Statehouse showdown expected as paid family leave, child care bills advance
MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont House on Friday voted to send a sweeping universal paid family and medical leave plan to the Senate. And the Senate sent their major child care bill on to the House. With the legislative session now entering the halfway mark, there are major questions about whether Democrats will be able to advance both priorities in the coming days.
After hours of debate Friday, Vermont House lawmakers gave the thumbs up to a longstanding Democratic priority -- universal paid family and medical leave. “Vermonters can trust that we’re going to look out for them,” said Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro.
The $117 million plan provides up to 12 weeks of leave for workers and is funded by a half-percent payroll tax.
Meanwhile, the Senate advanced its own expansion of the social safety net in the form of sweeping subsidies for child care which includes provisions creating only paid parental leave only. “Two very big programs starting at the same time from the beginning has seemed impractical to us,” said Senate President Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden County.
As the chambers swap bills, political observers say the final two months of the session will be dynamic. “This is the most interesting traffic jam of policy differences I’ve seen in many years,” said Kevin Ellis, a longtime lobbyist and Statehouse insider. He says the priorities and political style of the new Democratic majorities in both chambers are headed for a showdown.
Meanwhile, Republican Governor Phil Scott, who won election last fall by his largest margin yet, has proposed a voluntary paid leave plan that does not come with new taxes.
“You’ve got a House that wants to do it all and a more moderate Senate that’s eyeing the governor and a possible veto,” Ellis said. And raising questions if there’s enough air in the room for both chambers’ priorities.
“I think Vermonters need us to find enough oxygen in the room and are asking us to make both a priority this year,” Kornheiser said.
It’s not the first time big priorities of the majority party have wrangled for the spotlight. In 2019, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Tim Ashe failed to come to an agreement on a minimum wage hike and paid family leave and both chambers left empty-handed.
Baruth says he wants to work with the House. “We’re hopeful that will indicate a path forward for the two chambers. But we’re going to listen and look at their bills carefully, give them due diligence and see where we land,” he said.
Ellis agrees and says despite the competing bills, leadership in both chambers will likely iron out their differences before the end of the session.
Meanwhile, House lawmakers on Friday also advanced universal school meals, sports betting, and a proposal that would conserve 30% of Vermont land by 2030, and 50% by 2050.
In the Senate, lawmakers approved eliminating cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses.
One bill that didn’t make it across the finish line included changes to the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive program, which offers economic incentives for business recruitment, growth, and expansion. Lawmakers have been working on changes to VEGI to make it more transparent after a scathing state auditor’s report. As of now, it’s set to expire at the end of the year.
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