonter is afforded reproductive liberty.” In order to go into effect, the proposed amendment still needs to pass through both the House and Senate next year, and then win approval from a majority of Vermonters in a statewide vote.
  • Lawmakers this year also passed legislation that would codify abortion rights in state statute. While Vermont law is currently silent on abortion, which means there are no legal restrictions on abortion, lawmakers said it was important to affirm that right in state law. While Gov. Phil Scott has declined to say whether he'll sign the legislation, he has said he will at minimum allow the bill to become law without his signature. Update 6/10/19 8:28 p.m. Scott signed the bill.

And even more...

Of course many other bills made their way around the Legislature this year beyond those six issues. Below we've recapped other legislation you may have been following or may have missed (in no particular order) from the past few months.

Scroll though the post, or simply click on a topic in the list below to jump to it.

Rodney Chayer, of Duxbury, at a public hearing regarding gun legislation at Vermont Technical College in Randolph, Vt. in March.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Waiting periods for gun purchases

Proponents of a waiting period say the measure would reduce suicide rates by preventing people from impulsive acts of self-harm. Opponents said it was an undue restriction on Vermonters’ constitutionally protected right to bear arms for the purpose of self-defense.

While supporters of the legislation initially sought a 72-hour waiting period, the Senate ended up passing a compromise that would require a 24-hour waiting period between the time a firearm is purchased, and when the buyer can take possession of it.

House lawmakers were initially reluctant to move the bill in 2019, but a groundswell of constituent support led to its passage in the final days of the legislative session.

Gov. Phil Scott, who signed a suite of new gun measures into law last year, has been mum so far on whether he'll sign the legislation, allow it to become law without his signature, or veto it.

Update 6/10/19 8:28 p.m. — Scott vetoed the bill.

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Housing bond

Two years ago, elected officials approved a $38-million bond to jumpstart the construction of affordable housing across Vermont.

The program was so well received that some Senate lawmakers wanted to move forward with another bond in 2019. This year, however, fiscal watchdogs — including State Treasurer Beth Pearce — said the state would be ill-advised to take on another large debt obligation.

Reluctance to a second bond was fueled in part by a decision by Moody’s late last year to downgrade Vermont’s credit rating. Pearce said assuming tens of millions of dollars in additional debt could further erode Vermont’s financial reputation on Wall Street.

Senate lawmakers heeded those warnings, and the bond proposal evaporated before making it to a floor vote. Lawmakers did appropriate more money to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board this year, which they say will fuel some progress on the affordable housing front.

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A July 23, 2018 file photo from Greenfield, Mass., of packets of buprenorphine. This session House leaders said lawmakers need more time to familiarize themselves with the policy impacts of buprenorphine decriminalization.
Credit Elise Amendola / Associated Press

Buprenorphine decriminalization

The number of fatal opioid overdoses in Vermont compelled some lawmakers to pursue a statewide decriminalization of buprenorphine, a drug used to treat people with opioid use disorder.

Proponents say the measure could create a gateway to recovery for people who use opioids. But while the buprenorphine decriminalization legislation passed easily out of the House Judiciary Committee, it ended up stalling in the House Human Services Committee.

Commissioner of Public Safety Tom Anderson led opposition to the bill, saying buprenorphine is itself an opioid and should only be legal when prescribed by a doctor.

House leaders said lawmakers need more time to familiarize themselves with the policy impacts of buprenorphine decriminalization, and that they may advance the legislation next year.

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Strict liability

The discovery of PFOA in drinking wells in Bennington has prompted increased legislative scrutiny over Vermont’s manufacturing industry.

Senate lawmakers wanted to create a first-in-the-nation legal standard for companies, called “strict liability,” that would hold manufacturers financially accountable for all industry-related contamination, even if it wasn’t caused by negligence, incompetence or malfeasance.

Manufacturers, however, said the new standard could make it cost-prohibitive for companies to get the general liability insurance they need to operate in Vermont. House lawmakers heeded those warnings, and the provisions approved by the Senate never made it out of committee in the House.

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This laptop at Jenny Green's North Danville home is connected via dial-up modem to the internet. For faster speeds, Green will drive six miles into Danville to the library or local bakery.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Broadband

Legislative leaders and Gov. Phil Scott made improving access to broadband internet a top priority for the session. Lawmakers delivered a bill that is short of sweeping promises but full of incremental measures that advocates hope will improve connectivity in rural Vermont.

The legislation aims to bring broadband to the 17,000 Vermonters who don’t have basic internet access, outside of dial-up. Some 50,000 other Vermonters have internet that does not meet the federal definition of broadband.

But unlike previous attempts to improve broadband service, the legislation does not set a date certain when all of rural Vermont will be humming with high-speed internet. Instead it aims to build on a successful model of community-owned broadband built by nonprofits like EC Fiber in the Upper Valley.

The Vermont Economic Development Authority would be authorized to loan $10.8 million, with $1.8 million available to each broadband company. The bill says interest and principal on the loans can be deferred for up to two years.

The state’s universal service fund — a 2% tax on phone bills — would be hiked by 0.3%, with much of the new money raised dedicated to a state Connectivity Fund to deliver broadband to high-cost areas. The Department of Public Service will also receive up to $120,000 from this fee to pay for a staff person to help communities find broadband solutions.

The bill also ordered a number of studies, including one to look at the feasibility for electric utilities providing broadband through their existing infrastructure. The Health Department was also ordered to examine the potential health impacts of radio frequency radiation emitted by new 5G cellular phone transmitters.

— Summary contributed by VPR's John Dillon

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Home weatherization

Lawmakers say the state-subsidized home weatherization program accomplishes two policy goals:

  1. It reduces the state’s carbon footprint, by curbing heating oil usage in old, drafty homes
  2. It also improves affordability for Vermonters by reducing heating bills

House lawmakers approved legislation that would boost funding for the low-income weatherization program by $4 million. But their preferred revenue source — a 2-cent tax increase on home-heating fuels — fell flat in the Senate.

Lawmakers ultimately landed on a compromise measure that will increase funding for low- and moderate-income weatherization programs by about $4 million. But lawmakers will pay for the increase by redirecting money away from Efficiency Vermont, and eliminating the fuel tax exemption on nonprofits and the agriculture and forestry industries.

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Rich Holschuh, with the Vermont Commission on Native American Affairs, testifies before the House Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.
Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR

Indigenous Peoples' Day

Legislation signed into law this year eliminated Columbus Day and replaced it with a new state holiday: “Indigenous Peoples’ Day.”

Supporters of the change say Columbus Day obscures the important role that indigenous people played in the founding of the country, and they say Columbus’ role in the enslavement of native people make him an inappropriate historical figure to honor.

Vermont will celebrate its first official Indigenous Peoples’ Day on the second Monday of October.

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Medical monitoring

In late 2016, environmental regulators discovered high levels of a suspected carcinogen, called PFOA, in hundreds of private drinking wells in the Bennington area. Many of the affected residents have since undergone regular medical checkups, to ensure early detection of the diseases they may now be at higher risk of contracting.

State regulators say the PFOA was deposited by a manufacturing company that used to operate in the area. And this year, lawmakers approved legislation that would allow private residents to sue manufacturers for the costs associated with their medical monitoring.

Industry lobbyists strongly opposed the legislation, and Gov. Phil Scott has indicated that he shares their concerns. The bill is now awaiting his signature, though last year Scott vetoed a similar measure.

Update 6/17/19 4:35 p.m. Scott vetoed the bill.

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Vermont lawmakers decided this session to raise the minimum age for purchasing tobacco products to 21 years old.
Credit justinonikon / iStock

Smoking age

Vermont this year became the 15th state to raise the legal age to buy tobacco products to 21 years old.

Supporters of the legislation say teenagers are more susceptible to nicotine addiction than older Vermonters, and they say research shows that increasing the legal age to buy cigarettes reduces youth smoking rates significantly.

Elected officials also enacted legislation that bans internet sales of electronic cigarettes.

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Child care funding

A 2016 report commissioned by the Legislature found that the parents of 25,000 children “rely on some form of regular child care to maintain stable employment in the Vermont workforce.”

Many of those parents, however, struggle to find — let alone afford — high-quality childcare services. This year, elected officials across party lines decided it was time to invest more public money in the child care system. The budget approved by lawmakers includes $7.4 million in new funding for both parents and child care providers.

The bulk of the money will be used to increase child care subsidies for low-income parents, and boost reimbursement rates for providers. The funding also tries to address the workforce shortage in the child care industry, by setting aside money for scholarships for child care workers, and by funding child care degree programs at technical colleges.

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The polling place inside Montpelier's City Hall on the day of the 2018 primary election. On Town Meeting Day this year, Montpelier voters passed a resolution to allow non-citizens to vote in municipal elections - but state lawmakers say they need more time to consider approving the charter change.
Credit Bob Kinzel / VPR File

Non-citizen voting

On Town Meeting Day, Montpelier became the first municipality in Vermont to approve a charter change that would allow non-citizens to vote in city elections.

The ballot measure passed by a two-to-one margin in Montpelier, but municipal charter changes need legislative approval before they can go into effect. And lawmakers said they aren’t ready to give the Capitol City their blessing.

While the legislation that would allow the charter change to take effect passed the House this year, it didn’t arrive in the Senate until late in the session. Senate lawmakers said they need more time to vet the proposed charter change before they allow Montpelier to institute the new voting rules.

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Reach Up

It’s been more than a decade since lawmakers have increased the financial benefits that out-of-work families get from the state’s welfare program, known as Reach Up.

That drought came to an end this session, when lawmakers approved a $2.5 million increase in Reach Up funding. The bulk of the money will be used to increase monthly payouts to families on Reach Up. A family of three living outside Chittenden County, for instance, will see monthly Reach Up benefits go from $640 to $700.

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The Vermont House tried again to make not wearing a seat belt a "primary" offense, but the Senate wasn't having it.
Credit thongchuea / iStock

Seat belt enforcement

For years, House lawmakers have tried — and failed — to make Vermont’s seat belt law a "primary" offense, meaning police could pull people over solely for not wearing safety belts.

The House gave it another go this year, by including a primary-enforcement seat belt provision in their annual transportation bill. But Senate lawmakers once again killed the measure. Opponents of the provision say they worry people of color and other minorities will be disproportionately targeted by police.

The House also tried to pass a law requiring the use of helmets on scooters now being rented via smartphone apps in Montpelier and Burlington, but the Senate also squelched that proposal.

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Substance use prevention

Legislation approved by both chambers this year will consolidate Vermont’s existing substance-use prevention councils into a new, unified organization. Drafters of the legislation say the single body will allow people that used to focus exclusively on alcohol and tobacco prevention to expand their focus to opioid prevention.

The legislation also allocates an additional $400,000 for substance use prevention efforts, and it creates a new substance-use prevention position in the Agency of Administration.

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The House Natural Resources Committee hears from representatives of the slate industry in Rutland County as it considers changes to the Act 250 development review law.
Credit John Dillon / VPR

Act 250

A bill to update how Vermont regulates large-scale development was a priority of Gov. Phil Scott and legislative leaders. But at the end of the session, it remained stalled in a House committee.

Act 250 is considered Vermont’s landmark land use and development control law. First passed in 1970, it says larger developments must be examined under 10 environmental and social criteria.

Updating Act 250 became the major focus for the House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee. Chairwoman Amy Sheldon, D-Middlebury, said the goal was to rewrite the law so it can deal with contemporary environmental challenges, such as climate change and the fragmentation of wildlife habitat. Sheldon had also chaired a state commission that spent 18 months seeking public comment and considering possible changes. 

Despite months of testimony and work this session, the bill remained a work in progress as the session wound to a close. Both environmentalists and members of the state’s business community expressed disappointment at the lack of progress.

— Summary contributed by VPR's John Dillon

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Workforce development

Vermont made national headlines last year when it offered remote workers up to $10,000 to move to the Green Mountain State. Lawmakers have now decided to expand the program dramatically.

Administration officials say the remote worker incentive program has already lured nearly 40 families to Vermont. And those workers have received an average payout of about $3,600, for things like moving expenses, office space rentals and broadband hookups.

Lawmakers say it’s a financially efficient way to build the state’s labor force. And they approved legislation that would make even more out-of-staters eligible for cash incentives if they move to Vermont.

The existing remote worker program only applies to people who work for a company that’s headquartered outside of Vermont. The new legislation would pay up to $7,500 to workers who move here to work for Vermont-based companies, either remotely or not.

Lawmakers have authorized about $1.1 million for the worker-incentives program.

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Miles Raport stands outside the Ward 6 polling place in Burlington in March with a sign in support for an advisory measure on the city's ballot. In addition to individual city efforts like that, state lawmakers also tackled plastic bag legislation this session.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR

Plastic bag ban

Legislation passed this session outlaws single-use plastic bags starting next year; it also bans polystyrene take-out food containers and says restaurants cannot give out plastic straws unless requested. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group says the Vermont bill is the strongest in the nation, since it will reduce all three forms of common plastic pollution.

A deal worked out by the House and Senate in a conference committee exempted the plastic bags used by dry cleaners to cover garments, along with small paper bags used by retailers to hold note cards and small items.

For other paper bags, such as those provided at the grocery store, retailers would be required to charge 10 cents in an effort to encourage shoppers to carry re-useable bags.

Gov. Phil Scott has indicated he is not opposed to signing the legislation, but he’s said he wants to check with the state’s retailers first to get a sense of the impact on businesses. 

Update 6/17/19 4:35 p.m. Scott signed the bill.

The action in the Legislature built on momentum from communities around Vermont. A bag ban in Brattleboro went into effect last year. In November, Montpelier voters asked for a charter change to prohibit the bags. On Town Meeting Day in March, Manchester, Middlebury and Burlington voters all passed advisory measures calling for the ban.

— Summary contributed by VPR's John Dillon

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Salisbury fish hatchery

Gov. Phil Scott’s plan to close the Salisbury Fish Culture Station proved to be one of the most controversial elements of his budget proposal in January. When the state’s fishing community caught wind of the plan, they rallied against it immediately.

Scott said the $250,000 cut was needed to balance the budget at the Department of Fish & Wildlife, but state officials acknowledged that closure of the hatchery would significantly reduce the number of fish available to stock rivers and lakes.

Lawmakers said they were willing to increase the cost of hunting and fishing licenses to save the hatchery, and Scott said he's willing to go along with the fee hike.

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