Flooding loomed large over the Vermont Legislature's first day of the 2024 session
Lawmakers convened in Montpelier Wednesday for the start of the 2024 legislative session, and flooding was front and center on all sides of the aisle.
Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth, a Democrat from Chittenden County, says helping communities both recover and be safer from future floods will be a priority in every committee.
Baruth says the state also faces a challenging budget year.
"Our range of choices are going to be a little narrower this year than they were last year, and yet we're going to have to think bigger about how to avoid and mitigate climate change and flooding," he says. "We're going to have to dig deeper."
Flooding in 2023 caused enormous financial damage. And Republican Gov. Phil Scott says shrinking revenues will limit the state’s ability to provide aid to flood survivors.
But a broad coalition of Vermont lawmakers says state government needs to play a bigger role in addressing unmet flood recovery needs.
“My community, Barre City, must be made whole," says Rep. Jonathan Williams, a Democrat, on Wednesday. "But the burden of recovery should not and must not fall on the shoulders of Barre residents alone."
Katie Swick hasn’t been able to live in her Montpelier home since her first floor took on 3 feet of floodwaters in July. The single mom and public school teacher says flood insurance and FEMA assistance haven’t come close to covering the cost of repairs.
“And I’m losing hope and wondering what’s going to happen to where I’m going to be living — my home, where am I going to be?” she says.
A bill introduced on the first day of the 2024 legislative session calls for $85.5 million in state funding to help homeowners like Swick.
The legislation would also provide direct aid to landlords as well as municipalities, and create a new grant program for flood-damaged businesses.
Essex County Republican Sen. Russ Ingalls says affordability, crime and housing are the big issues this year for his district. But flooding is also top of mind.
"We're going to be looking at flood mitigation to find out where the monies are going to come from to fix the damage that's been caused, and try to make sure that whatever we repair, we fix it so that it's going to be more resilient to any future floodings," Ingalls says.
He says that there are important lessons to be learned about what worked after Tropical Storm Irene.
Human-caused climate change is making Vermont warmer and wetter. That's bringing more extreme rain to the state.
Baruth, the Senate Pro Tem, says updating Vermont's electricity regulations — with an eye toward climate change mitigation — will be a major issue for Democrats in both chambers. He says a bill will start in the House.
"And that's key to — again, going back to the flooding — doing whatever we can to lower emissions and try to, kind of, if not stop global warming, then slow it," Baruth says.
He applauded work done by lawmakers and stakeholders before the session to design a policy that pushes many of the state's utilities to get 100% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2030, with more of that power coming from new renewables in New England.
Baruth says public safety concerns, affordable housing and Act 250 reform are also key issues for the Senate to consider this session.
Budget and taxes
Republican leaders stress that money is tight and are urging lawmakers to meet many of these challenges by using existing financial resources and not by raising taxes.
Vermont lawmakers are working to address concerns over the state’s estimated property tax increase of more than 18%. The increase is driven largely by a jump in education spending.
Sen. Randy Brock, a Republican from St. Albans, serves on the Senate Finance Committee. And Brock told Vermont Edition on Wednesday that balancing this year's budget is going to be tough.
"We're going to have to make some sacrifices, and we're gonna have to make some decisions that perhaps we don't necessarily like and others don't," he said.
Democratic Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, who chairs the House Committee on Ways and Means, agreed. She said while the majority of Vermonters pay their property taxes based on their income and not the value of their property, a projected 18% increase is too high.
Family and medical leave
Leaders of Vermont’s Democratic party disagree on whether paid family and medical leave should become one of their major issues.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski, a Democrat, told Vermont Edition on Wednesday that she wants to find a way to make at least some parts of paid leave happen.
But when Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth was asked the same question, he said that would be up to the House.
"It's not for the Senate. It is for the House, and the Speaker has every right to, you know, to argue for her priorities," he said. "But what I would say is last year, the discussion was: Could we afford to do a historic child care bill and paid family leave at the same time? And the Senate's answer was, unfortunately not."
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill to infuse millions of dollars into Vermont’s overburdened child care sector.
Some advocates say a paid family and medical leave policy could further reduce strain on child care.
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