Commentary: Seven Top Legislative Issues of 2023

The newly elected super-majority Democratic House and Senate are working at flank speed to pass the majority’s agenda, that Gov. Scott has no power to veto. Here are seven leading issues. There will be more.

Two months ago I published a column titled “Return of the Johnstown Flood”. That was my metaphor for the flood of legislation that was certain to occur, once the Democratic Party commanded a veto-proof majority in both House and Senate. It now does, and that Flood is proceeding at alarming velocity.

Its foremost component is enacting the Clean Heat Standard bill, vetoed last May by Gov. Scott. That bill, now shamelessly renamed the “Affordable Heating Act” (S.5), is a complex scheme to subsidize heat pumps, advanced wood pellet furnaces, and home weatherization. On January 26 ANR Secretary Julie Moore announced that their best guess of the cost is $1.2 billion over seven years. That cost will be paid for by jacking up the price of fuel paid by 65% of Vermont families to stay warm with heating oil (price increased by 70 cents/gallon), natural gas, and propane- a hidden heating fuel tax..

The most notable change in this year’s version is omitting any “check back” provision that would require legislators to vote to put this billion dollar program into effect. Instead, the bill empowers the Public Utility Commission to launch the program after filing reports with legislative committees that aren’t required to take any action. So much for accountability, which today’s Democrats try to avoid like the plague.

New Senate President pro tem Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) has told WCAX that enacting this bill is the legislature’s top priority, and that a veto by the Governor will be summarily overridden.

The next big ticket item is an all out push for child care. The long awaited RAND report estimated that a feasible program would cost an additional $258 million every year, to start with, on top of the current $125 million spent for that purpose. The lobby group “Let’s Grow Kids” (staff of 36) is running TV commercials urging early action.

At the same time, the majority will push through paid family and medical leave: 12 weeks a year for new mothers, 6 weeks for fathers, full wage replacement up to $1,135 a week, paid for with a payroll tax of 0.58%. When asked by WCAX if both of these big ticket programs could be paid for, House Ways and Means Chair Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro) cheerfully offered this remarkable reply: “We don’t have the capacity to not do them both.”

Single payer health care crashed and burned in 2014 because for three years the Shumlin administration wasn’t able to find a way to raise over $2 billion a year to pay for it. Now its advocates are back with a new version: universal primary care. It’s not clear how this partial version would work, or cost, but its advocates will be beating on the State House door to get their pet idea onto the action calendar.

The Vermont-NEA teacher’s union has long had an iron grip on the Democratic Party. This time it’s allied with the school boards association and superintendents. The issue will be paying tuition to faith-based independent schools, in compliance with a Supreme Court decision last June that forbade discriminating against those schools.

Their ally the American Civil Liberties Union has recommended the simplest solution: terminate all tuition payments to all independent schools. What the union and its allies will decide to demand is not yet clear, but it may well put parental choice on the road to extinction, or force independent schools to yield their independence to become “public” bodies, which is the same thing.

The Vermont Labor Council AFL-CIO has already come in with its long-yearned for bill (S.12) to ban the secret ballot in union representation elections. It’s called “card check”. If the union can pressure fifty percent plus one of the employees in the bargaining group to sign cards approving the union representation, the deal is done.

The last time this issue came up, in 2007, I noted that “as recently as 2001 then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, true to a century of Labor doctrine, wrote ‘we feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose.’”  But that was then, and intimidation is back in style.

Finally, Michael Bloomberg-funded Gun Sense Vermont, a favorite ally of Sen. Baruth, will work with him to repeal the Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights, the 1988 law that prevents local municipalities from enacting their own (constitutionally questionable) gun control laws.

Democratic Governor Madeleine Kunin and her Lt. Governor Howard Dean strongly supported that act, which passed the House 135-2 and the Senate on a voice vote. But that was then, before progressivism captured the imagination of a majority of Vermont Democrats.

There are seven issues high on the Democratic policy agenda. There are others.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen institute


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