Week 8 : February 26th to March 1st
Bills, bills, bills !
Before the start of each session on the floor, the pages place a pile of the paper on our desks. The pile contains all the bills that are being introduced that day. There are too many!
In order for a bill to get to the Governor's desk before the end of this first year of the biennium it must be passed by both the House and the Senate. The Senate needs time to consider it in committee and take votes on the floor. That means the House has a limited amount of time to get bills approved and crossed over to the Senate. The last possible day that the House can approve a bill and sent to the Senate is called crossover. It's approaching fast. As a result, a lot of bills are being introduced and sent off to committees. The committees are performing triage: which to be considered, which to ignore. Most are ignored.
This session has been particularly rough in this regard. There are a groups of young representatives that somehow feel they must submit as many bills as possible. This puts a strain on the group of lawyers (Legislative Council) that must convert each idea into legal language. There are rumors that one representative has submitted over 50 bills this session. In total we saw 500 this week. I believe that is a record.
I have not yet submitted a single bill.
The Capital Bill
My committee (Corrections & Institutions) has been picking though our spreadsheet of proposed capital expenditures. We look at line items of the Governor's proposal and shuffle money between them. Some we throw out. Here's a couple examples from this week:
- Skidder Bridges - We have spent several hours on this $50,000 proposal. Skidder bridges are temporary bridges used by loggers to cross small streams and brooks. The state has a grant program to encourage loggers to use the bridges and the make them slightly more affordable. Surprisingly, it's part of our effort to clean up the waters of Vermont. Not using such bridges causes excessive erosion. Cleaning up the state's waters is a good thing. Helping loggers with safe stream crossings is also good. But this is state money going to a private enterprise. Wouldn't a lot of other people and businesses like such grants? After considerable discussion and testimony from the Department of Forestry, Parks and Recreation we kept the $50,000 in the bill.
- Integrated Eligibility - This is a several million dollar expenditure each year. It goes toward a software project. A big and ongoing software project. The idea is to create a single website to which all people accessing state benefits could go. The personal and financial data would be entered one time. Instead of having to complete applications for each of the many programs available, they would do it once. There is a lot else to this project. It's part of Vermont Health Connect and has had a checkered past. We did not make a final decisions, but the funds could well be reduced.
- Vermont Housing and Conservation Trust - This quasi governmental agency used funds to provide affordable housing throughout Vermont. They also purchase easements along rivers and streams so that the riparian buffer can be taken out of production without the farmer having to loose too much income. This year the Governor proposed reducing the previous year's allocation of $3.8 million to $2.8 million. We're still working on that one.
In all there are about 100 items on the Capital Bill spreadsheet. They total around $60 million.
Mental Health Care Facilities
All last session we were told there was a crisis in mental health care. There are simply not enough beds to care for the increasing number of individuals suffering from mental health problems. Hospital emergency departments are backed up because of the number of patients brought to the emergency rooms and unable to moved to packed mental health treatment facilities. The wait in the emergency room may also be because there is not an opening in a facility that can perform a mental health evaluation. In fact, individuals have been known to spend weeks in a hospital emergency room waiting to be moved. Though this was described as a crisis, we kept going around and around with discussions of how many beds were needed where, or how much it would cost to do various options.
Finally, this week, we took a step toward adding 16 Level I beds to the system. These are for people with pretty severe mental health problems. We're looking to have the beds added in Rutland. If nothing else this will get us out of speculation and into real problem solving.
There are also controversies in the Capital Bill:
- Continuing school safety grants.
- Funding/Replacing Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center.
- Adding therapeutic beds to two Corrections facilities.
- Building a State Police barracks and communication center in Williston.
- Funding electric vehicles and charging stations for the State's motor-pool.
- Replacing the carpet in much of the Statehouse.
All these, and more, have to be decided within a couple weeks (one of which is Town Meeting break). Upstairs in Appropriations the pressure is on to put together the Big Bill. That's the state budget, due at the same time. There is a lot of hustle and bustle in the Statehouse these days.
Some bills introduced this week
- H.474 - An act relating to a limit on the number of weeks of legislative compensation.
- H.477 - This bill proposes to impose a carbon charge and use funds raised from that charge to support public transportation and a tax credit for rural Vermonters; to support weatherization and increase the earned income tax credit for Vermonters with low income and to provide incentives for weatherization, electric vehicles, and other purposes.
- S.136 - An act relating to next steps toward implementing a wholesale importation program for prescription drugs from Canada.
- H.510 - This bill proposes to increase the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by January 1, 2024.
- H.509 - An act relating to designating Election Day as a State holiday.
- H.507 - This bill proposes to raise revenue for water quality projects and programs. The bill would establish a 10 cent per bottle tax on bottled water sold in the State. The bill would establish a 15 cent per bottle tax on each bottle of sugar-sweetened beverage sold in the State. The bill would also raise individual income rates by 0.10 percent. The bill would establish a sales tax of six percent on the value of barbering or cosmetology services.
- H.506 - An act relating to the use of single-use carryout bags
Next week is Town Meeting week: school and town budget votes. Also next week I travel to Mississippi to visit the prison that houses about 230 of our out-of-state prisoners.