And with that the 2023 Legislative session is officially over.
As a Freshman legislator, I went to Montpelier for my first session with my eyes open. I was transparent, honest, and asked a lot of questions. I’m grateful for the support of the Legislative Staff, especially those in the Joint Fiscal Office and Office of Legislative Affairs. With a record number of first time Legislators being sworn in this year, the staff was professional and did their absolute best to make themselves available.
However, despite the pomp and circumstance of the new Legislature being sworn in and commitments by all sides of the political spectrum to work together, it quickly became apparent the supermajority in the House and Senate was prepared to flex their power. Processes, protocol, tradition, and rules were to be broken to meet their agenda.
As to be expected with a large turnover, there was confusion early on, but that confusion permeated the entire session. Journals and calendars were not always posted online and oftentimes neither side truly had any idea what would be voted on that day. Even worse were the rushed bills passed without sufficient testimony. Particularly in the House, many committees were asked to vote on entire pieces of legislation without being given the proper time to take testimony and discuss the entire bill.
Several veteran legislators commented on how “bizarre” this year’s session was and the blatant disregard of process.
As a fellow member of the House Committee on General & Housing stated “I thought as an elected official that I was here to serve people in a way that was going to do things, and I didn’t realize how splintered it was. So I guess this is the job, is what I’m being told. This is what it is. And this is how it’s been done. And that was unbeknownst to me. It makes sense now that our country and our nation and our state and our systems are the way they are and that so many people are underserved.”
Last Tuesday, the Legislature convened for a “veto session,” which many of my friends on the other side of the aisle would come to call an “override session.” Governor Scott vetoed eight bills and five were overridden this week. You can also add in S.5, the carbon tax, which the Legislature overrode in May.
Vermonters deserve more from their Legislature and it starts with balance. Polls routinely show a majority of Vermonters identify as independent and do not align with one political party or the other. They expect, rightfully so, legislation to be well thought out and debated. There may be a supermajority in the house -- mostly due to a lackluster field of Republican candidates in 2022 -- but Vermonters overwhelmingly supported Governor Scott’s re-election. He remains the most popular Governor in the nation.
Yet, despite this, almost all of Governor Scott’s initiatives or proposals were not even discussed by the House or Senate. Only a small handful of bills with the primary sponsor being a Republican were considered. Even more concerning, the majority of Republican sponsored bills, many with bipartisan support, remain on the wall of committee rooms untouched. An example being legislation exempting Veterans and survivors from paying taxes on their pensions.
If you take a step back and look at the major themes during the session: addressing the affordable housing crisis, addressing the affordable child care crisis, creating an “affordable” heat act -- the supermajority is all but vocalizing an acknowledgement of the affordability crisis; yet, they passed a record setting budget that unnecessarily raises regressive taxes and fees on all Vermonters. All the while they suspended their own rules and processes in an attempt to give the Legislature a pay raise.
We can and we must do better for Vermonters. The first step in addressing a problem is admitting there is a problem. Until we are serious about addressing the affordability crisis, we will continue to pass band aids that often create more regressive taxes and fees on hardworking Vermonters.
We have more work to do!
Below are a few updates on major pieces of legislation. I want to take a moment to thank each and every one of you who has taken the time to call, email or stop me in the store. I appreciate your support as I strive to represent Fairfax and Georgia to the best of my ability.
I look forward to seeing you this Friday at the “Party in the Park” and of course at the 4th of July parade next Tuesday!
FY 2024 Budget Update
Vermonters need us to make Vermont affordable. However, Montpelier did the opposite. This year we saw our state budget increase spending far beyond any budget in recent history. The Fiscal Year 2024 budget raises both taxes and fees to cover the 13.3% YOY increase. Unfortunately, this was done at a time our state saw surplus but is now far outspending that money.
Our economy and lives have been hit in so many ways from the COVID-19 pandemic. Vermont’s economy and workforce continues to suffer, all while economists across the board are warning of a pending recession. Vermont benefited from an influx in federal funds to our state; much of which thanks to former US Senator Pat Leahy. But those monies have dried up. Vermont cannot afford the budget passed by the supermajority, vetoed by Governor Scott, and overridden by the supermajority.
When campaigning, I promised I would be a champion for childcare and workforce development. I am against the funding mechanism of the childcare bill (a 0.44% payroll tax split between the employer and employee). However, I do believe the bill will provide the foundation to help begin to fix both the childcare crisis and the issues we are experiencing with our workforce.
The bill focuses on closing the gap between home and center-based programs as well as the finances of our states’ childcare. After countless conversations with childcare providers I believe this legislation missed the opportunity to address regulations that keep childcare services from growing and offering more positions to families. The hope is, with additional daycare spots open, parents who left the workforce to care for their children can once again return.
When the bill passed the House in May, this was my floor speech.
“For the last four months, this Legislature has spent countless hours debating and deliberating on child care reform. The issue of childcare is one that has remained important to me and was one that inspired me to run for this very seat. I had never been scared during my pregnancy but when my daughter came early I was terrified to know I was expected back at work in less than 6 weeks and had no childcare lined up. Not for lack of trying, at 12 weeks pregnant I applied for 10 different infant spots, and was placed on 10 different waitlists. 6 months later my daughter was still on those 10 waitlists. I knew something needed to change, and with that I made my decision to run 8 hours into my labor.
H.217 is far from perfect and the financial implications of H.217 are undeniable. I do believe now is not the time to raise taxes, especially with an already ballooning budget. It is not easy to ask Vermonters to pay just a little more, which seems to be a theme of this session. However the price of inaction is far greater. Vermont families need access to affordable, high quality childcare options, but Vermont also needs a robust workforce. Now is the time to pass reform which I believe is as much a workplace development plan as it is a child care reform.”
But there are questions that remain. Will new spots open up with the passing of this bill? Have we truly done enough to analyze regulations that are hindering daycares from opening or staying open?
I’m committed to continuing those conversations and part of my rationale for supporting the legislation was to ensure I had a seat at the table.
Here's a good read on the passage.
VOX: One state just became a national leader on child care. Here’s how they did it.
ACT 250 Reform and the Affordable Housing Crisis
Another theme I discussed during my campaign was ACT 250 Reform. It has become even more apparent that if we want to ensure affordable housing for Vermonters, Act 250 reform must be addressed.
I know many are concerned about the impact of growth and development on our state land. However, I truly believe that smart growth is achievable in Vermont. This session S.100, an act relating to housing opportunities for all, was brought to my committee. I worked hard to ensure that many of the Governor’s housing initiatives remained in the bill to help include the missing middle and monies for VHIP which allows for renovations of rentals, not up to code.
The administration was concerned that S.100 only pertained to .3% of the state; it is nearly impossible to create sustainable growth without the land. I was happy to work with many in the building, including the hard work of the rural caucus to make sure that S.100 covered more of our state.
As Commissioner Hanford has said, “you cannot build housing in the clouds.” More work needs to be done to alleviate the pressures and needless barriers ACT 250 places on development; and work to address the unnecessary legal obstacles that plague developers.
S.100 was signed into law by Governor Phil Scott; a victory and a step in the right direction for more housing. However, the journey S.100 took through both Chambers highlighted the broken process.
As you may recall, three members of the House Committee on General & Housing and I were quite upset when we were told by House Leadership that the Housing Committee did not have jurisdiction over the ACT 250 portions of the bill. This article is a good recap on how things progressed. Ultimately, I do believe our efforts were not in vain and a large reason why the ACT 250 portions of the legislation remained in the bill.
Here is the statement I published after the Committee Hearing.
"As you may recall, a few weeks ago I asked you to contact your Senators to support S.100 out of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs. That form of the bill had bi-partisan support and was supported by the Governor. However, by the time the bill left the Senate Natural Resource and Energy Committee (the same committee that pushed The Carbon Tax Bill [S.5] and does not have a single Republican on it), it looked drastically different. Concern grew that the ACT 250 reform was not strong enough to remedy our housing crisis. However, the bill passed out of the Senate 27-2.
Early last week S.100 was referred to the House General and Housing Committee, which meant we should have spent time discussing housing, development, zoning reform and creating housing opportunities for everyone.
Unfortunately and to the dismay of a majority of the House Committee on General & Housing, we were instructed by the Speaker that we would not be able to discuss the zoning and ACT 250 provisions of the bill; despite the bill being referred to our Committee, in its entirety. We were told ACT 250 jurisdiction lies solely in the Energy and Environment Committee.
When I ran for the House, one of my three major campaign themes called for the modernization of ACT 250 and was disappointed to hear that my committee would not be working on this portion of the bill.
Many representatives in the committee, from both sides of the aisle, share this disappointment and a growing concern that the Environment and Energy committee will strip ACT 250 reform from the bill completely. This is based on comments we have heard from the Chair of that Committee. Let me be clear, we cannot address our housing crisis without discussing land use permitting and zoning; our committee, despite having jurisdiction, has been silenced on the issue.
I have joined my colleagues on the “Rural Vermont Caucus” in drafting an editorial supporting the ACT 250 reform portions of S.100. This caucus has bi-partisan membership.
If S.100 does not sustain its ACT 250 reform and zoning provision, many legislators will be less likely to support the bill. And, once again, Montpelier will be kicking the can down the road."
It further speaks to the need to have a more balanced Montpelier that truly reflects the diverse opinions of the state.
VTDIGGER: Legislature’s housing bill advances, and hopes for Act 250 reform wane further https://vtdigger.org/2023/04/13/legislatures-housing-bill-advances-and-hopes-for-act-250-reform-wane-further/
Ashley Bartley Editorial: Status Quo Can No Longer Be an Excuse
The Carbon Tax
The Carbon Tax, the long sought goal of the supermajority is nearly enacted. Rebranded as the “Affordable Heat Act,” S.5 will eventually become at $0.70 or more tax on our home heating fuels. Being short one vote to override Governor Scott’s veto, the supermajority made a deal and instituted a “check back” whereas the next legislative body must vote whether to adopt the carbon tax or not. This is all but certain to occur unless meaningful gains are made to balance Montpelier in November of 2024.
Additionally, be on the lookout for the next round of carbon tax legislation to include taxes on gasoline and banning the sale of cars which rely on gas for fuel.
Vermonters cannot afford the carbon tax, not now and not ever.
Legislative Pay Increase
Serving in the Legislature is an honor. It’s a lot of hard work, time away from family, and potentially a leave of absence from your career. The work we do in Montpelier can be incredibly rewarding and it’s a great way to give back to the state. However, serving in the Legislature should not be a career.
When I mentioned a broken process, S.39 is a prime example. The bill did not make it out of committee by crossover and required a suspension of rules to be taken up by the Vermont House of Representatives. If you recall, S.100 was forced out of my committee at the speed of light so as to meet the crossover deadline. We were not allowed to look at the bill in its entirety.
Why are we so willing to bend the rules for a pay increase but when it came to slowing the process down by a week on an important Housing bill -- we had to follow the “process.”
The simple answer is that the supermajority didn’t want to take up the bill in an election year.
I voted no on the pay increase; but no surprise it still passed the House. Governor Scott did the right thing and vetoed the bill. I am happy to share a vote to override the veto was not taken and S.39 was returned back to the senate Government Operations Committee.
Hotel Voucher Program
At the end of the Legislative session, the Hotel Voucher Program became the center of everyone’s attention. The exiting of hundreds of individuals experiencing homelessness in our state is as dire a situation as any, but to call for the supermajority to cast blame on Governor Phil Scott was disingenuous.
It is the role of the Legislature to pass a budget for which the Governor can sign or veto. Leadership originally agreed with Governor Phil Scott to end the voucher program; even taking testimony on it; but not adding it to the budget.
Again, I have to point to the priorities of the supermajority. If the ending of the GA hotel voucher system is as dire as we believe it is, why did the majority choose to vote for a 50% pay raise to legislative salaries instead of focusing our efforts on our most vulnerable in the budget?
I am glad a solution was found and was glad to have had the opportunity to vote on H.171.