Eric Davis: Key Vermont bills remain to be decided
This week, the Legislature is on its mid-session, Town Meeting Day recess. With about two months of the session completed and two months still to go, this is a good time to look at three major pieces of legislation being considered at the Statehouse, and what might happen to them in the remainder of the session.
One of the legislative Democrats’ highest priorities this year is to enact an increase in the minimum wage, from the current $10.78 to $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2024. The Senate has already passed the bill, and the House will almost certainly do so as well. Gov. Scott has said he does not support this proposal, because it would make Vermont uncompetitive with nearby states such as New Hampshire, which currently has a much lower minimum wage of $7.25.
The minimum wage bill passed the Senate by a vote of 19 to 8, a large enough margin to override a gubernatorial veto. The House roll call will show whether the House could override a veto as well, or whether enough moderate and centrist Democrats from districts away from Chittenden County have reservations about a $15 minimum to be able to sustain Gov. Scott’s objections.
Another high priority for legislative Democrats is passage of a paid family leave bill. The House General Committee has reported out a measure that would provide up to 100 percent wage replacement for 12 weeks for eligible workers, paid for by a payroll tax of 0.93 percent shared between employers and employees. The House Ways and Means committee is now focusing on the financing of the plan, with some members concerned about how long the tax would need to be collected before benefits would be paid, and whether the program would be sustainable during a future recession, with fewer people employed.
Gov. Scott opposes this plan as well, because he considers it unaffordable for small businesses. No floor votes have been taken yet in either chamber, so it is unclear whether there would be a two-thirds majority to override a potential veto. The final contours of a paid leave plan may be different from what is on the table now. The House General Committee proposal would be about the most generous program of any state, taking into account both the wage replacement rate and the duration of benefits.
Last week, the Senate voted by 23 to 5 to establish a regulated retail cannabis market in Vermont by April 2021. Cannabis sales would be taxed at 16 percent, with cities and towns allowed to impose a local option tax up to 2 percent or to prohibit any cannabis sales licenses from being issued in the community. Since 2016, the Senate has regularly supported establishing a taxed and regulated cannabis sales system in Vermont. In previous sessions, the House has been much less supportive of such a plan. However, as a consequence of last fall’s election results in Vermont, and the spread of legalized cannabis sales around the country, there now appear to be at least 80 to 90 House members, a majority of the chamber, willing to support legislation similar to that passed by the Senate.
Again, Gov. Scott has opposed legal cannabis sales in Vermont, in the absence of both funding for a cannabis education program for youth and a roadside test for cannabis-impaired driving. The education program could be funded by revenues from cannabis sales, but no state has yet developed a reliable roadside test for cannabis-impaired driving. The science and technology to do so does not exist at present. Meanwhile, some legislators note that the longer Vermont waits to establish legal cannabis sales, the more economic activity and tax revenue will go to neighboring Massachusetts, where legal retail cannabis sales have been under way since November of last year.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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