Legislative session gets underway in Montpelier

By MIKE DOUGHERTY
VT DIGGER.ORG

The 2019 legislative session started Wednesday.

VTDigger’s political team has spent the past few weeks talking to lawmakers, state officials and other stakeholders about what to expect over the next five months. Here’s what you need to know.

Leadership

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, begins her third year leading the House this week. Johnson told VTDigger that the chamber will revisit many proposals it’s seen before: raising the minimum wage, establishing a paid family leave program for workers, funding clean water efforts and more.

But their path to victory may be smoother now that the Democratic caucus (together with Progressives and some left-leaning independents) has enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Phil Scott.

Johnson will lead a chamber that includes more freshman lawmakers than Vermont has seen in decades: 40 new members were elected to the House in November, including six under the age of 25.

Sen. President Pro Tem Tim Ashe wants to change Vermont’s Constitution. Ashe told VTDigger he’ll be pushing four constitutional amendments this session: to expand gubernatorial terms from two years to four, to protect abortion access, to guarantee equal protections for minority groups, and to remove all mentions of slavery from the Constitution.

The Senate is also gearing up for debates over retail marijuana, the minimum wage, education finance and more. Ashe cited the 2018 “grand bargain” in the Massachusetts Legislature as a model for reaching bipartisan agreement on key legislative issues.

Gov. Phil Scott is starting his second two-year term after winning re-election last November. Heading into the new year, Scott has been mum on his specific policy and budget priorities. But the governor’s main objectives—to keep Vermont affordable and combat the state’s demographic challenges—remain the same.

When he was first elected in 2016, Scott had made a categorical pledge to block any tax increases in his first term. Going into his second term, he’s loosened his stance. Scott’s chief of staff Jason Gibbs told VTDigger that the governor will seek to hold the line on broad-based taxes and fees, but he will now be open to considering “policy specific” taxes.

Legislation

Technology: Tech companies and interest groups are hoping to brand Vermont as a hotspot for innovation. But some say the state the needs to improve broadband infrastructure, bolster access to affordable housing, and modernize its regulations to ease the way for industry.

Education: The perennial debate over funding Vermont’s preK-12 schools will continue this session. But education policy conversations won’t stop there. Insiders will discuss teacher pensions, higher education funding, early child care and more.

Environment: Environmental advocates will be pushing for legislators to secure long-term clean water funding, take action on climate change and increase toxics regulation.

Key dates

Jan. 10: Gov. Phil Scott will deliver his third State of the State address on Thursday. At 1:30 p.m., Scott will take the oath of office along with re-elected state officials Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, Attorney General T.J. Donovan, Treasurer Beth Pearce, Secretary of State Jim Condos and Auditor Doug Hoffer. Scott’s speech will begin immediately after the inauguration ceremony.

Jan. 24:  At his annual budget address, Gov. Phil Scott will delve into details on the administration’s budget proposals for the coming fiscal year.

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