MONTPELIER — While Gov. Phil Scott signed eight bills into law late Tuesday, including a landmark child care initiative and drug possession legislation addiction treatment advocates say will save lives, it was the two bills he vetoed that had everyone’s attention at the State House on Wednesday morning.
The vetoes, affecting bills amending the city charters of Winooski and Montpelier, were widely criticized by lawmakers who felt the rejection ran counter to communities’ rights to set laws and regulations as they see fit, and a departure from past practice on charter revisions.
Voters in Montpelier (H. 177) and Winooski (H. 227) had approved amendments to allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
An override session, which had already been planned to address the governor’s veto of a bill preventing the release of juvenile criminal records up to age 20, is set to begin June 23.
In the process, Scott set the record for vetoes by a single Vermont governor. He was previously tied at 21 vetoes with former Gov. Howard Dean, who set that mark over 12 years in office. Scott is in his fifth year as governor.
Scott said although the bills were well-intentioned, allowing for a town by town approach to non-citizen voting “creates inconsistency in election policy, as well as separate and unequal classes of residents potentially eligible to vote on local issues.”
“I believe it is the role of the Legislature to establish clarity and consistency on this matter,” Scott said. “This should include defining how municipalities determine which legal residents may vote on local issues, as well as specifying the local matters they may vote on.”
Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, attending a news conference of Senate committee chairs in Montpelier on Wednesday, said local charter changes are usually approved by the governor.
“I feel this is a statement that he’s making. I don’t agree with the statement that he’s making,” Balint said. “I believe residents from these towns can decide how they want residents in their town to have their voices heard.
“These bills were important to many Vermonters from those communities,” Balint said. “If we truly believe in local control, members of these communities can say who they believe should have a say in local elections.”
Apart from the vetoes, Scott signed H. 171, which expands financial aid eligibility for child care and studies whether the state can further expand benefits and improve child care worker salaries; and H. 225, which decriminalizes possession of therapeutic amounts of buprenorphine.
The drug is used in medical assisted treatment for people fighting addiction to opioids such as heroin, and some people buy the drug on the street instead of going through the medical establishment. Advocates say it’s a necessary tool for people for whom the “hub and spoke” system of treatment is not practical or readily available.
Scott said he’s concerned about the lack of data on the use of buprenorphine and its effectiveness. He’s also concerned that it might prove counterproductive to the state’s hub and spoke system.
Brenda Siegel of Newfane, a 2020 candidate for lieutenant governor and advocate for wider access to drug treatment, said there have been peer-reviewed studies of the drug’s use in treatment. “I also remain concerned that we are not appropriately addressing the gaps in the hub and spoke model,” she said.
But Scott, despite his misgivings, also said addiction remains a chronic illness with devastating impacts on individuals, their families, and communities — factors leading him to sign.
“I signed this bill because it is well-intentioned and offers another potential approach to reduce the impacts of substance use disorder,” Scott said. He also said the addition of a July 1, 2023 “sunset date” will allow lawmakers to determine if the strategy is working,
Scott’s approval came with an executive order establishing a task force to collect data on buprenorphine-assisted treatment.
“This is a major win for harm reduction in Vermont and an example to the rest of the country on how we center science, data and lived experience experts in drug policy,” Siegel said. “It is long past time to extract the criminal justice system from this disease.”
The child care bill, an area of policy agreement for the Legislature and Scott, expands eligibility for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program and simplifies tuition by charging per family rather than per child. It makes scholarships and loan forgiveness available to early child care workers and pays for an upgrade to the information technology system needed to make make the changes work.
“We know there is still more to do, so I look forward to continuing to work with our partners to ensure every child and family has access to high quality and affordable childcare,” Scott said.
Aly Richards, the CEO of the advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids, said the COVID-19 pandemic focused attention on the need for affordable child care and better pay for early educators.
“In addition to making $12.7 million in investments to address the child care crisis right now, H.171 commits Vermont policymakers to doing the hard work of identifying a stable, long-term funding source that will support an equitable, high-quality, affordable early childhood education system for generations to come,” Richards said.
Other bills signed into law included H. 438, the capital bonding bill; H. 430, which expands eligibility for “Dr. Dynasaur” health coverage for all income-eligible children and pregnant individuals regardless of immigration status; H, 434, which establishes the Agricultural Innovation Board; and amendments to the town charters of Williston and Underhill.