“Common property” constitutional amendment dead for this year

By Guy Page

April 28, 2020 – PR9, the proposed amendment to the Vermont Constitution declaring natural resources “the common property of all the people,” will not be taken up this year, lead sponsor Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said yesterday.

In response to a Vermont Daily inquiry about the status of energy and environmental legislation sent to the Senate by the House before the pandemic recess in March, Bray answered, “I can say, with regret, that the Constitutional amendment will not be taken up. I am sure we don’t have enough time for that work, which, by virtue of its very nature, requires the greatest diligence of all — i.e. the careful amending our legal foundation, a/k/a the Vermont Constitution.” 

Sen. Chris Bray (D-Addison)

PR9 would enshrine in the Vermont Constitution the “right to clean air and water and the preservation of the natural, scenic, and cultural values of the environment. The State of Vermont’s natural resources are the common property of all the people. The State shall conserve and maintain the natural resources of Vermont for the benefit of all people.”

PR9 is co-sponsored by Sens. Rebecca Balint, Philip Baruth, Brian Campion, Alison Clarkson, Ruth Hardy, Cheryl Hooker, Deborah Ingram, Virginia Lyons, Richard McCormack, Corey Parent, Christopher Pearson, Andrew Perchlik, Anthony Pollina and John Rodgers. It was introduced Feb. 14.

Critics of PR9 say the language about “common property of all the people” impinges on constitutional protection of the right of private property. 

As for if/when the Senate takes up other energy/environmental legislation, including Act 250 reform and the Global Warming Solutions Act, “I will be better able to answer your good questions in about a week,” Bray said. “For the time being, we are still focusing (as a Senate and General Assembly) on COVID-based emergency bills. We will get some time to do non-COVID work in the coming weeks, but I don’t yet know how much time. As always, we will have to prioritize and limit what we can take on with appropriate due diligence. Once I know the amount of time and once the committee makes choices based on that amount of time, then I can provide more solid answers.” 

Severe revenue shortfalls must be faced

Apart from emergency bills, the Legislature is faced with adjusting the current (2020) budget in the face of expected revenue shortfalls of just under $200 million. Once that herculean task has been completed, it must prepare a 2021 budget. The only thing known about the 2021 revenue is that it will be way, way down. Lawmakers are considering approving by the end of June the spending for July, August and September, taking a break, and then returning in August or September. 

By then, it is hoped that revenue will be well-enough understood for the Legislature to allocate spending for the final nine months of the 2021 fiscal year. 

“Everything really depends on whether we can use COVID $$ for revenue replacement,” House Appropriations Committee member Dave Yacavone (D-Morrisville) told Vermont Daily. “If not, things could get very ugly.”

Legislature passes emergency-related bills

The Legislature during the last week approved and sent to the governor these SOE-related bills:

S.340, FY 2020 interfund borrowing authority. This bill allows Treasurer Beth Pearce to borrow from state funds 45 days before and after July 1 to pay the state’s bills, provided the money is repaid within that timeframe at appropriate interest. It’s a financial flexibility bill that doesn’t raise additional funds.

S.341, disclosure of tax information to facilitate the provision of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. This bill allows the Tax Department to tell the Department of Labor the earnings of applicants for pandemic-related financial assistance.

S.114, emergency judicial response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. This bill during the SOE gives judges discretion about requiring rent payments, suspends time frames for judicial hearings, allows defendants to appear by video, accommodates the new normal for deed registration and notarization, and grants an additional 60 days after the SOE expires to statute of limitations for civil action.

S.316, execution of wills during an emergency, waives for the SOE the legal requirement for a will’s author to be physically present when the will is signed by witnesses.

Meanwhile, Wednesday’s House calendar brings up for review two Covid-19 bills approved by the Senate:

S. 333, establishing a moratorium on home ejectment and foreclosure actions during the COVID-19 emergency.

S. 182, suspends the need for the credentialing process of emergency medical services workers during the SOE.