Vermont Legislature adjourns, ending ‘the Covid biennium’

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Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, and Carolyn Wesley, chief of staff to Balint, embrace following Balint's final address to the Vermont Senate on Thursday, May 12. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Updated at 9:52 p.m.

That’s all, folks: The Vermont Legislature has closed out its 2022 session, a five-month stretch marked by crests and falls in Covid case counts, promises to address the state’s longstanding crises, a significant number of gubernatorial vetoes, the typical last-minute handshake deals and, ultimately, the passage of an $8.3 billion state budget.

When lawmakers convened in January, the threat of the ultra-transmissible Omicron variant of Covid-19, and a corresponding spike in infections, loomed large underneath the Golden Dome. After planning for an entirely in-person legislative session, lawmakers backtracked, and the next several months were marked by Zoom hearings and battles over masking rules inside the Statehouse.

The session also began with lofty policy goals. With an unprecedented level of federal funding in hand, lawmakers vowed to make historic, transformative investments in housing, workforce development and broadband in an attempt to solve Vermont’s most pressing crises: a gaping lack of affordable housing, a workforce shortage worsened by the state’s aging population and a dearth of connectivity for the state’s most rural residents.

“I realize this has been an extremely difficult biennium for Vermonters and legislators alike,” Gov. Phil Scott said in an address to lawmakers Thursday, before Senate and House leaders struck their gavels for the final time. “But it was one where we made truly historic investments in shared priorities.”

Gov. Phil Scott delivers remarks to the Vermont Senate as they adjourn at the end of the legislative session on Thursday, May 12. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Lawmakers and the governor found common ground on investments in new housing initiatives. Two major housing bills cleared both chambers in the final days of the session: one aimed at addressing the state’s critical shortage of rental housing, and another that seeks to boost the affordability and availability of homes

Lawmakers also invested a total of $114.5 million into workforce and economic development efforts, including several programs prioritized by Scott.

But friction remained on several key issues. 

At the start of session, lawmakers stared down the mammoth question of how to solve the state’s looming pension crisis. By the end, they had struck a deal with Vermont’s teachers and state employee unions, approving a bill that will trim an estimated $2 billion from the state’s unfunded retirement liabilities.

Scott vetoed the breakthrough deal, but both chambers voted unanimously to override the governor, enacting it into law.

By the time lawmakers concluded the session, Scott had delivered six vetoes on other major pieces of legislation for the year. 

In addition to the pension deal, Scott also vetoed a bill to establish a clean heat standard — widely seen as the most significant climate bill this session — and a Burlington city charter change that would have banned no-cause evictions. On Tuesday, efforts to override both of those vetoes fell flat in the House by only one vote each.

A bill to reform Act 250 appears doomed for Scott’s veto pen. The clock ran out on a bill that would have expanded Vermont’s bottle redemption program, and would-be landmark bills to reform policing in the state were ultimately watered down to legislative studies.

A series of other last-minute deals paved the way for Thursday’s adjournment.

Lawmakers on Wednesday evening reached an agreement on how to spend a contested portion of the $95 million surplus in the state’s education fund, divvying it up between universal school meals ($29 million), cleanup of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in school buildings ($22 million) and buying down school taxes ($20 million).

Lawmakers also greenlit a $40 million tax cut, most of which would cover a $32 million child tax credit. The final product does not include a full income tax exemption for military pensions — a major wishlist item for Scott, who has not yet said whether he will sign the bill into law.

As is custom, lawmakers saved the state’s annual budget for last. 

Lawmakers began this year’s budgeting process with a half-billion dollars in leftover American Rescue Act Plan funds to spend.

The final budget deal greenlit by the House and Senate on Thursday evening will use that one-time money to plow $96 million into building out the state’s broadband infrastructure, $104 million into water quality projects and $215 million into various climate initiatives — including $80 million for weatherization, $45 million for a municipal energy resilience program, $8 million for advanced metering and over $60 million for other electrification initiatives.

Another $80 million in one-time money is earmarked for housing. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board is getting $40 million to build more homes. Another $20 million will be split between a pilot program subsidizing starter homes for middle-income families and manufactured housing. The remaining $20 million goes to the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which will give landlords grants to fix code-violating properties.

Thanks to the feds’ direct stimulus spending, many Vermonters also had more cash to spend last year — therefore injecting higher-than-predicted tax dollars into state government. That extra money was allocated to oft-neglected areas, including community-based mental health care agencies and the Vermont State Colleges. The state college system received a $10 million increase to their base appropriation, as well as $15 million in one-time cash to put in place various reforms.

Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, left, confers with House minority leader Rep. Patricia McCoy, R-Poultney, at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Wednesday, May 11. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, on Thursday pointed to the pension deal as a major accomplishment, along with a continued effort to solidify reproductive rights in Vermont.

In the opening weeks of the legislative session — months before the country was rocked by a leaked draft majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court that would overturn Roe v. Wade — the Vermont House cast the final legislative vote on Proposal 5, or the Reproductive Liberty Amendment. Come November, Vermonters will cast their votes on whether to enshrine the right to an abortion and contraception in the state constitution.

“When (former President Donald) Trump was elected, and we saw what was happening with the Supreme Court, we knew what was on the horizon and what was at stake,” Krowinski told VTDigger Thursday night. “And so I'm proud of everyone who came together.”

For Sen. Becca Balint, D-Windham, Thursday marked her final legislative day as Senate President Pro Tempore. Before Lt. Gov. Molly Gray made the final strike of the gavel in the Senate chamber, Balint told her colleagues that her two years in leadership were “the greatest honor in my life.”

In an interview with VTDigger, Balint pointed to housing and workforce investments, as well as the pension deal, as her proudest achievements this year.

“I'm incredibly proud of the work that we did on pensions. It was something that people said we couldn't do, that we weren't going to be able to get the parties to come together,” she said. “So I feel great about that.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint, D-Windham, speaks to the Vermont Senate on the final day of the biennium May 12, 2022. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

She didn’t achieve everything she wanted, though. The bottle bill fell through at the last minute — a loss she chalked up to not having enough time. She also wanted to do more to address the state’s nursing shortage.

“When you're the pro tem, you're not the czar, right? You're just the pro tem,” she said. “You have to hear everybody else's competing interests, and there are a lot. And so that's a regret.”

At the start of the session, the word often echoing through the Statehouse halls was “transformational.” The amount of money at lawmakers’ fingertips was unprecedented, and the potential to deliver systemic change appeared strong.

Krowinski told VTDigger that, when making key decisions about how to spend millions of surplus and stimulus dollars, she would picture herself in 10 years, looking back.

“Looking back, would we be saying, ‘I wish we did this?’ That was the kind of mindset that we had, thinking toward the future and really making sure that we do everything we can in this moment in time,” Krowinski said. “And I think we did that.”

So, was this legislative session transformative?

“I sure hope so,” Balint said. “I think the amount of money that we're putting into housing and into workforce and into climate action, I think it has the potential to be transformational. And this is just the first step.”

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Sarah Mearhoff

About Sarah

Sarah Mearhoff is one of VTDigger's political reporters, covering the Vermont statehouse, executive branch and congressional delegation. Prior to joining Digger, she covered Minnesota and South Dakota state politics for Forum Communications' newspapers across the Upper Midwest for three years. She has also covered politics in Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she is a proud alumna of the Pennsylvania State University where she studied journalism.

Email: [email protected]

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