2020 legislative session: Act III
The third and final act of the 2020 legislative session began on August 25th and it was an all-out sprint. Over 20 legislative days, we passed the largest and most complex budget in Vermont’s history, passed and then overrode Governor Scott’s veto of the Global Warming Solutions Act, initiated the first of several initiatives aimed at racial justice reform, began the implementation of Vermont’s taxed and regulated market for cannabis, and reinforced the VT State College System with $24 million of bridge funding to keep all campuses operating through the pandemic and to stabilize the system in preparation for a more sustainable future framework.
The Vermont House gave final approval to a $7.17 billion state budget bill on Friday, September 25th. In addition to the priorities we had addressed in June’s 90-day budget and federal stimulus allocations, the full year budget allocates resources to make childcare more affordable, provides funding for vulnerable Vermonters looking to start businesses, directs financial assistance to Vermonters left out of the federal CARES Act support, and expands hazard pay for frontline workers including grocery store and pharmacy workers, trash haulers, childcare providers, funeral parlor workers, and those providing security services.
The VT Senate passed the Global Warming Solutions Act by a 23-5 tri-partisan vote at the end of June making only minor changes to the House version of the bill. The House concurred with the Senate changes and sent the bill to Governor Scott’s desk on September 9th. With the Governor’s veto the following week, the House overrode that veto with three votes to spare as three Republican legislators abandoned their original votes in support of the bill. Similarly, the successful Senate override vote on September 22nd came after only two Republican senators changed their original votes on the bill. It was only the ninth successful veto override in Vermont’s history. (I will publish a fuller explanation of the Global Warming Solutions Act in a future post.)
With the devastating and horrific murder of George Floyd and the worldwide reaction that followed, the House expedited work on racial justice legislation in June and September. Two bills – S.119 (became law without Governor Scott’s signature) and S.219 (signed by the Governor) – incorporated the bulk of the racial and criminal justice reform work completed by the legislature this year. These laws do the following:
Increase resources to the office of Racial Equity, the Executive Director being a gubernatorial appointee;
Make grant funding to local law enforcement agencies contingent on their collection of racial data;
Update the definition of “physical force” including new misconduct violations and crimes related to the use of choke holds, excessive force, and failure to intervene in or report on incidents of using excessive force;
Sunset the new excessive force crimes in one year to ensure that the legislature revisits this issue to resolve any inconsistencies created by the new law;
Establish protocols for the use of force and of deadly force by a law enforcement officer;
Require the Department of Public Safety to equip all State Police with body cameras; and
Require the Department of Public Safety and Racial Equity Executive Director together develop a statewide use of force policy for all law enforcement personnel.
In September, the legislature authorized a tax and regulate system for cannabis with the passage of S.54, a bill that the governor did not sign, but allowed to become law. The bill creates a commission to establish a retail cannabis market in Vermont with the idea that adults will be able to buy safe, consistent, tested products, that youth prevention activities will be sufficiently funded statewide, and that public health and safety are protected by enhancing drug impairment training for law enforcement across the state. VT growers and retailers, and women- and minority-owned businesses, will be given priority in obtaining licenses to operate in the new cannabis market. (Both Jim and I voted against S.54. Here are the vote explanations we supplied to a local blogger regarding that vote.)
Finally, there is significant work ahead for the legislature, the Governor, and the leadership of the VT State College system. Our VSC system is not currently financially sustainable and this issue has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Federal CRF dollars and FY’2021 budget funds appropriated by the legislature in September have provided our state colleges with a one-year reprieve, but my expectation is that important decisions lay ahead in 2021 as we support this critical Vermont institution.
The third and final act of the historic 2020 legislative session came to an end with adjournment on September 25th and an expectation that the financial challenges that lay ahead for Vermont could make 2021 an equally difficult year.