Blog: Look Ahead, Vermont: Budgets, pensions and weights loom as session nears final days – Brattleboro Reformer

The finish line for the 2021 legislative session is in sight. So Look Ahead Vermont will take a slightly different approach, looking at the issues rather than the calendar.

Here’s what remains to be done before the proposed adjournment date of Saturday, May 22. (Yes, that is a Saturday, and yes, I will be working if they are!) 

BUDGET: The House and Senate have each passed their versions of a spending plan for fiscal 2022, and done so unanimously.

The next step, Speaker Jill Krowinski confirmed, is review of the Senate budget by the House Appropriations Committee.

While there’s a possibility that the differences between the House and Senate could be quickly negotiated and concurred, the greater likelihood is that the two chambers will form a conference committee to produce a compromise budget. 

One of the key differences is that the Senate version changed the wording of how and when the state would allocate an additional $150 million to pay down unfunded pension liability. 

“We didn’t want to imply that we were going to necessarily dramatically change the defined benefits or the pace at which money will be paid in,” Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said. “We felt there are still options on the table related to revenue increases. … We wanted to keep on the table that we are looking at all options.”

If the budget goes to a conference committee — and that’s a common route for the spending plan every year — the compromise will be presented to the House and Senate to be voted up or down, without further amendment.

Then, there’s the question of whether Gov. Phil Scott, who on Friday again voiced displeasure with how the Legislature proposes to spend American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, will veto the budget over those concerns. Scott has his own four-year plan for the ARPA funds. 

PENSION: The house pension proposal, H. 449, is now in front of the Senate Government Operations Committee, chaired by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham. The committee held a discussion late Friday on whether to change the make-up of the task force that will examine how to reduce the system’s multi-billion unfunded liability.

A vote is expected in committee Monday at 4:30 p.m., White said, as a Senate vote and a likely conference committee with the House lay ahead. 

Senate Government Operations has proposed a few key changes from the House version. The Senate commission’s version would remove the Commissioner of Financial Regulation from the Vermont Pension Investment Commission; reduce the number of lawmakers from the task force to two from the House and Senate each; and establish a legislative oversight committee as of next year.

Another key change: Senate Government Appropriations sought to simplify the financial goal for the task force, asking it to “approach the levels reported for fiscal year 2019 in the Actuarial Valuation and review for each retirement system, when adjusting for actuarial growth assumptions, while maintaining the 2038 amortization date.” The committee worked hard at refining that charge, White said, and appreciated input from stakeholders as well as VPIC chair Tom Golonka and Joint Fiscal Office pension expert Chris Rupe.  

“I think we did a good job. We’re hearing from people this was a good compromise,” White said. “I think people felt listened to and heard.” 

PER-PUPIL WEIGHTING: The House version of S. 13 is now in front of the House Ways & Means Committee, which is expecting at least two days of testimony on the proposed implementation task force. Locally, there are many eyes on this issue: Ways & Means members Rep. Emilie Kornheiser and David Durfee; House Education Committee member Rep. Kathleen James; and Rep. Laura Sibilia, who wants to see reform, as her district has been underweighted.   

Tammy Kolbe, the University of Vermont professor whose study proposed new weighting factors, is scheduled to testify at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Whatever gets decided will have a big impact on school budgets and education property taxes across the state — and could be part of a larger effort to finally move education funding to income taxes from property taxes.

With time drawing short, what Ways & Means decides to do with the changes proposed by the Education Committee — and whether the House and Senate can agree on their different versions — will play out over the next several days.

EXPUNGEMENT: S.7, A bill allowing for expungement of criminal records for less-serious crimes, passed the Senate weeks ago and is currently at the House Judiciary Committee. But members of the Scott administration are now objecting to the proposal, and the House Judiciary Committee is reviewing possible changes. 

A letter sent by Scott’s counsel. Jaye Pershing Johnson, and signed by Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling, and interim Corrections Commissioner James Baker raised issues with the proposal as passed by the Senate. Pieciak and Schirling are scheduled to testify before the House Judiciary Committee at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday. 

The letter sought a pause in the process, raising concerns about “new costs and new staff demands on the courts, the offices of states attorneys, the VCIC and the Department of Corrections that have not been accounted for.” It also posed questions about waiting periods “shorter than civil statutes of limitations or federal regulatory requirements” impacting civil lawsuits and potential conflicts with federal regulations governing financial institutions. 

Attorney General T. J. Donovan is supporting the bill, saying it will provide better-paying jobs for Vermonters whose past brushes with the law have hurt their employment prospects.  

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, noted that the bill was introduced in January and passed the Senate unanimously on March 16. He said he and House Judiciary Committee chairperson Rep. Maxine Grad to “trying to work with the governor and the administration to come up with a bill they will adopt and sign.”

“I believe there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what expungement is and what it does,” Sears said. “Somehow they read things into the bill I don’t think are there.”

Balint expressed some frustration with the administration sending letters to legislators instead of reaching out during the process. 

“If those concerns had been brought to the [Senate Judiciary Committee] in a timely manner they could have addressed them in the context of open public forum,” Balint said. “This is what frustrates me: We want to try to bring the public into the work that we’re doing. Trying to legislate via snarky letters is not helpful. it does not bring us closer to good legislation.” 

“Why not call a meeting? Why not get some people together?” Balint said. “And it’s super easy now. Have Dick Sears and other key members of his committee sit with Maxine Grad and other key players. Why does it have to be dash off a letter that just raises hackles? It’s not great communication, unless the point is just gamesmanship and not solving problems.”

TUNE IN

I’ll be spending some time this week sitting in as guest editor at the Bennington Banner, and that means less time watching the Statehouse. But remember: It’s your house, and floor and committee proceedings are online for you to stream live or watch whenever you like. 

You can watch any House or Senate proceeding by going to the committee’s page and clicking on the livestream link, or the agenda. You can find listings of committees and their agendas here.

You can access audio and video links for the House and Senate chambers, and look up any bill or committee, on the Legislature’s home page.

The House convenes at 10 a.m. Tuesday, 1:15 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 9:30 a.m. Friday.

The Senate convenes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, 1 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 11:30 a.m. Friday.

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