Senate Money Panel Passes Budget Bill
On a vote of 7-0, the Senate Appropriations Committee passed a $5.8 billion budget on Friday that closes a $72 million projected gap between revenues and expenditures in the 2018 fiscal year. The bill constitutes one percent growth in spending over FY 2017 taking into account all funds, including federal, transportation and education fund sources.
The bill differs significantly from the House version passed in late March. Among its provisions, the bill:
Restores proposed reductions in Agency of Human Services grants to nonprofits organizations;
Rejects $1 million requested by the governor to help pay for a $35 million bond for affordable housing;
Consolidates teachers’ retirement payments with other education expenditures;
Increases funding for mental health services;
Reduces Disproportionate Share Hospital payments by $10 million (payments to hospitals that serve a large number of Medicaid and uninsured individuals); and
Increases funding for the Vermont State Colleges by $3.8 million.
House Panel Approves Slimmed-Down Consumer Protection Bill
After working through the evening on Thursday, the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development on Friday voted 10-0-1 to approve S.136, an omnibus consumer protection bill. Early committee drafts of the bill included three Senate-passed bills and seven separate House consumer protection bills, but after several days of testimony and discussion, the committee struck several of the proposals. The eliminated sections would have imposed new standards for residential construction contracts, created new regulations for automobile advertising, and establish new warranty obligations for motorboat dealers. Sections that made the final cut would:
Create new requirements for lenders to periodically analyze escrow accounts;
Impose new standards for automatic renewal provisions in consumer contracts;
Create credit protections for vulnerable adults and minors;
Adopt standards for the use of credit reports by insurers; and
Adopt new standards limiting credit card debt collection activities.
The latter section was the source of a great deal of attention in the committee. Lenders raised objections to many provisions that would have made it more difficult to collect on credit card defaults. In the end, most of these provisions were stricken. The final proposal shortens the statute of limitations on credit card default claims to three years, increases the wage exemption for judgments on credit card defaults, and allows for the suspension of interest on judgments if the debtor is unable to pay.
The bill is headed next to the House Appropriations Committee.
House Advances Paid Family Leave
It has little chance of becoming law this session, but the House Ways and Means Committee has advanced H.196, a bill that would create a program to pay partial wages to persons taking time off from work for the birth of a child or illness of a close relative. The bill passed on a divided vote, 7-4.
Under the version passed by the committee, employees would be entitled to as many as six weeks of paid leave at 80 percent of their normal wage. The bill exempts businesses with ten or fewer employees and would require people to be employed for at least a year before qualifying for the benefit. Financing for the plan would come from a 0.141 percent payroll tax paid by the employee, but an employer may elect to pay the employee’s contribution.
Since the bill missed the legislature’s "crossover date" by a wide margin, it is unlikely to be taken up in the Senate this session but could be considered in 2018.
House Commerce Committee Supports Lifting TIF Cap
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is expected to authorize up to 14 new tax increment financing districts when it approves its version of the Senate Economic Development bill, S.135. The committee is expected to finish its work on the bill next week.
In a straw poll conducted late Friday, ten of the 11 members expressed support for the plan, as long at municipalities outside of Chittenden County are given preference. Of 11 existing TIF districts, seven are located in Chittenden and Franklin Counties, which are the most populous areas of the state. The proposal is a key economic development strategy for Gov. Phil Scott. Committee Chair Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, said he does not support allowing more TIFs but would not stand in the way.
When the bill emerges from the Commerce Committee it will face stiff opposition from the House Ways and Means Committee, where several members believe tax increment financing steals revenue from the Education Fund because the economic development it supports would have happened anyway. Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, is the powerful chair of the committee and the primary opponent of TIF funding.
Independent Contractor Bill May Resurface
House Commerce Committee Chair Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, threw in the towel several weeks ago on a weeks-long effort to craft a bill that would clarify the workers’ compensation rules for independent contractors. Business and labor groups were unable to reach agreement, and Botzow was not willing to push through a bill with one side in opposition.
That did not stop committee member Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre City, from continuing the effort. Poirier is a former House Majority Leader and master legislative strategist. Acting on behalf of organized labor, Poirier enlisted the help of fellow committee member Rep. Bob Frenier, R-Chelsea, and together they worked behind the scenes to try and convince business groups to acquiesce in a proposal that includes key provisions that they have found objectionable. Their support for the bill has not been forthcoming, but the committee nonetheless may take up the proposal before the legislature adjourns.
Finance Considers Emergency Responder Bill
A House-passed bill to expand workers’ compensation benefits for emergency responders, H.197, was taken up this week by the Senate Finance Committee. Despite early skepticism by Committee Chair Ann Cummings, D-Washington, and two other committee members, the bill is likely to be approved.
The bill creates a presumption that PTSD claims by emergency responders are work related. The bill also makes it easier for all employees to file mental health claims of any kind.
Workers’ Compensation Division Director Steve Monahan testified before the committee on Thursday, saying that “if the bill is not limited to first responders I’m not sure we can support it.” That was not quite a veto threat, and it was almost certainly not sufficient to convince a majority not to support the bill.
Insurance organizations have been unable to estimate the impact of the bill on workers’ compensation premiums. That is the likely reason that business groups have not made opposition of the bill a priority.
House Health Care Approves Mental Health System Bill
House Health Care Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Lippert, D-Hinesburg, praised his committee for its work in addressing mental health issues this session as it passed S.133 on Friday afternoon.
The bill seeks to increase funding for designated mental health agencies and reduce emergency waiting times at hospitals through a comprehensive review of Vermont’s mental health system and the creation of an action plan and long term vision. Additional provisions would:
Require a review of involuntary medication treatment and psychiatric medication and their role in inpatient emergency department wait times;
Require that the Green Mountain Care Board report on the integration of community based providers in ACO models of care to ensure progress toward and accountability to the mental health measures included in the All Payer ACO Model Agreement;
Create a Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Use Disorder Workforce Study Group; and
Direct the Secretary of the Agency of Human Services to set designated agency rates at a level that ensures competitive wages for mental service workers and good care for the designated population.
The bill will be reviewed in the House Committee on Appropriations before it goes to the House floor and a conference committee. With only eight working days left, Lippert told the committee that he’s still hopeful to get the bill to the governor’s desk by the end of the session.
Panel Approves Open Meeting Requirement for ACOs
After adopting only a few minor amendments, the House Health Care Committee this week unanimously passed S.4, a bill that would require that the governing board meetings of an accountable care organization be open to the public. The proposal allows a board to convene executive sessions when considering contracts, personnel matters, trade secrets, confidential attorney-client communications, and information prohibited from public disclosure by a data use contract. The bill also requires the ACO governing board to provide public notice of its meetings.
House DMV Bill Retains Two Plate Requirement
The House has amended a Senate-passed bill that would have eliminated the requirement that passenger vehicles display front and rear license plates in favor of the current two plate law. The bill, S.127, passed the full House on Friday.
Witnesses for law enforcement organizations and convenience stores had testified in the committee that retaining the front plate is critical to law enforcement and helpful in discouraging drive-offs and skimming at the pump. The House Transportation Committee voted to maintain the front and rear plate standard, 10-0-1.
The license plate matter received little attention on the floor. Instead, the House vigorously debated a proposed amendment that would allow vehicles to pass state inspection if the only thing wrong with the vehicle is that the "check engine" light is on. The issue came to light recently when the state began using a new computerized inspection system that can automatically report such failures to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The issue was portrayed on the floor as a conflict between clean air and poverty, since repairs to oxygen sensors that trip the indicator can be very expensive. Poverty won, 127-11. The amendment delays enforcement of the provision until May 1, 2018. Until then, owners of failed vehicles will receive a notice that the car passed the safety requirements but failed air quality standards. The owner will have one year to fix the problem.
Natural Resources Committee Advances Chemical Bills
The House Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife Committee acted on a pair of bills this week that are aimed at preventing or mitigating the effect of exposure to hazardous chemicals.
On Thursday, the committee voted to approve S.10. The Senate-passed bill gives the Agency of Natural Resources the authority to require an entity that releases the chemical Perfluorooctanoic Acid into the environment to pay for connections of effected homes to a municipal water system if the chemical has contaminated the home’s potable water supply. The bill is aimed at a company that owns a site in Bennington and North Bennington where the chemical was once used in Teflon coating.
Late Friday, it passed a bill that would create an interagency committee on chemical management to streamline chemical reporting and inventory laws and create a user-friendly database of chemical risks. Before passing the measure, S.103, the committee added language proposed by environmental advocates that would change several provisions in the state’s Chemicals of High Concern to Children program. The changes, which include restricting the authority originally granted to an advisory panel, were strongly opposed by manufacturers and others in the business community. The chemical bills will move to the House floor next week.
Senate Passes ACO Reporting with Drug Provision
The Senate this week advanced H.507, a bill that would require the Department of Vermont Health Access to provide periodic reports on the implementation of the Next Generation Medicaid Accountable Care Organization pilot contract with OneCare Vermont, the state’s largest ACO. The bill also would require the Green Mountain Care Board to provide a written update on its progress towards meeting the benchmarks identified in the first year of the All-Payer ACO Model Timeline and its preparations for regulating ACOs.
The Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Michael Sirotkin, D-Chittenden, and others that requires a health insurer to notify an individual of its intent to automatically re-enroll the individual in a bronze level health insurance plan in 2018 with an out-of-pocket prescription drug limit of $1300, unless the individual contacts the insurer to select a different plan. It would also require an advisory group to recommend continuation of the out-of-pocket prescription drug limit for bronze-level plans in 2019. Since implementation of the out-of-pocket limit, health insurers have claimed that is has become increasingly difficult for them to develop bronze exchange policies that not only contain the state-mandated prescription drug cap, but also meet federal guidelines.
Senate Approves Mental Health Treatment for Minors
On a vote of 24-6, the Senate on Friday approved H.230, a bill that would allow minors to consent to psychotherapy and other supportive counseling from a mental health professional without the consent of a parent or legal guardian. The Senate Health and Welfare Committee expanded the bill to include all minors. The committee heard from numerous individuals that some minors need a supportive environment to talk about their thoughts and emotions before sharing information with their families. The House bill had limited counseling services to LGBTQ minors.
House Bill Would Require Unisex Bathrooms
The Vermont House has approved a bill that would require all single-stall public restrooms to be open to either gender. The bill, H.333, was approved on a roll call vote, 123-19.
Under the bill, single-toilet facilities must be designated for use by a single user, family, or assisted user and marked only as a restroom, without specifying a gender. Debate on the floor centered on the bill's impact on religious organizations which historically divide genders, but an amendment to exempt such organizations was withdrawn. If passed by the Senate, the requirement would be effective on July 1.