By Bill Moore
The General Assembly is returning in special session this week. Rather than convene in a veto session, the House and Senate adjourned “sine die,” or without setting another date in which to meet. In other words, when the assembly adjourned, it signaled the end of the biennial session.
What makes this unusual is that the Legislature adjourned knowing that Gov. Scott would be vetoing the budget they sent him. Typically, the leaders of both Houses call for a veto session to attempt to override gubernatorial vetoes. During veto sessions, only items that have been vetoed can be acted upon.
Knowing that his veto is on the way, the governor called the Legislature back to adopt a budget. The special session begins on May 23. The challenge is to fund state operations for the new fiscal year that begins on July 1.
The dispute revolves around adopting a budget with no tax or fee increases for the second consecutive year as advocated by the governor. Funding for the governor’s proposal includes money from one-time sources. The budget, as passed by the House and Senate, contains $83 million in new taxes, including a $58 million property tax increase. Legislative leaders want to use some of those one-time found revenues to reduce a portion of the education tax increase and use the rest to pay down unfunded pension liabilities. They say doing so could save up to $100 million in interest payments over the next 20 years. The budget dispute is also wrapped up in H.911, an act relating to changes in Vermont’s personal income tax and education financing system, which looked to hold Vermonters harmless as a result of changes in the federal income tax laws earlier this year.
Confused? You are not alone. All of this brings to mind a famous quote largely attributed to Otto von Bismarck: “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.”
The Central Vermont Chamber has a deliberative process for adopting policy positions, culminating with adoption by our board of directors. During the session just ended, we followed several bills that, if enacted, could have a significantly negative impact on the business community.
We joined our efforts with a coalition of pro-business, pro-growth, pro-jobs organizations. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in convincing the Legislature that many of the bills will have a negative effect on our economy. As a result, we have urged the governor to veto several measures that are awaiting his signature, including the budget.
Among those bills are H.196, an act relating to paid family leave. We are concerned about the nature of the fund and its sustainability. It is funded by a new tax on all employees. Due the nature of the funding and the potential for “backfilling” with additional new taxes on businesses, we are opposed to the act.
We opposed S.105, an act relating to consumer justice enforcement. Among other things, we believe that S.105 would have a significant and far-reaching effect on many businesses operating in Vermont by providing incentives for frivolous lawsuits over routine, widely accepted consumer agreements.
Our opposition to S.40, an act relating to increasing the minimum wage, is well known. Numerous studies point out that increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024 will cost jobs and cost low-wage workers employment opportunities. The General Assembly’s own Joint Fiscal Office projected the loss of thousands of jobs across the state as a result of the increase.
We have urged the governor to veto S.197, an act relating to liability for toxic substances or releases. The measure would make sweeping changes to the potential liabilities that companies could face for medical monitoring costs that individuals might associate with releases of chemicals. Vermont law already provides relief for those harmed by toxic releases and enables recovery of damages for the harm resulting from such releases. This measure goes further, requiring medical monitoring for injuries not incurred, using extremely low thresholds for the exposure. A person does not even need to prove that the latent disease is certain or likely to develop as a result of the exposure.
We urge the governor and General Assembly to quickly resolve their differences on the budget and to continue a steady course of no new taxes or fees. Vermont tax policy puts us near the bottom of state rankings again this year. A second consecutive year without new taxes or fees can have a significant impact on creating an economic climate that leads to business expansion and investment, new job creation and higher wages for all.
Bill Moore is president and CEO of the Central Vermont Chamber of Commerce.