2015 Legislative Report
The 2015 legislative session opened with some VBSR priority areas carrying over from the 2014 session, in particular legislation on earned paid leave made it through the House. Other issues such as Clean Water and Rent-to-Own legislation gained new momentum this session and VBSR worked closely to influence these policies.
We received tremendous support from our members this year, working to advance VBSR’s legislative agenda and making positive change for Vermonters. We want to extend our gratitude to the many members who either spent time writing to legislators, testifying in committee hearings or simply taking time away from their daily responsibilities to support advocacy that truly makes an impact in promoting socially responsible business practices and policies in Vermont.
Below you will find a few of VBSR’s successful policy efforts from the last session; if you have questions or comments about any of this information, we invite you to contact our Public Policy Manager, Daniel Barlow.
Energy and the Environment
Clean Water (H.35)
A bill creating a funded clean-up plan for Lake Champlain and other Vermont waterways was considered a must-pass by many this year, especially considering the Environmental Protection Agency was threatening to step in with its own regulations to crack down on pollution. The bill expands state authority and regulation on several forms of water pollution, including run-off from farms, parking lots, and other developments. The new law also allows the state to remove the Current Use status for farms that pollute. Additionally, the law uses a 0.2 percent surcharge on the property transfer tax, raising about $5.3 million, to create a state Clean Water Fund to help support water quality management projects, such as improvements to municipal water systems. VBSR was the only business group to support this bill.
Renewable Energy (H.40)
Lawmakers passed a bill this year that, for the first time, requires Vermont utilities to sell renewable energy and help their customers reduce their fossil fuel footprints. The new law launches a program called RESET (Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation) that synchs state renewable energy programs with other New England states and avoids an upcoming 6-cent rate hike from changes in how renewable energy credits are sold to those states. The requirement that utilities help customers reduce their fossil fuel use could include programs such as on-bill financing for electric heat pumps, for example. Concerns over the siting of renewable energy projects in Vermont also spilled over to this bill and lawmakers included provisions that give municipalities party status in Public Service Board deliberations for projects they host and created minimum setback requirements for solar projects as well. VBSR was the largest business group to support this bill.
Comprehensive Tax Reform
Lawmakers considered cuts, new revenue, and changes to the state’s tax code as options for filling the $110 million budget gap this year. In the end, lawmakers and Gov. Shumlin agreed on a roughly $30 million tax package that eliminates about $15 million in state tax deductions and raises about $15 million in new revenue through other tax changes. These adjustments include limiting itemized deductions for state income taxes to 2.5 times the standard deduction ($15,000 for individuals and $31,500 for joint filers) and creating a 3 percent alternative minimum tax on earners making more than $150,000 a year. Vermont’s non-profit sector won an exemption from the tax reform proposals after raising concerns that the limits would hurt charitable giving; the cap on itemized income tax deductions does not include charitable donations or medical expenses. The tax changes made this year were recommendations of the state’s 2010 Blue Ribbon Tax Commission, but lawmakers did not pass the more controversial recommendations, such as expanding the sales tax to services or moving Vermont strictly to a system of taxing based on adjusted gross income, as most other states do already. VBSR was the only business group to support the tax reform changes this year.
Earned Paid Leave (H.187)
A bill establishing a minimum standard of paid time off for most Vermont workers passed the House this year and is scheduled to be taken up by the Senate when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January 2016. Sponsors of the bill made a number of changes to the proposal this year, including limiting and staggering the number of days off earned: a minimum of three days off during the first two years of implementation, moving up to five days after two years (a reduction from the seven days off that workers would earn each year proposed under last year’s bill). Part-time workers are still included in the proposal, but lawmakers excluded seasonal and temporary workers. Employers with more generous benefit packages would be unaffected by the bill. VBSR was the largest business group to support this bill.
People and Communities
Rent-to-Own Regulation (S.73)
This new law cracks down on some of the predatory practices of the so-called rent-to-own industry – businesses that target low-income residents with “deals” on furniture and other household items. Lawmakers found that very few of the customers end up owning the merchandise after spending hundreds or thousands of dollars in weekly fees and hidden costs. The bill, which VBSR supported, requires these businesses to be more transparent about their practices, including the total true cost of the merchandise, whether it was used or previously owned, and limits collection tactics that have been described as “harassing.” VBSR was the largest business group to support this bill.
Health Care Reform (S.139)
This was the session of diminished expectations for health care reform in Vermont. Weeks before the session started, Gov. Shumlin abandoned his plans for a single-payer system. His alternative proposal was to raise $90 million through a 0.7% payroll tax and use those funds to draw down an additional $100 million in federal matching funds. The money was earmarked to fix the Medicaid cost shift and the proposal received weeks of testimony at the State House, but only one positive committee vote before fizzling out. The policy behind the proposal was solid, but the politics of the building have turned against major changes in health care following the debacle of Vermont Health Connect. Instead, the House and Senate passed a modest $3 million health care package, funded partly through an increase in the tobacco tax, that funds VHC subsidies for low-income residents, expands the powers of the Green Mountain Care Board, and continues the work of the Blueprint for Health Program. Two provisions were included in the bill that VBSR strongly supports: (1) The creation of an on-line tool allowing Vermonters to shop by price for common medical procedures, and (2) A state study on the creation of a universal primary care system in Vermont.