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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Vermont Legislative Leaders Look Ahead At Issues They Want To Tackle In 2020

A snow-covered Vermont Statehouse, with an American and Vermont flag flying in front.
Oliver Parini
/
For VPR
The Vermont Statehouse pictured in Jan. 2019. With another session about to commence, House and Senate leaders are looking ahead at the issues they plan to address during the coming months.

Democratic lawmakers closed out Vermont's 2019 legislative session in May under a cloud of discord after House and Senate negotiators failed to reach agreement on paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage. But House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe say they're on a united front heading into 2020.

JUMP TO — 6 Legislative Issues To Watch In 2020

On a chilly Saturday morning in early December, most of the 95 Democrats in the House of Representatives squeezed into the Statehouse cafeteria for a pep rally of sorts. They'd gathered to talk policy and to chart a strategy for the legislative session ahead.

But Johnson had something else on her mind, too.

"Those of us who have been here awhile have been lamenting the loss of things like legislative bowling night or ski night or more dances," Johnson said.

Good lawmaking, Johnson said, generally requires good relationships — and she said it was time to strengthen bonds between colleagues.

"That then [will] help us have difficult, civil, respectful conversations together,"Johnson said. "So I look forward to finding more ways to engage in those interactions."

The end of 2019 legislative session may be serving as a cautionary tale as lawmakers assess the year ahead. Democrats adjourned abruptly last May after a tense standoff between House and Senate negotiators failed to yield a compromise on paid family leave and increasing the minimum wage.

"We wish we could hit the rewind and play out the last week a little bit different. There's no denying that," Ashe said recently.

More from VPR — What Happened? House, Senate Leaders Give Their Take On Legislative Session's End [May 30]

Democrats won't get to rewind, however they will get a redo. That's because lawmakers are heading into the second year of the two-year legislative biennium; any bills left on the table in 2019 are still up for grabs in 2020.

"Two big ones, of course, on everybody's mind and at the top of our House calendar: paid family leave and minimum wage," Johnson said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson at a podium in the House Chamber at the Vermont Statehouse.
Credit Oliver Parini / For VPR
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson addresses the chamber in January 2019. She said both minimum wage and paid family leave are on the House calendar for the 2020 session.

Johnson and Ashe said there's no doubt they'll pass paid family leave and minimum wage bills this year — and likely sooner than later. However, both pieces of legislation will look significantly different than the proposals Democrats initially unveiled.  

For instance: Rather than a $15 minimum wage by 2024, lawmakers are instead looking at a smaller increase over a shorter time period.

The paid leave legislation, meanwhile, has been stripped of a provision that would have allowed people to take time off for a personal illness (though it still covers leave for the birth of a newborn, or to care for an ailing family member).

Republican Gov. Phil Scott said recently that he still opposes both plans, which means a simple majority likely won't suffice for Democrats if they want their paid leave and minimum wage bills to become law.

"We need to get the highest vote total possible, in case the governor vetoes it," Ashe said.

More from VPR — Voluntary Or Mandatory? Clash Over Paid Family Leave Approach To Resume In 2020 [Nov. 10]

House and Senate Democrats will likely find themselves at odds with the governor on a range of issues in 2020, such as how to address climate change.

Ashe and Johnson said they'll press for Vermont to join a regional compact with 11 other states, called the Transportation and Climate Initiative. The program would force member states to cut carbon emissions from cars and trucks.

"We also want to make sure that we're setting some benchmarks out there to give ourselves collective goals and know that we are actually moving in the right direction," Johnson said.

But that initiative is forecasted to raise the price of gasoline and diesel, an outcome the governor has long said he opposes.

More from VPR — Vermont Mulls Regional Plan To Reduce Carbon Emissions From Cars And Trucks [Dec. 17, 2019]

Democrats in the House and Senate will try to override a veto issued by the governor last May on a piece of legislation that would have allowed private citizens to sue manufacturers for certain health costs associated with air and water contamination.

Scott said the proposal would increase general liability insurance costs for key employers in the state. But according to Ashe, Democrats are one Senate vote away from having the supermajorities in both chambers needed for an override.

The debate over retail cannabis will also resume in 2020. The Vermont Senate has long supported the creation of a legal retail market for cannabis sales. Supporters say the plan would generate millions of dollars annually in tax revenue, and provide regulatory oversight of cultivators.

House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski said the House will vote on the legalization bill this year; Johnson, however, said the chamber still has some issues to iron out.

"We want to make sure that we're really addressing issues of youth usage, highway safety, safe products, and ... making sure that it's the right change for Vermont,” Johnson said.

More from VPR — Acting On Act 250? Legislation Stalled As Vt. Lawmakers Take Long View On Development [April 26, 2019]

House and Senate Democrats also plan to approve a rewrite of the state's land-use law, known as Act 250. Johnson said it's time to modernize the 50-year-old law, and streamline the permitting process in densely populated downtowns and village centers.

"And that encourages strategic development to make business growth and housing easier in places where it makes sense to do that in Vermont," Johnson said.

Democrats say they plan to tackle gun legislation this year as well. Ashe and Johnson said they don’t have the votes needed to override Scott's veto of a bill last year that would have required a 24-hour waiting period for gun purchases, but they said they plan to pursue legislation that would allow police to seize firearms from a person against whom courts have issued an abuse protection order.

More from VPR — Gov. Phil Scott Vetoes Gun Purchase Waiting Period Bill [June 10, 2019]

Ashe said he'd like to plow more money into affordable housing development, and that he's been working with State Treasurer Beth Pearce during the off-session to craft a proposal.

In addition, Ashe and Johnson say criminal justice reform will be a top priority in 2020. They're working on a bill that would curb the number of people sent back to jail for technical violations of furlough conditions.

6 Legislative Issues To Watch In 2020

A quick list of topics to keep an eye on during these next few months:  

1. Paid family leave, and 2. Increasing the minimum wage

Democratic lawmakers failed to reach consensus on their top two policy initiatives last year, but leaders in the House and Senate say they'll pass both bills in 2020. Gov. Phil Scott opposes their proposals (though he does favor a voluntary paid leave program), so watch for a veto showdown early in the legislative session.

3. Creating a retail cannabis market

House leaders say they'll take up a bill passed by the Senate in 2019, which would create a legal framework for the sale and cultivation of cannabis in Vermont. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she remains concerned about the legislation's effect on highway safety and youth usage rates; Scott says he shares those worries.

4. Climate change

Democratic lawmakers are going to be pushing for mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, especially from cars and trucks. But some of those proposals could result in an increase in the price of fossil fuels, which the governor has strongly opposed.

5. Overhaul of Act 250

Vermont's land-use law is more than 50 years old, and lawmakers say it's time to modernize the statute. They want to include new provisions that address climate concerns, and also make it easier to develop residential and commercial properties in densely populated areas

6. "Medical monitoring"

Last May, Scott vetoed a bill that would have allowed private citizens to sue manufacturers for certain health care costs associated with air and water contamination. Lawmakers though say they may have the votes to override the governor's veto.

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