BRATTLEBORO — The Legislature returns to Montpelier this week to see if it can override Gov. Phil Scott's veto of the budget and take care of a few other pressing concerns.
Meanwhile, two of Windham County's legislative leaders are celebrating remarkable victories.
In her first year as chair of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, managed to create, negotiate, and pass, in conjunction with the Senate, the $850 million Transportation Bill that the governor signed into law on June 12.
“This year's T-Bill is the largest ever, making significant investments in Vermont's infrastructure,” Scott said when he signed it.
“It includes over $140 million for paving projects, covering more than 450 miles of improvements; $18.2 million for bicycle, pedestrian, and transportation alternatives program funding, going to 55 construction projects and the design of 37 additional projects across 77 Vermont communities; historic funding at $48.8 million for public transit; and $43 million in rail projects,” the governor said.
“It also takes important steps to reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector by investing $27.9 million across multiple efforts, including expanding EV charging,” Scott added.
The governor credited Coffey and other leaders for their input.
“I want to thank members of the transportation committees, especially committee chairs Sen. [Richard] Mazza and Rep. Coffey, for their collaboration with my Administration on many initiatives,” Scott said. “The investments made in this bill will benefit Vermonters for years to come.”
Coffey said that in the end, it is all about collaboration.
“The House Transportation Committee did a lot of work to improve upon the initial transportation bill and budget proposed by the governor,” Coffey said. “We took testimony from over 100 witnesses to ensure that the $850 million budget would go toward creating more bike-able and walkable communities, maintaining and building bridges, roadways, and public transit in communities across Vermont, and make important progress in our commitment to addressing climate change in the transportation sector.”
The Legislature has been working for several years to come up with a 21st-century transportation system that is clean, accessible, and affordable, Coffey said, especially in light of the fact that public transportation is spotty throughout the state and most people must depend on cars for transportation.
Repairs to roads and bridges are an expensive but absolutely needed priority.
“This year's transportation bill made significant investments in our roads, bridges, and rail infrastructure,” Coffey said.
The climate change–inspired initiatives come from the realization that over 40% of Vermont's carbon emissions come from transportation - especially car and truck emissions.
“The bill also included policies and investments to help us reduce greenhouse gas emissions by helping Vermonters transition to more-fuel-efficient vehicles, and supports public transportation and infrastructure that facilitates walking, biking, and public transit options in communities throughout the state,” Coffey said.
The Legislature especially emphasized the need to require the state's work on the Vermont Climate Action Plan to engage the Vermont Climate Council and to include recommendations on future funding for climate initiatives in the transportation sector.
Working closely with the Senate and the Agency of Transportation, other specific highlights of the bill are:
• Spending that includes $95.8 million for town highway programs, $107.7 million for interstate and state highway bridges, and $27.9 million for environmental policy and sustainability.
• Authorizing work to begin the planning of a program to assess a mileage-based user fee for battery electric vehicles. The design and fees for this program will come back to the Legislature in January 2024 and will need to be approved by the full body with a potential launch in 2026 and with the 15% adoption of electric vehicles (as recommended in the Climate Action Plan).
• Updating the state's Complete Streets policies - design standards that incorporate the needs of bicycle users and pedestrians along with the needs of drivers of motor vehicles in road construction projects - and providing training on these policies to municipalities.
Hungry kids can't learn
Meanwhile, another legislator, first-term Sen. Nadir Hashim, D-Windham, managed to see a project dear to his heart - free school meals - become law.
Since 2020, school meals in Vermont have been universally free for students in a program initially subsidized by federal pandemic relief funds. Those funds are no longer available.
For Hashim, who serves on the Senate Committee for Education, continuing the program was a top priority.
“After I met with students last summer and saw the wide range of positive effects on academics and mental health, I knew this was something that needed to continue,” Hashim said. “When kids' basic needs are met, they're much more likely to excel.”
For Hashim, “one of my priorities should be to ensure, at a minimum, that people have their basic needs met. It's also a great benefit for our local farmers who can contract with schools and develop an additional reliable income stream.”
The governor let the bill (H.165) pass into law without his signature.
“Vermonters have made their ongoing concerns about the affordability of our state abundantly clear,” Scott said. “With H.165, the Legislature has added $20-30 million in property tax pressure to pay for school meals for all students, including those from affluent families. This will be paid for by all Vermonters, including those with low incomes. That's not progressive education funding policy, it's regressive policy that hurts the very families we are trying to help.”
In reality, however, Scott said that if he vetoed the bill, it would be overridden and “further distract us from the work we should be prioritizing for our kids, like reversing pandemic learning loss, addressing declining math and reading scores, addressing youth mental health challenges (which inhibit learning), and more.”
He also asked the Legislature to “rethink this sincere but regressive policy.”
Hashim was not happy with Scott's reaction.
“I was quite disappointed to see the governor refer to providing students with free school meals as a 'regressive policy,'” Hashim told The Commons. “Ironically, he listed pandemic learning loss, declining test scores, and mental health challenges as where the general assembly should be prioritizing its work.
“However, when kids come to school hungry, with no assurance that there will be a meal at home, you could easily conclude that test scores will decline and there will be mental health challenges,” Hashim continued.
“I don't base this off speculation, I base this off what students, teachers, and faculty have told me and testified to in the education committee,” he said.
He added that lawmakers are capable of working on multiple issues at a time.
“So passing universal school meals does not preclude us from also working on other intersecting issues in the education sector,” Hashim said.