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DRM Advocacy Update – Week 9 – 2023

This Update is Created by the Lake Champlain Chamber for Distribution by

March 3, 2023

Democracy is a participatory sport, so it’s time to get off the sidelines and participate in your town meeting day and contact your legislators about all of these issues. Town Meeting Day is important for the legislative process because the week serves as the halfway point and mid-session recess that many legislators need by this time. Certainly, around the building this week, it was apparent that many people wanted and needed such a break. This recess is also important because this is a good time to get in touch with your legislators on issues that have been winding their way through the legislative process. We have more details on the week in a later section of the newsletter. 

When everyone returns to the State House on the 14th, there will be four legislative days to finalize bills and pass them from the committee of jurisdiction that they are originating from in order to make what is called the crossover deadline. Bills that go through the money committees will have an additional week. 

In this week’s update; 

Quick Updates: 

This week saw action on many priorities, which we’ve covered extensively in previous updates. Here are the quick check-ins on these issues. 

  • SALT Cap Workaround Passes the Senate – S.45, which creates an elective pass-through entity tax that would help Vermont business owners save on their federal taxes, passed the Senate this week on a voice vote. We are very grateful to the bill sponsor, Senator Chittenden, who presented the concept to his committee and received unanimous support, as well as the fellow cosponsors, Senators Baruth, Brock, Clarkson, and Ram Hinsdale. The bill now goes to the house, where it might be met with a more chilly reception. 
  • Childcare Conversation – The Senate Committee on Health and Welfare has a new version of the bill, which scraps the idea of creating a new department and tasks the Department of Labor with studying a payscale for childcare workers for the legislature to set next session. The Committee also looked at the benefits cliffs created by the program’s phase-out. 
  • Bill Giving the Auditor Authority Over State Contractors Takes Extra Time, Passes the Senate – The Senate Committee on Institutions and the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, while not in possession of S.9, were the venues for a lively discussion from state agencies around issues the bill would create for state procurement. The bill passed 23-6, notably with the Chairs of Committees that oversee the most state procurement voting in opposition. The bill will now go to the House, where the conversation will continue again.  
  • HOME Act Discussed in Natural Resources Committee; Advocates Call for Passage – The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy began its work on the HOME Act this week. We saw a preview of new opposition to the bill, as the discussion cast doubt on whether areas with existing water and wastewater infrastructure (where this bill seeks to push development) actually have adequate capacity. On Wednesday, a diverse set of stakeholders and legislators joined the Chair of the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs as well as the Scott Administration for a press conference in support of the bill.  
  • VEGI – The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development continued their work on reforms to the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program. The Committee has scaled the bill back so as not to hinder the program’s work for the next year while extending the sunset on the program and creating a task force to explore the creation of state economic development incentives. The committee will work next week on the formation and charge of the taskforce. This week the Committee heard pushback from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns around the draft bill’s creation of the first out-of-the-gate provisions to require executive sessions to be recorded and the worry around the precedent set within Vermont open meeting law. The House Committee on Government Operations will look at the bill for this reason after they return from recess. 
  • Paid Family Leave – The House Committee on Ways and Means continued their discussion on what would be one of the most generous paid family and medical leave programs in the country. The Committee received a fiscal note that pushed the cost of implementing the legislation from $20 million to $48 million and the continual cost of the program to $96 million, funded by a 0.55% payroll tax. The Committee is reducing the wage replacement from 100% to 90% after realizing that those receiving benefits would be making more than they would otherwise because there is no tax withheld from the benefit payment. The Committee will continue their work after they return from the town meeting week recess. 

Problematic Bill Would End At-Will Employment, Create Severance Pay, and More 

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs spent the week hearing from labor lobbyists regarding numerous labor bills. Among them was S.102, an act relating to expanding employment protections and collective bargaining rights.

The Committee’s only witness of the week representing the business community perspective on the bill, the Lake Champlain Chamber, used half of their 15 minutes to explain to the committee that this bill is an unequivocal “no” from the business community as it would make the state an extreme outlier in the United States. The bill also; 

  • Requires severance pay for employees at a rate of one hour of pay for every 12 and one-half hours worked during the employee’s first year of employment and an additional one hour for every 50 hours worked in subsequent years. 
  • Has a “captive audience” provision, which prevents an employer from discussing issues perceived as political with an employee. The provision is aimed at preventing employers from discussing the impacts of unionization with employees, however, it can have far-reaching consequences as well. 
  • Prevent “electronic monitoring,” which could be so broad as not to allow video recordings of a crime to be used in discharging an employee. 
  • Make the discharge of an employee due to unsatisfactory employment performance and not at the discretion of the employer. 

You should reach out to the Committee and voice your opposition to such provisions. 

Bill Creates Confusing and Problematic Definitions of Harassment; Unnecessarily Bans Important Employment Agreements 

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs also this week considered S.103 an act related to changing the definition of harassment and discrimination; preventing no rehire provisions; banning noncompete agreements. The bill is problematic for the following reasons. 

  • Potentially confusing discrimination language will only create more business for attorneysBroadly, the changes to existing language around discrimination in this bill are problematic because it redefines harassment as one event rather than what exists under case law now; one severe event OR a series of pervasive events. The bill would now say that it need not be severe or pervasive, which has multiple negative impacts. This bill could effectively make the courts and the Attorney General’s Office a central human resources department because a single incident will trigger litigation when it should trigger HR intervention, while the language around the petty slight and trivial inconvenience is too vague and would trigger are a great deal of litigation that would be very difficult. This proposal also puts employers at risk because they are responsible for an employee’s single incident – under severe or pervasive, there is the ability for the employer to intervene. 
  • Banning no-rehire provisions in the settlement of litigation hurts everyone – Legislators in the House have previously heard from attorneys representing employees and employers that provisions designed to prevent the rehiring of an employee after the settlement of a lawsuit should not be banned as they serve an important purpose for each side. The genesis of this proposal is an underlying assumption of advocates for this bill that there is a coercive nature of these agreements when in reality, it is part of a negotiation between two parties represented by legal counsel and crafting an agreement that best serves their needs. Additionally, often if the original issue has proceeded to this point, the relationship is completely unsalvageable.
  • Action on noncompete agreements is unnecessary in light of federal action in the process – the bill looks to ban noncompete agreements except for some narrow circumstances. The Lake Champlain Chamber testified that it would be best if the Vermont Legislature hold off legislating on this issue until the Federal Trade Commission finishes its currently ongoing process of regulating such agreements as those regulations would have supremacy over any state policy. 

Senate-Passed Clean Heat Standard Would Require a Vote in 2025

The Clean Heat Standard, since rebranded the Affordable Heating Act, passed out of the Senate Committee on Appropriations this week with an unusually close vote of 4 yes, and 3 no. Two major developments came of the Appropriation Committee’s work on the bill ahead of it going to the floor. 

First, the program will now include a checkback provision which will require the legislature to pass legislation in 2025 to affirm that the program created by the Public Utilities Commission is what they want their constituents to operate under. At this time, the thought is the PUC will know the cost of the new credit market for consumers. However, this language will be inconsistent with what the Governor wants, still. The Administration envisions codifying in statute whatever the PUC creates. 

Second, the question around legislative intent to cover fuels is now clear as mud. The Chair of the Natural Resources Committee told the Appropriations Committee that the bill is only covering “fuels being used for heating of buildings.”  Again, on the floor, the Chair of Natural Resources confirmed when responding to an inquiry that this bill is “heating fuels in the thermal sector, which is residential, commercial, and industrial buildings.” 

The Governor used his press conference this week to cast doubt on the program and push back on advocates’ criticism of the Secretary of Natural Resources’ modeling of the cost of the program. 

Participate in Your Town Meeting and Connect With Your Legislators 

As we said at the outset of the update, the coming week is an important opportunity to be involved in your local government as well as connect with your legislators while they are home from Montpelier and have some time. There are many important decisions on the local ballots about who leads your local community, as well as issues affecting the economy, such as rising school budgets, so-called “just cause evictions,” and water and sewer upgrades essential to fostering new housing in the state.   

VPR has a great town meeting day guide, as does the Secretary of State and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. If you don’t know who your legislator is or how to contact them, you can find that here. 

The Laundry List 

There are many moving pieces, and we do our best to add the ones that don’t get a section in the newsletter yet should be on your radar here. On any given day in the State House, there are about 175 hours of committee time outside of floor time, and then the hallway, cafeteria, or other time spent legislating. 

  • Read past updates here – week 1, week 2, week 3, week 4, week 5, week 6, week 7, week 8, and the last session’s wrap-up
  • The Senate Committee on Finance began work on a bill, S.60, this week that would allow towns to levy a local options tax without going to the legislature for approval. 
  • The House Committee on Judiciary continued its work on revising Vermont’s dram shop law to bring the state’s ISO rating and subsequent cost of liquor liability insurance to a reasonable level this week with a new draft available of H.288. Read previous coverage here. 
  • The House Committee on Government Operation and Military Affairs took up the topic of the sunset on alcohol to-go that has been allowed since the start of the pandemic. The Department of Liquor and Lottery presented the Committee with a report assessing the impact of allowing to-go alcohol finding “that there was a moderate increase in alcohol beverages sales and there were no public safety or compliance issues” and recommending the provisions be permanent. 
  • A Congressionally Directed Spending application form (formerly called earmarks) is open on Senator Sanders’ website. CDS requests are now limited to municipalities and nonprofits. CDS applications will be live on Senator Welch and Congresswoman Balint’s sites later this month. 
  • LCC is working with a large coalition of business advocacy groups to pull together a full day highlighting the importance of the visitor economy in the Vermont State House. You’re invited to join tourism and hospitality industry leaders at the State House to engage with legislators and raise awareness of the collective contributions of these industries to the Vermont economy. If you’d like to join, please email [email protected] or sign up here!