Senators practice proper social distancing as they reconvene in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, to vote on emergency COVID-19 legislation. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger 

As the COVID-19 outbreak spreads through Vermont, lawmakers in Montpelier have had to shelve priority legislation to respond to the crisis, and confront the economic havoc it will likely cause in the coming months.

So what about all the other legislation that was in the works? Statehouse leaders have assured their colleagues that some work unrelated to the coronavirus will go on, eventually.

“Fear not those who worry that their bills might die because of the crisis,” Senate leader Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, told senators on a video conference call Thursday morning. “But right now, the singular focus has to be on this crisis.”

Yet it remains unclear whether major Democratic priorities including climate change policies, a reform of the state’s land use law, and the legalization of a marijuana market will make it to the finish line this year.

Johnson has said that while the main focus of the House will be on responding to the pandemic, she’s “not taking everything off the table.”

Legislators are already scrambling to address a major hole in the state budget in the coming weeks, and will have to delay writing next year’s budget until economists have a better sense of exactly how much the virus will impact state finances.

That means the session could drag on until the summer or early fall.

House and Senate focus

The House and Senate rushed this week to send emergency COVID-19 legislation to the governor’s desk. Johnson and Ashe say that their main focus in the coming weeks will continue to be on the pandemic.

Ashe said Tuesday that for now, other legislation the Senate has worked on this year is “not just on the back burner, but off the burners altogether.” He added that the coronavirus pandemic “is not the top priority, it is the only priority at this point.”

But he assured his colleagues in the Senate on a conference call Thursday morning that there would be time later in the session to return to other priorities.

The House will soon vote on whether it will allow remote voting. Republicans sought to limit the virtual procedures so that legislators could only pass legislation related to COVID-19 and the state budget, but Democratic leaders wanted to keep the door open to passing other measures.

Johnson has indicated that if measures will likely draw wide opposition, she won’t take them up as the chamber works remotely.

House Minority Leader Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, said Wednesday that Johnson told her the House will not be taking up H.610, legislation that would give courts greater authority to seize guns from domestic abusers, knowing that it’s a “contentious” measure.

Work on issues unrelated to the virus has already resumed in the House. On Thursday, for example, the House Government Operations Committee remotely passed legislation that would ban corporations from donating to political campaigns.

House members spread across chamber
House lawmakers, spread out through the chamber, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the House session Wednesday to advance emergency COVID-19 legislation. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger 

Climate change and cannabis

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, said whether lawmakers would move forward on a bill that would establish a legal market for cannabis will likely depend on how severe a toll the coronavirus outbreak takes on the state budget. That marjuana bill, S.54, is in a conference committee.

“So when we think about what state government needs to be prioritizing right now in a time of crisis like this, we probably aren’t going to be investing a great deal of money into standing up a cannabis control board,” she said, referring to the regulatory body the legislation would create.

One path forward for that bill could be pushing back the date for when retail dispensaries could start selling cannabis products, Copeland Hanzas added.

This session was poised to be a big one for climate legislation. Last month, the House passed by a wide margin a billH.688, known as the “Global Warming Solutions Act,” that would mandate state compliance with strict carbon emissions reduction targets.

Copeland Hanzas, co-chair of the Climate Solutions Caucus, said that passing that bill this session remains a priority for Democratic lawmakers in the House. She added that passing that bill, among other measures, would position Vermont to take advantage of the forthcoming federal stimulus package to “rebuild” the economy in a way that reduces reliance on fossil fuels.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said his committee would start examining what bills from earlier in the session to take back up in a couple of weeks.

While Act 250 reform and the Global Warming Solutions Act are on a list of bills Bray had sent to his committee members to consider, he stressed that they do not want to rush through complicated environmental legislation.

“I’m very aware that there is broad interest amongst a lot of people in that bill, and what we have to figure out is how much” time we have to work on it, he said of the Global Warming Solutions Act.

The Senate has also been working on a billS.267, that would require utilities to buy 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. Copeland Hanzas said that a provision of that bill that would require 20% of that to come from smaller, in-state renewables — double what is currently required — might now be nixed due to concerns from utilities that it could raise rates.

“But the renewable energy standard, at its core, I think, could still move forward,” she added.

A budget in limbo

After the federal government and Gov. Phil Scott effectively pushed back April 15 tax deadlines, it’s likely that Vermont won’t see hundreds of millions in revenue that it had expected to fill state coffers in the coming months until at least July — the beginning of the next fiscal year.

With a giant hole in the state’s current operating budget likely to emerge in the coming months, Johnson, the House speaker, said that a “massive budget adjustment” for this fiscal year will soon be needed.

Lawmakers and fiscal analysts expect revenue will also be lost due to higher unemployment rates and fewer people spending money.

“There’s obviously a lot of revenue that will not materialize because people are not driving and buying gas, they’re not going out to restaurants as much, they’re not buying as much stuff,” Johnson said.

“And a lot of people are out of work and they’re worried about their income obviously.”

The Joint Fiscal Office estimated last week that reduced income and spending from Vermonters and businesses could mean $80-115 million less in revenues in just the next three months.

Johnson said that state economists won’t be able to accurately forecast revenues for the next fiscal year until epidemiologists have a sense of when COVID-19 cases will reach a peak in Vermont.

The Legislature may have to pass a partial spending package for the beginning of fiscal year 2021, and then return to pass a separate budget to cover the rest of the year, she said.

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