Lawmakers gear up for rough ride
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | March 17,2013
MONTPELIER — Legislators buckled down for a bumpy ride last week in the Statehouse, where revenue proposals seemed to crop up in one committee, only to be cut down by the next.
And while the fiscal landscape is anything but settled, the past few days featured some key decisions about what next year’s spending plan will look like.
Even away from the budget and taxes, action was fierce as committees in the House and Senate sought to beat a Friday deadline by which they needed to cast votes on non-money bills in order for them to have any chance at passage in 2013.
The so-called crossover deadline, which marks the unofficial halfway point of the session, saw the preliminary approval of bills dealing with campaign finance, energy regulation, home weatherization, substance abuse treatment, equal pay for women and unionization rights for home care workers.
Two of the session’s higher-profile bills, meanwhile, haven’t won many headlines of late. But legislation dealing with end-of-life choices and marijuana decriminalization are generating plenty of talk behind the scenes as advocates gear up for the fight.
Despite the slew of revenue proposals advanced by elected officials so far this year, the House Committee on Ways and Means begins its search for revenue next week almost from scratch.
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s two marquee revenue generators, a $17 million reduction in the earned income tax credit, and a $17 million tax on “break-open” tickets, are off the table in the House. And while House Speaker Shap Smith has finally decided how much money he wants to raise for new programs — $20 million — it’s unclear precisely where the money will come from.
The Ways and Means Committee looks poised to get about $6 million by removing a 6 percent sales tax exemption on soda and candy. It ratchets down considerably the penny-per-ounce excise tax on sugared beverages approved by the House Committee on Health Care earlier this year, a surcharge that would have raised an estimated $24 million per year.
While the revocation of the sales tax exemption on soda will begin to solve the revenue dilemma, it has alienated the anti-obesity advocates who were pushing this year for the higher tax. They say the 6 percent sales tax won’t provide the deterrent effect needed to curb consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages among the children and lower-income residents who suffer from higher rates of obesity.
Rep. Janet Ancel, chairwoman of Ways and Means, said her committee will consider a laundry list of other revenue options next week. By Friday, when Ancel said she aims to cast a vote on a bill, they will have whittled down a list that includes higher taxes, or the elimination of exemptions, on things like clothes, dietary supplements and bottled water.
Ancel said the committee will also consider revisions to the tax code that might result in higher tax bills for rich people. One possibility: capping the dollar value of the home-mortgage interest deduction at $10,000 or $15,000.
“Some amount where you’re not going to bring in any normal houses,” Ancel said. “There are ways of adjusting the income tax that might fall on higher income taxpayers but not necessarily target them.”
Money generated in Ancel’s committee will be split between a host of new spending initiatives, including thermal efficiency, home weatherization and renewable energy subsidies. Also competing for money is a low-income heating assistance program to which Shumlin had appropriated $6 million.
As the House busied itself with money issues, lawmakers in the Senate have worked on a host of policy bills. In the Senate Committee on Government Operations, lawmakers put the final touches on a campaign finance bill that, in an earlier iteration, would have increased — in some cases by enormous amounts — the amount of money that candidates are permitted to accept from donors.
The bill now features only modest increases in allowable contribution limits. It also imposes heightened disclosure requirements on candidates, parties and super PACs, which will now have to unveil with greater frequency the sources of their funding.
The Senate Committee on Natural Resources drew heavy criticism from renewable-energy advocates last Tuesday when it voted out a bill that would intensify the permitting process for new generation projects. The legislation would change the criteria used to judge the merits of many solar, wind and hydro projects, and eliminate the “public good” standard that asks regulators to weigh in their decision-making process whether Vermonters on the whole will benefit from the new energy.
Opponents call the bill a “de facto ban” on renewables. Supporters say it offers Vermonters a louder voice in projects slated for their communities.
Home-care workers moved a step closer to winning collective bargaining rights when the Senate gave almost unanimous approval on the floor last week to legislation that would allow them to form a union.
A pension-forfeiture bill that would allow the state to dock the retirement plans of public officials convicted of embezzling public funds is on track to make it to the governor’s desk.
Efforts to bolster the number of Vermont students who are able to earn college credits for academic work performed during their senior year in high school is through committee.
The “fair share” or “agency fee” bill — it would require workers who are protected by union contracts to pay dues to the labor organization representing them — has already moved from the Senate to the House.
And a bill that would allow firefighters to collect workers’ compensation benefits for lung disease and other respiratory conditions related to their work is also through the Senate.
One bill that hasn’t gotten a second of testimony this year but will soon take over the building is marijuana decriminalization. Smith and Senate President John Campbell cut a deal exempting the bill from the crossover deadline. And the House Judiciary Committee will soon begin holding hearings on legislation that would replace criminal sanctions with civil fines for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
A bill that would allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients has been on the back burner since a version of the legislation passed the Senate last month.
The original bill codified a process by which patients with less than six months to live could acquire from their doctors a deadly dose of medicine. Last-minute changes on the Senate floor, however, replaced the 27-page bill with a few-sentence amendment that basically indemnifies physicians who prescribe a lethal dose to their suffering patients.
Smith said he’s uncomfortable with the bill in its current form, as it lacks the kinds of safeguards that ought to be involved when the state sanctions the hastening of citizens’ deaths.
The House will likely take up the end-of-life bill early next month, after it’s done with floor debates on the budget and tax bills. Tentatively at least, the original version of the “death with dignity” bill looks at have at least 80 “yes” votes in the House.
Smith said he hopes to add the necessary safeguards to the bill in a way that will be amenable to the Senate lawmakers responsible for amending the bill from its original form.