Op/Ed

Legislative Review: Vetoed bills were tripartisan

SEN. RUTH HARDY, D-MIDDLEBURY

Last Monday, June 17, the Legislature gathered for a one-day veto session after Gov. Scott vetoed eight bills passed during the regular legislative session. Thank you to the many constituents who reached out to me about the bills that were vetoed. The vast majority of emails I received asked me to vote to override one or more of the governor’s vetoes. I have not been able to respond to all of the many emails, so I’m writing with information about the bills and the veto session. 

The Legislature overrode six of the vetoes penned by the governor (for a list of the bills vetoed click here). It’s important to note that majority of the 118 bills the Legislature passed this session were approved with support from Democrats, Republicans, Progressives and Independents. Most bills have unanimous votes and no controversy, but rarely does such amicable agreement get attention. Even some of the bills that the governor vetoed were passed with tri-partisan support, and some veto override votes were tri-partisan, too.

As you may know, Phil Scott has vetoed many more bills than the rest of Vermont’s governors combined, even though governors and legislatures have been of differing parties many times before. In the past, governors have been more actively involved throughout the legislative session, rather than coming forward in the final days of the session or after a bill has passed with proposals or demands. However, the veto and override process is an important part of the constitutionally prescribed checks and balances system in American government, and Phil Scott contends he vetoes a bill for the best interest of Vermonters.

The Legislature also overrides his vetoes when we believe it’s in the best interest of Vermonters. For example, last year Gov. Scott vetoed H.217, the monumental childcare bill that the Legislature passed to address the immense childcare crisis in Vermont. The bill became law (now called Act 76) after the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto. A year later, it’s clear that Act 76 is already having a significant impact on the availability and affordability of childcare in Vermont. In the first few months of 2024 alone, 10 new childcare programs opened in Vermont and nearly 400 new childcare slots were created, which means more families can find childcare and work to make ends meet. Act 76 is good for Vermonters, and it became law because we overrode a veto.

With the challenges facing Vermont, it’s not surprising there isn’t consensus on how to solve the most difficult problems. The Legislature worked diligently to bring forth viable solutions, and we overrode the governor’s vetoes because the work in the bills is important for Vermont. Below is the list of veto overrides considered by the Senate. I voted in favor of a veto override for each of these bills. You can also read more about the veto session in coverage by Seven Days, VTDigger and Vermont Public.

1. H.887 Education Finance & Taxation — This bill sets the annual property tax rates to fully fund all local school budgets that have been approved by voters. While nobody wants a statewide average property tax rate increase of 13.8%, we are required to fund our local school budgets, and although at the last minute the governor claimed to have a solution, he did not. His proposal would have used all of the Education Fund reserves and relied on surplus revenue that may never materialize. 

Such a plan would likely put the state budget in deficit, create fiscal instability, damage the state’s bond rating, and cause property taxes to increase even more sharply in future years. If the Legislature did not override the governor’s veto, the financial situation for local schools and the state would have been even worse, and, most importantly, it would have put the education of Vermont’s children in jeopardy. You can read more in this memo from the Joint Fiscal Office.

While the Legislature could not fully erase the 20% property tax increase projected at the beginning of the year, we made progress in bringing the rate down during our limited legislative session. For more than a year now, there has not been a permanent Secretary of Education or any focus from the governor on how to improve Vermont’s public schools. He blames the Legislature for the property tax increase, but the projected 20% increase happened on his watch — the reduction of that amount happened on ours. 

Finally, I know that the property tax increase is a difficult pill for most people to swallow. The bill includes some relief for the majority of Vermonters, whose property taxes are reduced due to their income, and it establishes a commission to find solutions to make our public school system more sustainable. Voters in many communities have been reluctant to close schools, move grades, or further merge school districts, but difficult choices like these are likely required to stabilize the cost of K-12 education in our small state.

2. H.72 Overdose Prevention Center Pilot — This bill will create a pilot overdose prevention center in Burlington, funded by the state’s Opioid Settlement Funds, where people who are addicted to drugs can safely use drugs and access services for treatment and recovery. The center will be located in Burlington, where the program has support from local leaders, and the concentration of drug use has become a significant problem in many public places. As the director of the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington said last month, “If [H.72] fails, we are the safe injection site.” 

3. H.645 Expansion of Approaches to Restorative Justice — Many people were surprised that the governor vetoed this bill, which expands restorative justice programs throughout Vermont, thereby reducing the burden on the state’s criminal justice and corrections system, and ensuring that Vermonters across the state have access to the same alternative sentencing programs. The governor claimed there wasn’t sufficient funding for the program, but Attorney General Charity Clark, who will oversee the expanded program, says her office has sufficient funds to operate it.

4. H. 687 Community Resilience & Biodiversity Protection through Land Use — This bill makes significant changes to Act 250, Vermont’s landmark land use law, with the goal of enabling the construction of more housing in downtown areas while protecting forests, wetlands and sensitive habitats outside of towns. 

5. H.289 Vermont Renewable Energy Standard — This bill updates our existing renewable energy standard to require utilities to use 100% renewable energy, at least 20% of which must be Vermont generated, by 2035.

6. H.706 Banning Neonicotinoid Pesticides — This bill would ban the sale of seeds coated with neonicotinoid pesticides by 2029, in line with a law passed by New York State last year and already in practice in Quebec. 

You can read more about all these bills in my legislative summary online at tinyurl.com/Ruth2024Review.

After the House voted in an overwhelming tri-partisan vote of 128-17-5 to override the governor’s veto of H.121 Consumer Data Privacy bill, the Senate fell short in our attempt to override the governor’s veto. This important bill would have protected Vermonters’ privacy when using the internet and protected children from coercive and addictive social media products. 

The veto and the Senate’s failure to override it were fueled by a significant amount of misinformation and lobbying by big tech companies and their allies. The bill, which would have taken effect over the next several years, would have provided enhanced protection of Vermonter’s data online, particularly sensitive data, including reproductive health information, biometric data and social security numbers, and required social media companies to remove addictive and harmful features targeting kids from their products. The bill was aimed at large corporations, and most small Vermont businesses would have been exempt from the majority of the bill. 

I voted to override the veto of this landmark bill, but unfortunately most senators did not (check out the vote tally to see how other senators voted online at tinyurl.com/DataBillVote). The failure of this bill is a major win for big tech companies and a big loss for Vermonters who fall victim to questionable social media practices and online data privacy issues every day.

Finally, in the wake of last week’s veto session and the governor’s particularly strident remarks about the Legislature’s overrides, there has been an increase in harassment and threats against legislators and other public officials, including school board members and teachers. In fact, Rep. Mari Cordes of Bristol received a disturbing death threat, and I and others have received harassing calls and messages. Rep. Angela Arsenault of Williston wrote an excellent commentary in VTDigger asking the governor to stop fueling this anger. 

We are citizen legislators without staff or administrative support, with families and jobs outside of our legislative duties. We are your neighbors who are doing our best to serve our communities and solve extremely difficult problems for meager pay. The vitriol and threats are disheartening and scary, and make it harder for us to represent and serve our districts. I work hard every day to help my constituents, so I hope everyone, especially Gov. Scott, will work to tone down the rhetoric and respect the opinions of others. Thank you for reading.

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