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VBRA Lobbyist Report 03/17/23

03/30/2023 2:41 PM | Denis Bourbeau (Administrator)

Closing out Week 11 of the 2023 Legislative Session

It’s the end of crossover week in Montpelier, meaning legislation needed to be voted out of committees by the end of today, or the legislation is done for the session. There are some ways around it; a committee can seek a waiver from the rules committee, legislators or a committee can add a piece of legislation that didn’t make crossover as an amendment to a piece of legislation that did make the deadline. Finally, money committees - Ways & Means, Appropriations, Finance - have another week before crossover deadline. Bills in those committees have until next Friday. 

Crucial Housing Bill Gets Watered Down

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy proceeded with an amendment that watered down, S.100, also known as the HOME Act, removing essential components of the bill for broad support.

The amendment downgrades the positive changes to the Act 250 "10/5/5 rule" that were made by the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs. The rule means that if a developer builds ten units of housing within five miles of each other within five years, they trigger Act 250. Senate Economic moved that threshold to 25 units. To counter this, the Senate Natural committee agreed to the 25 unit increase, but only within areas of enhanced designation which comprise only about 0.03% of the state’s land. This is a temporary provision that sunsets on July 1, 2026.

The Senate Natural Resources Amendment also does the following;

  •         Raised the required density in areas zoned for residential and served by sewer and water infrastructure from at least four units per acre to five units per acre.
  •         The Senate Economic version would have removed the ability under the current law of any combination of 10 voters and property owners to appeal. The Senate Natural amendment restores that language, though restricts it to 10 individuals who have a “common injury to a particularized interest." 
  •         They also removed the cap on the number of priority housing units that are exempt if located in a downtown, growth center, or neighborhood development area. This also is a temporary provision that sunsets on July 1, 2026.
  •         Senate Natural deleted the sections that would have eliminated duplicative local/ANR wastewater permit connection sections that they had previously passed.

Here’s what was added in the Senate Natural amendment;

  •         The Committee added the concept of Master Plan Districts in designated areas so that a town could pre-approve an Act 250 permit for a development area. Then, each new project in that area would be a permit amendment rather than a full permit.
  •         They added an "enhanced village center designation." A town can receive the enhanced designation for a village center if they have permanent zoning and subdivision bylaws, municipal sewer and water infrastructure, and adequate staff. Priority housing projects located in Enhanced Village Centers require 50 or more units to trigger Act 250. This is a temporary provision that sunsets on July 1, 2026.
  •      Energy Code. First it was out, but then back in - the amendment now includes a provision that says a town may adopt building energy code more restrictive than state RBES code, but only if it gets a charter change which requires legislative approval. 

Housing advocates and VBRA recognize the Senate Economic Development committee version of S.100 as the bill that could truly result in a reduction in barriers to building affordable housing for Vermonters. Your help could be crucial in this effort. Click here to find your state Senators and Representatives and ask them to support the version of S100 "as it came out of the Senate Economic Development Committee."

Childcare Bill Voted Out

The Senate Committee on Health and Welfare concluded their work on S.56, the childcare bill. The fiscal picture and footprint of the bill are still unclear at this time, however, it is expected that the Committee will seek a payroll tax for about $100 million in spending under the bill for this year and then about $200 in the next fiscal year. 

The bill provides full reimbursement for those making up to 185% of the federal poverty level (FPL) and then reimburses on a sliding scale up to 600% FPL or about $180,000 for a family of four. The bill also includes $7.3 million in grants distributed by the Department of Children and Families to retain childcare workers.

As a potential alternative to the separate Paid Family Leave bill, Senator Jane Kitchel brought to the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare, as well as the Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs, a proposal to include parental leave only in the childcare bill. The proposal would cost about $15 million and would provide 12 weeks of leave to one parent. The plan would fully replace wages up to 200% of federal poverty guidelines, with a decrease in benefits up to a cap of 600% FPL.

Meanwhile.. Paid Family Leave Passes Out of the House Committee on Ways and Means

The House Committee on Ways and Means passed H.66, advancing what will likely be the most generous paid family and medical leave program in the country. Estimates are that the program altogether would cost $117 million per year, a number higher than previous calculations.

The bill proposes 90% wage replacement for 12 weeks for an expanded list of eligible recipients. It would be paid for by a .55% payroll tax split between employee and employer. 

As noted above, the Senate has already made movements to preempt the bill by adding parental leave only to their priority, the childcare bill. A House/Senate battle is sure to ensue. 

Labor Bills Advance Out of Committee

The Senate Committee on Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs passed S.102 and S.103 this week, bills that have numerous consequences if they proceed to final passage.

S.102 had language that would have ended at-will employment in the state and created a "good cause standard for termination," and would have  created new severance pay requirements. That language has now been removed, and the bill now does the following;

  • “Captive Audience” provision – prevents an employer from penalizing an employee who does not participate in discussion on issues perceived as political. The provision is aimed at preventing employers from discussing the impacts of unionization with employees, however, it can have far-reaching consequences as well.
  • Card Check Provisions – means that only 51% of employers would need to indicate interest in unionizing to move forward without an official election.

S.103. Initial language that would have barred noncompete agreements has been removed. The bill now contains the following:

  • It redefines harassment as one event rather than what exists under case law now; one severe event OR a series of pervasive events. The bill changes that definition to say that harassment need not be "severe or pervasive." A single incident could trigger litigation. As the bill stands, language attempting to define a "petty slight" and "trivial inconvenience" is too vague and leaves employers further exposed to lawsuits.  
  • The bill also prohibits "no-rehire" provisions in settlements of litigation between employee and employer. Testimony from from attorneys representing employees and employers that provisions designed to prevent the rehiring of an employee after the settlement of a lawsuit should not be banned as they serve an important purpose for each side.  

We encourage you to reach out to your legislators and vocalize your concerns on these bills.

Liquor Legislation 

The House Committee on Government Operation and Military Affairs passed the miscellaneous alcohol bill, which does the following;

Increases the annual limit on fourth-class licenses allowing the Board of Liquor and Lottery to grant up to a combined total of 20, instead of the current 10, to a manufacturer or rectifier. 

Repeals the sunset on the sale of alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption or, as it’s commonly called, alcohol to-go.

Replaces the term “cider” with “hard cider” in the Vermont statute when referring to alcoholic beverages. 

The House Committee on Judiciary continued their discussion around dram shop legislation this week and passed legislation that seeks to assist in the high cost of liquor liability insurance. The legislation also requires all proprietors of businesses with a liquor license to acquire liquor liability insurance. The bill passed out of Committee unanimously and represented changes beneficial to Vermont businesses. It is estimated that this could lower VT’s ISO rating from it’s current 10 (the highest it can be) to something closer to a 6.

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