Editorial: July brings fireworks — and new laws
The first week of July brought the summer’s first string of hot, sunny days, fireworks and celebration. The first day of July also marked the first day 21 bills and 22 new provisions in state statute took effect.
It’s worth reviewing a few of that provisions passed last May amid a chaotic end of the session that saw the House walk out on the Senate over disagreement on family leave and minimum wage legislation — two notable issues that Democrats and Progressives saw as a major failure of the session and which grabbed headlines at the session’s end. While those two issues left a sour end of the session, and many environmentalists complained not enough was done on the climate change front, there several significant issues — and other minor ones — approved among the 93 bills passed before adjournment.
Among some of the notable issues, as compiled by VtDigger, the following bills went into effect July 1, 2019:
• H.47 and S.86: A 92 percent excise tax on electronic cigarettes went into effect in an effort to reduce vaping and the use of tobacco by Vermont’s youth. Legislators also raised the legal age for tobacco purchase from 18 to 21, the same legal age for alcohol and marijuana. That latter provision takes effect in the fall.
• H.63: The state’s energy efficiency utility, Efficiency Vermont, will be required to funnel any surplus money from electric bill fees into weatherization incentives for median-income residents. Legislation that would have increased the fuel tax to fund weatherization, however, failed.
• S.68: Columbus Day is no longer in Vermont. The official Monday holiday will now be named Indigenous People’s Day. Vermont is one of the first states to rename the holiday and did so with very little opposition.
• H.205: In an effort to protect pollinators, this bill restricts the use of a class of pesticides that are toxic to bees. Neonicotinoid pesticides are the most widely used kind of yard insecticides and their harm to bees has been well documented, reports VtDigger. The bill targets home use primarily, while some agricultural and commercial uses may continue.
• H.330: While there is no criminal statute of limitations on cases of childhood sexual abuse, this bill removes the six-year statutory limit on civil charges. Vermonters can now retroactively file civil suits against abusers from childhood.
• H.536: You may have missed it, but the governor who proclaimed no new taxes during his first term changed his tune and this past year agreed with the Legislature to raise Vermont’s average property tax rate by a penny to fund education. The nonresidential rate, for commercial property, rental property, and second homes, will increase a similar amount.
• In a major step forward, S.96 shifted 6 percent of the rooms and meals tax to fund clean water in an effort to clean up Lake Champlain as well as other troubled state waters. After 2021, it is expected to generate $12 million for clean water annually. Vermont faces federal pressure from the EPA to reduce phosphorus pollution in Lake Champlain, which this bill addresses.
• In a nod to doing something about climate change, Vermont’s budget included $4.6 million towards additional spending on electric vehicles (charging stations included) as well as some incentives to help low income residents.
• S.113 is a bill that will ban single-use plastic bags, plastic stirrers, and the foam used in some coffee cups and takeout containers (though this legislation won’t become effective until July 2020.) It also requires that restaurants provide plastic straws by request only.
The administration and Legislature also approved wide-reaching abortion protection laws and approved measures to increase the level of estate tax exclusion from $2.75 million to $4.25 million starting in Jan. 1, 2020, and up to $5 million starting Jan. 1, 2021.
Despite the threat of vetoes from Gov. Phil Scott, he used that prerogative on only two occasions: S.169, a bill to mandate a 24-hour waiting period before the purchases of a handgun, and S.37, a measure that would have allowed Vermonters to sue companies that exposed them to toxins (such as were found in personal water wells from a ChemFab plant in Bennington).
In short, far from a do-nothing session, it made progress on several issues. Passing some form of family leave (or temporary disability insurance) and boosting the state minimum wage are two issues that will be on the front burner as the legislature returns to action Jan. 1, 2020. Hopefully, another big push will be pressing forward on a new green deal initiative that could put Vermont in the forefront of that developing economy.
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