As we approach the end of the 2016 session, the legislature is wrapping up its work on a few major pieces of legislation that may - or may not - come up for a vote this year. The FY17 state budget and associated tax legislation are considered "must pass" bills, passage of which typically punctuate the end of the session; but a few other high profile bills are very much on the front burner at the moment. They include marijuana legalization, energy siting legislation, and a bill that seeks to clarify the distinction between independent contractors and employees.
I appreciate the many emails and calls I have received about marijuana legalization. If you have any thoughts that you have not already shared with me, I would appreciate hearing them. At this point, it is very difficult to predict exactly what the final marijuana legalization bill might look like, if and when it ever comes up for a vote in the House. It has already taken several twists and turns - the Senate passed a bill that would establish a heavily regulated marketplace for legal marijuana, the House Judiciary Committee stripped legalization from the bill, and now the House Ways & Means Committee is recommending a system that would permit people to grow up two marijuana plants, under license, for their own personal use.
At this point, I expect one of two things to happen with the marijuana legislation: either the bill dies during review in another House committee or a placeholder bill will pass the House, where it will be substantially re-written in a committee of conference (a process where the House and Senate negotiate a compromise position) and sent back to the House and Senate for a simple up or down vote.
The other hot button issue of this legislative session — energy siting — is also picking up considerable attention in the House. Siting of energy projects has become an increasingly contentious issue over the past few years, driven by a proliferation of commercial photovoltaic systems throughout the state, and a number of proposals for large scale wind development. Many local communities have struggled to make their voice heard in regulatory proceedings before the Public Service Board, which is responsible for permitting these projects, and momentum has been building for improvements to the regulatory approval process.
The Senate recently passed a bill (S230) that aims to resolve some of these concerns; the bill is now before the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee (which I serve on). We have been working on some adjustments to S230, with the goal of establishing an (optional) enhanced level of energy planning that local communities can incorporate into their municipal and regional plans. The concept is that those communities that invest in this enhanced level of energy planning would be given substantial deference before the Public Service Board (more specifically the local plan would be given substantial deference). Currently, a municipal plan is only given "consideration" in these proceedings. At this point, I do expect that an amended version of S230 will come before the House for a vote.
The third major bill up in the air is the H867, which attempts to create greater clarity with how independent contractors and employees are classified. I provided an overview of this bill in my last legislative update, but even though the bill was originally voted out of committee unanimously, action on the House floor was delayed several times, and was ultimately sent back to committee. Much as been written about this bill in the press, and there is plenty of speculation about why the bill has stalled, but it is no secret that there has been considerable pressure from large unions to kill this bill.
It is unfortunate that those who stand in the way of progress are looking at this issue through a very narrow lens of a more traditional economy. But many of the fastest growing sectors in Vermont are in the so-called "new economy." Think of graphic designers, artists, software developers, IT consultants, project managers, and engineers. Thanks to the Internet, many professionals are able to settle in Vermont, and work remotely on contract for clients all over the world. H867, as written, would provide legitimacy to the independent contractor status that many of these folks work under. Current law is ambiguous, confusing, and difficult for employers, employees, and independent contractors to interpret.
I think that the House Commerce and Economic Development committee developed a good bill, that struck appropriate balance, while creating much greater certainty for businesses, employees, and independent contractors who work in Vermont. While I am disappointed that the bill has not had an opportunity to come up for a vote, I applaud the efforts of the House Commerce and Economic Development committee, as it continues to seek compromise that might ultimately allow for passage of a meaningful bill. Drawing from my professional experience in the technology industry, and feedback I have received from folks in our community, I have offered a few different ideas to help move this bill forward. At this point, I still think there is a chance for this bill to pass, but the odds are long.
If you have feedback or comments on these bills (or any other legislation), please drop me a line. And as always, feel free to reach out to me if you need assistance or have questions.
Oliver Olsen is a staterepresentative to the Legislature from the district which includes Jamaica, Stratton, Winhall, Londonderry and Weston.