Legislative Review: Many bills in Legislative pipeline
We are at the midway point in this year’s legislative session. Two major bills have passed the House and Senate. One is Senate bill S.233 that amended Act 46, last year’s education measure. The second is House bill H.187, legislation that requires all Vermont businesses to have paid sick leave for their employees.
There is another important bill that is likely to emerge from the House Commerce Committee shortly that strives to clarify who is an independent contractor and who is an employee. Another bill that is being considered is H.702, a bill I introduced in February. H.702 is a bill crafted to kickstart workforce housing construction. The preliminary reviews on the bill have been favorable.
So what exactly does mandatory paid sick leave mean? All employers doing business or operating in the state of Vermont shall be required to provide earned sick leave to their employees. Eligible employees must be 18 years of age or older and work an average of no less than 18 hours per week during a year. People who work 20 weeks or fewer in a calendar year are not eligible. Employers can have a waiting period of up to one year prior to eligibility.
Employees will have a maximum of five sick days per year beginning in 2019. Allowable sick leave includes caring for immediate family members. There was a Senate amendment to exclude employers with five or fewer employees from the bill. This measure, which is the rule in most other states, was defeated by one vote. I supported this amendment. Small businesses and start-ups need more flexibility in these affairs.
Act 46 was designed to have all of Vermont’s 250-plus school districts consider maximization of their operational efficiencies through managing, sharing and transferring resources; in other words, talk with other districts about mergers and other ways to cooperate with each other. In the first eight months since enactment, some schools have merged and taken steps to becoming more efficient.
Right here in Addison County we have examples of this effort. Act 46 also had a provision that assigned “allowable growth limits” to each school district. So school budgets that exceeded their limit would be assessed a one dollar penalty for each dollar they exceeded their growth limit. This provision was designed to control spending and thus positively impact property taxes.
As schools began their budget work last fall, protests to legislators and the administration began to add up. As a result, and with much back and forth at the statehouse, an amendment to Act 46 was approved. It states that the growth limit will be raised by 0.9 percent for all districts. Low-spending schools, those that have per-pupil spending below the statewide average, will be exempt from penalty. Those districts above the statewide spending average, and exceed their growth limit, will be assessed a $0.40 penalty on each dollar above their target.
The allowable growth limit provision of the Act expires in 2017. I supported this amendment. I also hope those working on the education funding formula will come up with a fair, cost-controlling, and equitable funding method for the future.
Several years ago there was a court decision that muddied the waters on hiring independent contractors. As a result, Vermont’s Department of Labor is defining who should be an employee versus a hired contractor in the strictest sense. After taking testimony from artists, people in the building trades, and the technology and agriculture sectors, the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is working on a bill to more clearly define who is an independent contractor so people who choose to apply their skills in their own business can find work assisting those that need their skills on a temporary basis. We intend to have a bill out of committee by the end of March.
Feedback from employers and others around the state has emphasized to the House Commerce Committee the need for developing workforce housing. Homebuilders are blunt in saying they cannot financially justify building homes that are affordable to Vermonters with a household income of $70,000 a year or less.
H.702 was introduced to deal with this issue. H.702 addresses three of the major reasons this type of housing is not being built — the cost of land, permitting and infrastructure costs. This bill establishes Workforce Hosing Zones in close proximity to our town centers. These zones will require high-density home construction to minimize land costs. Act 250 will be waived in all but the largest projects. Town zoning will be revised, if necessary, to create the zones, and the Agency of Natural Resources permit process will be streamlined. Finally the state will provide the dollars for infrastructure build out (power, sewer hook-up, sidewalks, etc.).
H.702 creates the funding for two pilot projects without impacting the state’s delicate financial picture. If these pilots are successful, more permanent funding will be developed. H.702 is designed to create construction jobs, help employers recruit and retain our essential workforce, and create pricing competition in the affordable housing arena.