Lawmakers look down on Covid-19, housing shortage, pension crisis and more as legislative session approaches
Covid-19, Town Meeting Day, housing, pensions, labor shortage and a constitutional amendment. These are the top priorities that Vermont’s legislative leaders say they want to address when lawmakers return to Montpellier (or their webcams) in January.
As for almost two years, Covid-19 remains at the forefront of minds, especially since the Omicron variant is causing a furious wave of cases across the country. The highly contagious variant could lead lawmakers to their third consecutive remote session, but whether they meet in Montpellier or online, the pressure is on to help ease the pressure being felt by the healthcare system and all Vermonters.
Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Becca Balint, D-Windham, told VTDigger in an interview this week that lawmakers plan to vote on a statewide mask mandate for indoor public spaces. But she is pessimistic about it becoming law, with Republican Gov. Phil Scott having repeatedly vetoed such a bill, and the legislature, according to Balint’s tally, not having no votes to override Scott’s veto.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, told VTDigger in a separate interview that a mask warrant would be just one piece of the puzzle and that there are other tools to combat this latest wave virus.
“You need strategies on all fronts to deal with this,” she said. “Having a statewide mask policy is one thing we can do. Make sure, get people to get vaccinated… Access to tests… There is nothing we can do to solve this problem. It will be a combination of a lot of things.
City meeting day
Ahead of Town Meeting Day in March, Balint said one of the top priorities for lawmakers to speed up is a bill that gives municipalities clarification on how to adjust local decision-making at this point in time. the pandemic. The hope had been to hold Town Meeting Day in a somewhat normal fashion this year, but that optimistic plan could prove dangerous depending on how the virus spreads.
Besides the pandemic, lawmakers from the legislative and executive branches say that when speaking to Vermonters, the main concern they hear is the housing shortage in the state. Scott has offered to spend an additional $ 179 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding for affordable housing, and the governor will likely explain the matter in his state-of-the-state address in the first week of January.
Krowinski said she hoped the Legislature would reconsider elements of a housing package passed by lawmakers in 2020 that Scott vetoed. Balint said this year she anticipated few major disagreements between the governor and Democratic legislative leaders over housing as they reached a deal.
“I don’t think there is a lot of daylight between where the governor is and where we are on the housing,” Balint said.
As it stands, the state’s motel program for the homeless in Vermont is scheduled to expire on March 1. Krowinski said she was eager to see if Scott will come up with an extension to the program.
“I don’t think March will be long enough,” she said. “I have serious concerns because it is still very, very cold in March. And I hope we’re out of the pandemic, but it doesn’t look like we can count on that to happen in March. “
Pension reform talks went badly at the start of winter after an explosion by the pension task force revealed that key lawmakers and union representatives were still distant on a plan to follow.
But Balint said Tuesday she was optimistic lawmakers could still reach a deal with the Vermont State Employees’ Association and the Vermont-National Education Association this session. Balint said she and Krowinski, along with other prominent lawmakers, including Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, had met with representatives of state employee unions. and teachers to find a potential compromise.
Unions have so far insisted that any deal include a dedicated and permanent source of tax revenue – such as marijuana taxes or a wealth surcharge – to pay off debts in the system year after year. Balint said lawmakers may be willing to go further than the $ 150 million in one-time money already set aside for pensions once a deal is negotiated, potentially devoting part of general funds or to the state education on an ongoing basis. But she warned that any deal that relies on new tax revenue would face the wrath of Scott’s veto and therefore be dead in the water.
“What we’ve done in our conversations with the NEA and the VSEA is say, ‘Let us figure out the dedicated money,’ Balint said. “Give us the flexibility of the options. “
Lack of staff
Before the coronavirus even reached land, Vermont faced a shortage of nurses to care for its rural and aging population. But pandemic exhaustion has further depleted the ranks of healthcare workers in the state.
This means hospitals are relying on much more expensive mobile nurses more than ever before. And while mobile nurses can be paid several times the hourly wages of their peers who are hospital staff, Balint said staff nurses can feel exhausted and undervalued. And so the cycle continues.
One solution proposed by Balint is for the state to provide more incentives for the workforce to integrate new healthcare workers, including offering better pay to nurse educators who are also scarce and needed to shape the future of the workforce. -work.
The state college system has also requested $ 10 million in this year’s mid-year budget adjustment to complete a very popular free tuition program for degrees in areas of critical shortage, with nursing being a. Balint said she was in favor, calling it “money well spent”.
Any major overhaul of child care services would have to wait until the start of the next biennium, by which time a consultant will have to report on a funding reform proposal. But Balint said lawmakers would nonetheless seek to tackle workforce incentives in the meantime.
Proposal 5, or the Reproductive Freedom Amendment, faces one more legislative hurdle before it is presented to voters in Vermont in November. Years in the works (but with greater momentum than ever as lawyers advocate for restricting abortion access in the United States Supreme Court), the proposal would amend the state of Vermont constitution to ensure access to abortion and contraceptive care in the state.
Before the ballots are printed, the proposal must be approved once more by Vermont House. Krowinski said it was a top priority for the chamber, and she plans to put it to a vote in January or early February at the latest.
“This is a step in a very long strategy to ensure that we have reproductive justice in the state,” Krowinski said. “Once we pass Proposition 5, it will go to voters in November. So we have a lot of work to do to make sure that happens. But now, more than ever, with what is happening at the Supreme Court, it is so essential that we continue this process. “
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