Meet Sarah Buxton

Calendar of Events

Wed, March 20, 6:30-8pm
Community Input Session (hosted by SoRo School Board & Administration), South Royalton High School
Tuesday, March 19
Pastor Deadra Ashton leads daily devotions, Vermont State House; Senate: 9:30am; House 10:00am
Friday, March 22, 6pm
Community Dinner, Red Door Church, South Royalton
Wed, March 27, 1pm
Pastor Brad Keller leads daily devotions, Vermont State House, House Chamber

Buxton Banner – Town Meeting 2013

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Buxton Banner – Town Meeting 2013, p. 2

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Buxton Banner – Town Meeting 2013, p. 3

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Buxton Banner – Town Meeting 2013, p. 5

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Buxton Banner – Town Meeting 2013, p. 4

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Legislative Update #3

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Dear constituents, 

The last two weeks have flown by! Committees are working hard with an eye on “the clock” already. March 15th is the crossover deadline this year. “Crossover” means that bills that have a chance of making it into law this year must have passed from one body (House) into the other (Senate) by that date. Some exceptions to the rule exist, but that’s it in a nutshell. 

Anxiety surrounding the budget and taxes is palpable. Veteran legislators (from both parties) are remarking that this is the hardest year they can recall for making cuts and considering revenue. After four years of conservative budgets, there isn’t much left to cut. All government programs are receiving a thorough review to determine their efficiency and efficacy. I’ve pasted an interesting op-ed on the issue, written by one of my colleagues, at the end of this email. 

As of this week, with nearly 90% of schools reporting their proposed budgets, it looks like state education spending is up $73 million, or 5.8%. You have probably heard that the legislature is looking to raise the education portion of the property tax $.05. It’s important that voters understand that the legislature’s vote to increase the property tax is not a discretionary one. The increase is SOLEY linked to what voters approve in their school budgets on Town Meeting day. We have a long tradition of local control, and this is where the rubber meets the road. If Vermonters vote in an additional $73 million in education spending, the legislature adjusts the tax rate in order to meet our commitment to fund local school. (If the legislature does nothing, the tax rate revert back to $1.10 rather than the proposed $0.94.)

Last week, a Burlington republican (Kurt Wright) and I cosponsored a bill that seeks to stop the “revolving door” in the executive branch. It was, largely, in response to the recent employment of Karen Marshall (former chief of ConnectVT) with VTel just days after she participated in the Vermont Telecommunications Authority decision to award VTel a $5 million grant. Here’s a link to the story: http://vtdigger.org/2013/02/12/lawmakers-seek-to-shut-revolving-door-between-state-and-private-sector/ We had 77 co-sponsors. 

A few other big stories this week… The Senate passed the Death with Dignity bill in a drastically different form then was introduced. After 6 years of public debate on the bill, the House will now review the “new” version. I don’t expect we will vote on this before town meeting day. I’m currently leaning toward supporting the bill, based on the 75% favorability voiced by your responses to my survey last fall. I can’t fully commit until I study the new version and hear what the committees of jurisdiction report. Here’s the bill as it passed the Senate: S.77

More buzz surrounds the proposal to tax sugar sweetened beverages. You can read about it here: http://vtdigger.org/2013/02/14/coalition-says-sugary-beverage-tax-would-hurt-small-stores/ I’m opposed to this effort because I think it will hurt small convenience stores, drive consumers to NH (again), and will do little to curb obesity and consumer behavior. I also think it’s a regressive tax, that hurts low income people the most.  

I am the lead sponsor of a comprehensive pre-k bill that would expand access, clarify oversight, and create a simplified payment system throughout the state. Over the last decade, advances in neuroscience have confirmed that a child’s brain develops critical cognitive functions between birth and 5 years old. Research is conclusive about the value of providing children with age-appropriate educational instruction during this time. National studies and Vermont experience support our efforts to provide more children with early education because of cost savings over time (remediation, special education, etc.) and because the current inequity in access to pre-k offends our social contract with all of Vermont’s children to ensure they are college and career ready by adulthood. 

In short, the current bill under consideration in my committee (H.270 ), requires that school districts pay for up to 10 hours/week of high-quality prekindergarten education for 3 and 4 year olds. Parents are not required to enroll their child and school districts are not required to establish new programs. Parents may choose to enroll their child in either a public or private program, so long as it meets the quality criteria (STARS) established by DCF and AOE. Finally, children will not be required to attend a program in their district – and important consideration since many parents work far away from their home district and the lack of available “slots” in some regions is quite troublesome. 

A statewide tuition rate, subject to regional adjustments, will be established to aid programs, parents, and school districts in predicting costs and revenue. When school districts fund a pre-k student, they may include an additional .5 FTE (full time equivalent) student in their ADM (average daily membership). In most cases, adding to a school’s ADM will decrease the tax rate. (Note:  The education tax rate is anything but simple! Many other factors could influence the equation and prove the preceding statement to be wrong.) 

This bill takes the first step in strengthening the state’s commitment to early childhood education. It respects the valuable role that private providers play in creating high-quality, accessible education and establishes a simplified payment and oversight process. The committee has made our work on this bill a top priority for the next few weeks.  

I know the rest of this email might seems long. Feel free to scroll around to the topics that interest you.

As always, please help me grow my email list by forwarding this to a friend or sending me an email asking to be put on the list! Thanks.

Sarah

General, Housing & Military Affairs

General, Housing & Military Affairs spent a portion of the last two weeks preparing for the interviews for the position of the Adjutant General.  Michael Hoyt from Legislative Council gave a statutory overview that provided a firm understanding of the role and requirements for the Adjutant General. The committee formulated precise questions for the candidate interviews in the House Chamber on Thursday night.  The hearing offered good information regarding all four candidates seeking the position of adjutant general.  The election will take place in a joint session of the House and Senate on Thursday, February 21st at 10:30 am.

The committee heard extensive testimony on H.99, an act related to equal pay.  The bill has three major sections: it strengthens the equal pay provisions in current law; establishes a right for employees to request flexible working arrangements and a duty for employers to consider them; and forms a commission to study paid family leave.  The committee heard testimony from the Human Rights Commission, commissioners for labor and human resources, law professors, business entities, labor, and many other stakeholders.  We were privileged to hear testimony from former Vermont Governor, Madeleine Kunin, who is always a champion of women’s rights.  The bill passed out of committee and is now in House Judiciary.  

Human Services 

The House Committee on Human Services is continuing to take testimony regarding the Governor’s budget recommendations. Testimony this week focused on the changes to Reach Up and Developmental Services.

The committee heard from the administration that caps on the amount of time a family can be in Reach Up are necessary to get some participants to move from the program to employment. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan research and policy institute based in Washington D.C., advised us that the potential unintended consequences of instituting caps as proposed could cost us more in future budget years than the savings we gain in FY 14.  In Washington State, such a policy led to increased homelessness and increased out of home placements of children. She also indicated that loss of income for a family results in significantly poorer outcomes for children, both short term and longer term. We heard from several Reach Up participants who are concerned with how the proposed changes would affect their households and specifically their children.

The HHS committee began taking testimony on the Developmental Services budget. The Administration outlined its budget recommend, and the committee heard from several advocates in the developmental disability community. The committee has come to no decisions regarding Reach Up or Developmental Services yet. 

House Institutions and Corrections

The Institutions and Corrections Committee has been, almost exclusively, focused on Institutions as it dives deep into the Capital Bill and figures out how to manage needs substantially in excess of the $153,160,000 recommended debt authorization.

Even without the demands of the reconstruction of the Waterbury State Complex–which is estimated to be $124,655,000–there are enormous pressures on the Capital Bill.  The $43 million price tag on the facilities required for the reconfigured and reconstructed mental health system of care, the $30 million replacement of the 50+ year old health department lab, the $5.5 million continuation of  public safety barrack improvements and almost $8 million for substantial work on the courthouse in Lamoille County, are just part of the overall picture.  And then there is another $30+ million for our ongoing obligations to school construction, wastewater treatment, clean water, building maintenance, etc.

The particular challenge the committee has is making decisions without final figures on funds from either insurance proceeds or FEMA for the storm damage in the Waterbury Complex.  The only certainty is that we won’t get this information for a while and the funds will not be enough to cover the gap we are facing.  The committee has more or less completed testimony and will begin the process of constructing the bill next week.  

 The one non-capital bill item they  have recently taken up is H.76, an act relating to preservation of the Vermont State Hospital cemetery. There is  concern that with reconstruction of the Waterbury Complex and the move of the state hospital from the complex that the cemetery and all it represents not be lost–either figuratively or literally.  The committee learned that this cemetery, which is about two miles from the core of the complex, is now part of the Putnam State Forest.  It has a marker and has been quietly and respectfully maintained by the Department of Forests and Parks–as they do for all such sites within their jurisdiction. 

Ways & Means

First, a thing about fees:  Fees and taxes, while both bring revenue to the state, are quite different.  A fee funds the activity it is related to – it is directly and specifically linked to funding a service.  For example:  Dept. of Motor Vehicles or Fish & Wildlife are almost exclusively funded by fees.  But as the committee reports, every department and the Judiciary have their share of fees. 

A tax is designed to raise general funds to support services and programs for the common good.  We raise a tax, as our Vermont Constitution says, when it “ought to appear evident to the Legislature to be of more service to community than the money would be if not collected”.  No matter the Governor, the administration loves to blur the line between fees and taxes.  It is our job to hold the line. 

This week, the House passed the Fee Bill unanimously.  Each year, the fee bill addresses particular parts of government and this year, it addresses fees in agriculture, professional licensing, corporate and business regulation, current use, crime victim services and restitution, liquor control, and workers compensation. Overall, most fees are going into existing special funds and the committee is proposing a slight reduction in liquor fees from what was brought to us by the Department of Liquor Control.

There was a controversial component that would levy a small fee on hobby and commercial apiaries to pay for the State Apiarist, who travels across the state providing technical support and inspection to reduce the spread of disease. While it was clear the protection of the honeybee population presents value to our apiaries and overall agricultural base, the fee was pulled so the Bee Keepers Association, Agency of Agriculture, and others can work on coming to agreement to fund this important service, with intent to return with a proposal in the future.

There was also considerable concern over a proposal to raise the tobacco and second class liquor license fee on ‘mom and pop’ stores from $100 to $260. This was reduced to an increase of $30, going from $100 to $130. 

Appropriations

Last week was Human Services week in Appropriations, beginning Monday afternoon with Secretary Doug Racine giving  an overview of his Agency. This budget contains the two most controversial proposals in the Governor’s budget, the decreased time that one can stay on General Assistance and the increase in child care slots to be paid for with a decrease in Vermont’s Earned Income Tax Credit.  More on these in a minute.

The total Human Services budget, including revenues from all sources, is proposed to be $3.4 Billion, of which the Administration is requesting $596.2 million in State Funds, representing 43.3% of the General Fund budget.  The requested increase in the GF budget is remarkably small at just $1.6 million for approximately three tenth of one percent increase, excluding the new expenditures for childcare, proposed to increase by $16.7 million.

The week continued with each of the Department Commissioners coming to committee, most of them for at least a half a day each.  Some will be returning for a encore presentation as the amount of information presented and follow-up questions from Committee members was extensive — Appropriation committee members are a nosey bunch.

AHS department budget submissions included increasingly sophisticated presentations of data, shown not just in narrative but in charts and graphs that measure the results of their efforts, showing how those efforts circled back to their goals.  It is our hope that this process will evolve into the ability to determine funding priorities, to make real informed choices about how to spend taxpayer’s money.  Two Departments, Corrections and the Department of Health, did an exceptionally good job, and we invite those of you who are interested in seeing what Results Based Accountability looks like to come to room 42 for a look at those budget submissions. 

 The Commissioner of Children and Families, David Yacovone, walked  through the Administration’s controversial proposals for limiting the time clients can stay on Reach Up (Vermont’s name for the General Assistance program know Federally as TANIF) and the increase in subsidized child care slots, funded by a decrease in the Earned Income Tax Credit, and helped us understand how they are linked together.  One of the greatest ingredients to holding a job for any parent is trusted childcare.  How the proposals are resolved will require the work of policy committees and the body as a whole.  

The Interim Mental Health Commissioner, Mary Moulton, gave  an update on how the new Mental Health system is evolving and the work yet to be done.  Dr. Craig Jones, Director of the Vermont Blueprint for Health; Anya Rader Wallack, Chair of the Green Mountain Care Board; Mark Larson, DVHA Commissioner also testified.  Hearing from the Departments focusing on the evolution of our Health Care system does help us to understand just how complex it is undertaking the new system, while at the same time maintaining and paying for the existing system.

 Natural Resources and Energy

The House passed  H 131, “an act relating to harvesting guidelines and procurement standards,” which sets out a process for the development of voluntary harvesting guidelines by the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation to promote forest health and sustainability. We require a public participation process in the development of those guidelines, and we repeal the requirement that those guidelines be followed for lands in the current use program. The committee voted unanimously and on a bipartisan basis to support the bill.

Last week also saw the introduction of H.216, our thermal efficiency bill. This legislation grew out of last year’s mammoth endeavor by the Thermal Efficiency Task Force to map out a way to weatherize as many Vermont homes as possible in order to meet our 2009 goal of improving 80,000 homes in the next seven years. This is a vital statewide need, as thermal efficiency will save Vermonters significant money (currently spent to heat leaky structures with fossil fuels imported from out of state). Per-household savings from retrofitting can be as much as $1,000 a year, and weatherization grows good, local jobs and slices into our greenhouse gas emissions. H. 216 suggests a long list of ways to deliver and pay for weatherization services, and it sets up “one-stop” access to efficiency knowledge and expertise. Among other things, the bill takes the first steps to labeling buildings as to their energy use, improves existing code enforcement, and encourages development of an expert workforce to meet stepped-up demand. The bill suggests using the existing gross receipts tax, which currently funds low-income weatherization, to raise more money for the same program. Bolstering low-income weatherization will in turn help us to maximize LIHEAP assistance, which currently sends money to heat low-income homes that are so leaky the dollars are effectively heating the outdoors.

The committee also plans to take up our a Vermont Yankee decommissioning bill, a statewide land-use plan, and conservation easements.

Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources

FWWR continues to investigate water quality issues, the impact of yearly million dollar flooding events and monumental billion dollar weather events such as Irene.  Past and present Irene Recovery Officers Sue Minter and David Rappaport, along with Ben Rose, from Vermont Emergency Management reported that 90% of the FEMA dollars have been collected and for this part, they were pleased and appreciative of federal response.  The remaining 10%has proven more troubling, and this was echoed by representatives from the towns of Westminster, Sharon, Mendon and Grafton.  These towns did the right thing, using river science to rebuild bridges and culverts to science-based standards, reducing the likelihood of future impact while protecting (and improving) habitat.  Due to a glitch in interpretation of state standards, FEMA is willing only to pay to bring historically failing structures back to failing standards, leaving small towns in the lurch for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The committee also  heard from Senators Leahy and Sander’s offices that the culture of Congress and the timing of Sandy undid a senate bill that would have provided more relief to Vermont as a result of Irene. 

Work completed last year in Act 138 should help set plans for future catastrophic events.  The committee continues to look at areas in the statute that will align best with FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).  We continue to look for money to do this. 

Last week FWWR took testimony on a number of issues. Two bills, H.52 and H.72, both deal with municipal plans and zoning, and the impacts on flood resiliency and flood hazard areas. Currently towns with zoning cannot enact bylaws that prohibited accessory structures (such as “mother-in-apartments”).  This proposed legislation (H.72) would allow towns to regulate or prohibit the same when part of a flood hazard area.  H.52 proposes to expand the regional commission’s directives to plan for flood resilient communities. New development will be encouraged so as to minimize flooding and fluvial erosion while protecting floodplains and upland forest areas. If infrastructure is to be built in those areas susceptible to flooding and erosion, construction methods and materials should be so as to withstand those stresses and not exacerbate the flooding. Furthermore, towns will be encouraged to develop flood resiliency plans, and possibly enact policies and strategies to protect those susceptible areas. The committee will probably combine these two bills.

Several bills involving the fish and wildlife were introduced (H.101, H.102, and H.110). These bills are partly house cleaning revisions dealing with posting interpretations, hunting by permission signs, shooting restrictions from highways and driveways, moose permits and wild hogs. Finally, a provision for a group therapeutic fishing license is proposed for groups in long time care residences.

Agriculture

House Ag continues to hear testimony about the productive and proactive investments the state has made in endeavors such as the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund; the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board; UVM Extension; Farm to Plate; and especially the Working Lands Enterprise Board. These efforts are paying dividends and proving integral to a holistic approach to economic development, land stewardship and healthier communities.

After more than a decade of deliberation and frustration, the diverse array of stakeholders in the “puppy mill”/pet merchant/dog breeder story appear to have settled upon an agreement to regulate the humane breeding and sale of dogs in Vermont, thanks in no small part to the mediation of Rep. John  Bartholomew of Hartland, himself a retired NIH veterinarian. H.50 will close the pet exemption loophole, clarifies licensing and inspection requirements, and sets expectations for animal care and inspection parameters for the business of breeding and selling dogs.

Taking up deliberation of H.112, we witnessed a presentation by Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union (Consumer Reports), of the evidence and reasoning behind efforts to require the labeling of genetically engineered foods. In the opinion of Dr. Hansen, who has spent decades working on the issue nationally and internationally, the measure would be legally defensible and scientifically justified. Inadequate regulation, imprecise science, and uncertain health effects, he testified,qualifies a legitimate state interest for enacting common sense food safety measures for the people of Vermont.

Transportation

 On Tuesday Feb.5th the House Commerce and Transportation committees visited the Jay Peak/Newport economic development expansion projects associated with the federal EB-5 funding program. (EB-5 , or the Immigrant Investor Program, is an incentive program, allowing overseas investors and their families to obtain visas to live and work in the U.S. and eventually become full citizens.) 

It is clear the role transportation infrastructure has on the area’s economic success.  They heard from developer, Bill Stenger and held a public hearing at the Career Center to listen to area citizens.  Many are preparing for the change and none more than shop owners, schools and career centers.  The committees visited the Newport airport that will be receiving a massive upgrade to accommodate the coming needs.  This $19million upgrade is coming through EB-5 funding. There is an application in process that would allow for the creation of a foreign trade zone.  Area business owns expressed the positive impacts this zone would have on their businesses and the future.  The future of the Northeast Kingdom seems bright.

VTrans directors gave the Transportation Committee a presentation on how the Agency develops a budget.  The Agency uses many of the aspects of Results Based Accountability (RBA) in producing a budget to prioritize the State’s transportation projects. 

Several members from House Transportation and Commerce committees again joined efforts on Wed. and attended the first conference on “Strengthening Vermont’s Economy by Integrating Transportation and Smart Growth Policy.”  A large cross section of stakeholders from Vermont aim to work on VTrans policies and programs that connect smart growth and that transportation.  The purpose is to strengthen the Vermont economy and support the vision of a safe, efficient and multimodal transportation system.

Commerce and Economic Development

This week, the House passed  H.51, An act relating to payment of workers’ compensation benefits by electronic payroll card. Recipients would retain the right to receive their benefits by check or, in the alternative, could request in writing that their benefits be paid by the electronic cards. Payment could safely be made directly to a debit card; however payroll cards or other electronic prepaid benefit cards must provide protection consistent with the Electronic Fund Transfer Act primarily that which limits liability to $50 when a card is lost or stolen.  The cards would only be used in remitting the regular weekly payment of benefits and would not be used for lump sum awards. This is just one more step toward getting more and more of our financial services into an electronic format. 

The House also passed H.57, a bill to create a self-employment assistance program.  Up to 35 individuals eligible for unemployment benefits would be selected and supported in efforts to develop a business plan for self employment.  During the period that individuals were eligible, they would continue to be able to file their weekly claim for their unemployment benefit. This bill helps individuals receiving unemployment to stabilize their financial situation while working to start a business.   Should the business become successful, it would not only provide an income stream for the individual, it might grow to employ others. 

 An example might be a master electrician who was laid off.  Once accepted into the program, the electrician would develop the business plan (perhaps with the aid of the Small Business Development Center [SBDC]) outlining the proposed endeavor.  This could involve such things as financial projections; identifying equity and loan needs; filing with the Secretary of State; obtaining tax IDs; learning how to manage billing, accounts receivable and accounts payable, etc. etc.  The details will be worked out by the Department of Labor with the Commissioner having the right to suspend the program with approval of the Secretary of Administration and notice to the appropriate committees.  The bill sunsets in 3 years, providing us with an opportunity for review of performance.

The intent would be to give a track to a business that would provide income and help an individual to get off unemployment to complement the existing track to a job to provide income and get off unemployment.  

Health Care Committee 

The ACA (Affordable Care Act) offers 100% federal match for states to extend Medicaid coverage up to 138% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) and as such, it presents a great opportunity for most of the United States. In Vermont, we already offer Medicaid coverage up to 185% and a subsidized Catamount health insurance product up to 300% FPL.  For Vermont, the ACA presents a retraction of Medicaid coverage. Because of this, our director of health care reform felt we had a good case for getting federal match for the money VT would need to support lower income families heading into Vermont Health Connect. When the Governor proposed the health care budget for 2013, the state subsidy for premium and out-of-pocket costs was built on an assumption that Vermont would get favorable word on federal match for the money Vermont put into both those types of state subsidy.

Last week we learned that the feds denied Vermont’s request for match for the out-of-pocket portion of our subsidy. This is a tough blow for Vermont as we face budget challenges in many areas. The committee took a straw pole early this week in favor of constraining spending to the budgeted amount proposed by the administration. We continue to look at the best models for supporting low income Vermonters heading from VHAP and Catamount into Vermont Health Connect insurance products with recognition of the limitations due to the many pressures in this years state budget.

Judiciary

The committee is continuing its work on a Good Samaritan bill that would grant limited immunity to people who try to get medical help for someone overdosing on illegal drugs.  They are also working on an omnibus bill addressing opiate, meth and prescription drug use by hearing from drug counselors, pharmacists, recovering addicts, substance abuse counselors, the Medical Society, law enforcement and others.  They held joint hearings with House Human Service Committee (HSC) as there is overlap in  jurisdiction.  Like many public health issues, there must be a comprehensive, holistic approach. 

In the area of opiates and pain the committees heard from: Cy Jordan, Medical Director, VMS Education & Research Foundation:  Safe and Effective Treatment of Chronic Pain in Vermont, Dr. Carl “Trey” Dobson, Chair of the Emergency Department, Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, Carlos Pino, M.D.Director Pain Medicine Center, Fletcher Allen Health Care Gilbert Fanciullo, MD, Director, Pain Management Center, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, Zail S. Berry, MD, Pain Medicine Specialist, Cy Jordan, Medical Director, VMS Education & Research Foundation:  Safe and Effective Treatment of Chronic Pain in Vermont.

The House passed H.41, an act related to civil forfeiture of retirement payments to public officials convicted of certain crimes. The bill stemmed from recent controversy surrounding at Vt State Police trooper who padded his timesheet and is set to still collect a higher retirement benefit based on his last 3 years of pay. 

Government Operations 

Government Operations has begun sorting out H.205 OPR (Office of Professional Regulations) Bill.  Each year various professions come forth with requests for changes or re-writes of their perspective professions.  These could be a change in fees, the number of hours of Continuing Education to meet minimum standards of competence and possibly requesting a change in the scope of practice, among other things.The following list includes the professions that are in the 2013 bill from whom we will hear testimony: dental examiners; chiropractors; professional engineers; nurses; osteopaths; pharmacists, real estate brokers and salespersons; psychologists; private investigators and security services; real estate appraisers; tattooists and body piercers and auctioneers.

The committee received the summer study report on Search and Rescue and has begun working on draft legislation.The study set forth an interim protocol until legislation is in place.  The legislation will include a Search and Rescue Coordinator and a Search and Rescue Council to provide oversight and review.

Work on H.54, an Act relating to Public Records Act Exemptions is ongoing – it is  a three-year project.  The committee has one more year to complete its charge to review the requirements of the Public Records Act and the numerous exemptions to that act in order to assure the integrity , viability, and purpose of the act.

OP ED PIECES 

The following is an article Rep. Ann Manwaring wrote for her local paper.  

To the Editor,

This session of the Vermont Legislature has for me a distinctly different flavor than others that I have been part of.  Maybe it is just because we are still in the early days and issues haven’t had a chance to settle into focused solution yet.  Maybe it is because we are once again jamming all our work into a compact session to adjourn by date certain, which we do primarily for economic reasons.  It costs about a quarter of a million dollars for every week we are in session.  While many readers think this is a good thing – we have less time to make trouble for citizens – please remember that what we do in these hallowed halls is driven by actions, wants and needs of citizens.  Not all citizens have the same wants and needs at the same time – that would be way too easy, but that is where citizens become community.  And that is where the tension between rights and elbows enters.

This year’s budget presented by the Governor on January 24 is full of issues that have no easy solutions.  Would that budgets were just a matter of math and balancing the bottom line.  But every one of the numbers in that document has every day meaning for one and all Vermonters.  Do we squeeze here to make investments there?  Whom do we squeeze, tax payers or citizens who benefit?  Where do we come down on the line between fairness and the need to sustain a vibrant economy, good health and a robust education for everyone? 

Yet here in our very Vermont public document, our annual effort to put money behind our beliefs, is a conundrum – to rob peter to pay peter.  I cannot argue with efforts to enhance early childhood supports as a growing body of research – as well as common sense – tells us that early intervention benefits not just the individual child, but we as a community as well.   By most all accounts enabling more families to afford child care for young children is a good things on so many levels.  Yet we legislators, and by extension all Vermonters, are asked to support paying for this investment in our future by curtailing yet another well regarded program that lifts families out of poverty, the earned income tax credit. 

 We are asked in this budget to recognize the unsustainable public cost to support the growing number of people qualifying for public assistance, in Vermont called Reach Up, by shortening the time frames in which this benefit is available.  Some will cheer this effort, some will rue the weakening of our safety net.  The budget does recognize the need for programs to ease the “fiscal cliff” families face when they do get a job, but one which all too frequently pays too little to allow for the essential life ingredients to hold a job, such as child care and transportation. 

This isn’t just another year of making budget by moving the chess pieces around to find bottom line balance, as we have done since the start of this recession.  I believe I am now seeing the struggle in our State budget to make the investments that will shape our future, a struggle that has no choice but to accommodate not only the sluggish revenue growth in Vermont but the uncertainty of Federal action, the prospect and reality of ever more draconian cuts in Federal supports for all kinds of programs important to life in Vermont.                      

And why have we been put in this conundrum in the first place.  Why has the collective we allowed our national politics to paint every poor person as a bad actor, a feeder at the public trough?  Why has the collective we allowed an economic system to emerge that results in an ever growing number of families who simply can’t make it despite their best efforts – where even two or thee jobs in the family won’t lift them above poverty levels?  If we continue on this path we will become a nation of a few living behind gated walls and the rest of us a swirling mass of cold, hungry people making all kinds of trouble for those behind the gates.  Whose vision of America is that? 

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Legislative Update

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Dear friends and neighbors, 

The legislature has finished its second full week. Committee assignments have been made and nearly all departments and agencies have reported to their committees of jurisdiction for an annual update and review. I am pleased to return to the House Education Committee, where I have again been appointed as clerk. 

This email is a long, I know. (I compiled the information with the help of some of my friends on other committees – another reason why Vermont’s democracy is superior to all others in practice!) Feel free to scroll around to the topics that interest you, forward to a friend, email me questions or feedback, print for a neighbor who doesn’t have email access, and help me add more people to my email list. Government works best when YOU (the citizens) know what’s happening in Montpelier before the bill is signed, so you can weigh-in. 

Before I address legislative business, I want to invite you to TWO events this week. First, a Blood Drive is happening at VLS TOMORROW (Monday) from 9:30am-4:30pm in the Chase Center. Supplies are low; your help is needed. Drop-by or schedule an appointment at www.redcrossblood.org / 1-800-REDCROSS. Second, Gov. Madeleine Kunin will be coming to the Tunbridge Library this Friday night at 7pm to talk about her recently published books, and her time in office. This event is FREE and is part of the Tunbridge Library’s Winter Evening Series. Hope to see you there! 

The Governor gave his annual state of the state address on January 9th, focusing almost exclusively on education (see here: Shumlin’s Second Inaugural Address ). This week, he outlined his 2014 budget in the annual budget address 

In addition to participating in the numerous traditions that mark the start of a biennium, the House passed its first major bill of 2013, the budget adjustment act. This important piece of legislation allows us to make “tweaks” to the 2013 budget in light of revenue and expenditure changes since last spring. This year’s bill was largely dollar-neutral (no significant additional expenditures because of offsetting savings in various programs). Details can be found here: Joint Fiscal Office – Budget Adjustment Summary.

Before I delve into detail about the work of various committees, I want to highlight a few items. First, the Senate has begun to work on the End of Life Choices bill. This Tuesday, January 29th, the Senate will host a public hearing on the bill from 5-7pm at the State House. Click here for Details about Death with Dignity Hearing. Second, I want to make you aware of another great resource – the legislative research page. Here you can find information about committee testimony, hearings, and other useful documents. Of great interest to me, in the beginning of the session, is the collection of Reports that are submitted to the legislature. (Having served on a summer study committee this year, I know how much work goes into these reports in the “off-session!”)  Finally, I want to plug my favorite news source for “all-things-happening-under-the-golden-dome.” www.vtdigger.org has thoughtful and timely reporting on the nuanced and sometimes controversial matters in Montpelier. (You might notice that Tunbridge nativeAlicia Freese is one of the new reporters!) 

Now for an overview of committee work: 

Education: The laser-like focus of Governor Shumlin’s inaugural address on education generated an enthusiastic response from the leaders of Vermont’s National Education (NEA), Superintendents (VSA), School Boards (VSBA) and Principals (VPA) Associations during testimony before the House Education Committee. Calling education the State’s “greatest economic development tool,” the Governor said his plan is about growing jobs and making sure the state has a skilled workforce to fill them. It included recommendations ranging from creating a universal early childhood education system and making free lunches available to all low-income students, to the development of Personal Learning Plans that will follow students from elementary school to high school, and the use of career and technical centers as workforce training or innovation centers. Making college more accessible and affordable also was on his priority list. In most cases, the Governor provided no details on how the initiatives would be funded. 

The NEA’s Executive Director called the amount of emphasis the Governor placed in his plan on how to make Vermont the education state “stunning,” noting that it’s the first time in his over 20-year tenure he has heard the head of the executive branch focus solely on education in an inaugural address.  The VSA’s Executive Director drew a parallel between the Governor’s call rallying the troops to give our state’s children a world-class education that will brighten Vermont’s economic future and America’s successful initiative 43 years ago to put a man on the moon.  The heads of all four associations agreed that if we are tenacious about improving our education system from pre-kindergarten to higher education and  focus our resources we WILL have a world-class education system in Vermont. 

A day after the inaugural address, at a press conference the VSA and VSBA held to announce their five-point agenda for overhauling our education system, the organization’s leaders noted that many of the priorities the Governor articulated are aligned with their key goals. Their plan included providing pre-kindergarten to all students; engaging parents more in their children’s education; attracting committed, creative teachers; changing the teacher preparation and licensure system to better meet the needs of contemporary education; and ensuring all students have access to modern technology. Some of the proposals would cost more money;  others could be implemented by changing the way current education funds are spent. 

Last week, our committee met with executive committee members of the Vermont Principals Association, including South Royalton’s vice-principal, Jeff Moreno.  Principals from across the state described the need for state investment in infrastructure and community-based health and welfare resources. One principal called attention to the shortage of mental health facilities equipped to handle the needs of elementary and high school students, describing how her elementary school “houses” a child on a waiting list for the Brattleboro Retreat in the school’s planning room during the school day. Another described the increase of students with disabilities and autism, some of whom are “acting out” and posing a danger to staff. The need to lift the moratorium on construction aid so schools can upgrade everything from roofs on the verge of collapse to safety-related infrastructure were also addressed. A principal from a district with 60% free-and-reduced-price lunch students (with a rate of child abuse that is 2.5 times the state average) described how difficult it is for children to learn when they are hungary, lack adequate physical and mental health care, and live much of their lives in fear of their own safety. This 

Several school board chairs testified before our committee this week, highlighting their optimism about the Governor’s education agenda and willingness to work with our committee to make it a priority. Similarly sentiments were echoed at Thursday’s meeting with superintendents from around the state. This week, we will be hearing from Secretary Doug Racine about expanding the free lunch program, all of the presidents of Vermont’s state colleges, the president of the Vermont Business Roundtable (about their support for new education initiatives), the Director of the Sustainable Jobs Fund, experts on technology integration and virtual learning, and the directors of early education division from the Agency of Education. On Wednesday, our committee will take a day-long field trip to visit several elementary, middle, and high schools in central Vermont. 

Appropriations: Now on to the “Big Bill,” the work that will lead to the Appropriations for all of State Government for the next Fiscal Year (FY) ’14.  If you would like to see the specifics on the Governor’s recommendations,follow this link. http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/budget_fy2014.aspx   There are lots of numbers to look at, but also you can find a good narrative of the highlights on pages 14 and 15.

 Here are just a couple of highlights that have been the subject of much speculation while awaiting the Governor’s budget address. 

  • First, no tax on home heating fuel was proposed.  Instead the expansion of thermal energy efficiency, plus new LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) base funding, plus money for the Clean Energy Development Fund are all slated to be funded by a charge on “break open” tickets.  Please see news stories for a much better description of this type of previously unregulated gaming product than can be discussed here.
  • All the pre-K – 12 education proposals the Governor talked about in his inaugural address are paid for in FY14 with General Fund dollars, not Education Fund money (which is linked to property taxes), as many had feared.
  • The budget also contains funding to ameliorate the much-reported health care cost impact on low income Vermonters moving from Vt. Health Access Program (VHAP) and Catamount into the Health Care Exchange.  VHAP is Vermont’s Medicaid program and Catamount is Vermont’s health care premium assistance program, both of which will disappear when the Exchange is implemented.
  • The changes in Human Services, including tightening up the rules for Reach Up and the change in the EITC (Earned Income Tax Credit) to fund expansion in child care services, are complex and will be the subject of discussion in several Committees. 
Ways & Means:  Ways and Means has had a fairly intense two weeks full of presentations on reports the committee asked for last session. They are beginning their work on setting the property tax rate; the Fee Bill; the Miscellaneous Tax Bill; health care financing; the sustainability of the meeting the needs in the Transportation Budget; and funding for thermal efficiency expansion. 

As you know, the Administration has proposed raising the property tax rate by five cents based on current school budget projections. The committee is exploring a number of ways to reduce that impact on taxpayers. They have begun work on the “Fee Bill,” which, this year, addresses fees in agriculture, professional licensure, corporations and business regulation, current use, crime victim services and restitution, liquor control, and labor. The Miscellaneous Tax bill includes a number of provisions the Governor proposed in his Budget Address – two prominent ones being reducing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to fund childcare and using break-open ticket revenue to fund LIHEAP, the Clean Energy Fund, and weatherization. A great deal of testimony is needed in order to better assess these proposals.

This week, a joint hearing with the House Health Care Committee was held on the Administration’s health care financing proposals for the implementation of the Exchange, as well as the current estimates of costs and savings in implementing a single payer health care system.

Here are several links you may find helpful:

1)    EITC  http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Programs/metro/EITC/states%202012/VT.pdf

2)    Thermal Efficiency Reporthttp://publicservice.vermont.gov/topics/energy_efficiency/tetf

3)    Health Care Financing Power Point: http://hcr.vermont.gov/sites/hcr/files/2013/Financing%20Plans%20PPT%20w%202017%201-25%20Final.pdf

Finally, in the last biennium, the legislature established a study committee on the Sales and Use Tax. The committee was charged with reviewing the sustainability and equity of the sales and use tax, specifically: the taxation of remotely accessed software, platform, and infrastructure services (i.e. the “cloud”); the taxation and sourcing of online sales (i.e. the “Amazon” problem); and the feasibility of more broadly taxing services.

The committee found:

  • Sales tax revenue in Vermont (and nationally) has eroded due to purchasing patterns shifting from goods to services, the proliferation of online sellers that we are unable to tax, and the increasing number of exemptions over time.
  • The inability of the sales tax to grow sufficiently directly shifts the cost of government to income and property tax sources.
  • Vermont loses $40 million in sales tax revenue annually in online purchases.
  • The tax treatment of cloud-based services is being grappled with nationally, with about half of states applying the tax to one or more cloud-based services and about half exempting or not taxing them.
  • Reasons not to tax included the promotion of economic development, future uncertainty about cloud transactions, and the complexity of these transactions. Reasons to tax included concern for declining sales tax revenue and the impact on the property tax, neutral treatment of comparable cloud and non-cloud transactions, and the fact that it is a consumer tax not paid by software developers. 
  • Taxation of cloud-based software will require increased clarity and certainty so businesses can anticipate their tax costs and responsibilities. 

The committee recommends:

  • Not expanding the sales tax base to include services at this time due to concerns about interstate competition and a lack of ability to significantly reduce the rate.
  • Exercising significant caution before creating additional exemptions to the sales tax base, which accounts for an estimated $595 million in forgone revenue.
  • Continue to pressure Congress to pass legislation enabling states to collect remote and online sales taxes.
  • Continue to exercise due diligence in the evolving area of cloud-based services and remotely accessed software and apply the principles of good tax policy. 
  • Not applying the sales tax to prewritten software accessed remotely, as passed in last year’s Miscellaneous Tax Bill. 
Agriculture: In the first two and a half weeks of the session, the committee has received very encouraging updates on our ongoing Farm-to-Plate, School and Institution efforts. Simply put, more high-quality Vermont food is being produced and processed and more folks are eating it, including kids at school, state workers and private sector employees. Let’s keep up the good work and give Vermont farmers and foodies the tools they need while simultaneously investing in our health, land and economy. They have also been hearing from our laudably dedicated and hard-working partners at the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, as well as the Ag advisors to our Congressional delegation. On the state level, some of the challenges we have to tackle include mitigating the further infiltration of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE); the perennial problem of ag-related water quality; and ensuring food safety while minimizing inefficiencies in regulation and inspection processes. On the federal level, the uncertain future and spirit of the Farm Bill will be closely watched by our dairy farmers in particular.

Once again, the issue of genetically engineered products in our food system will be addressed by the legislature, with the Senate also working on a labeling bill this year. Genetically modified food is a complex issue with far-reaching implications and should be given a thorough vetting by lawmakers. We will have to decide whether the health of Vermonters is at risk and if the ability to know what we’re eating can stand up to fairly substantial obstacles on the legal and business fronts.

Transportation: Vermont’s transportation system has faced some extraordinary challenges in recent years, with four federally declared disasters in 2011, including spring floods followed by Tropical Storm Irene. This year we face different transportation challenges – both challenging the transportation fund. One more immediate and another reaching far into the future.  

Long Term challenge:  As Vermonters drive less and shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles, state revenues from gas taxes have steadily declined. These state fund reductions are combined with federal uncertainties such as highway trust funding and possible federal transportation reauthorization reduction. With this in mind, one can begin to see that Vermont’s long-term transportation funding stability is seriously at risk.

A summer funding study committee worked to determine the annual gap between available state transportation revenue and the cost to meet basic transportation needs. They have reported the Vermontgap is estimated at more than $240 million per year, each and every year. The needs estimate includes the cost to preserve the state’s existing transportation system in a state of good repair. It assumes that preserving the functionality of the road network is fundamental to meeting basic travel needs of people and goods. It does not include major roadway expansion beyond projects already in the pipeline.

Short term challenge:  The $657 million, FY2014 transportation budget presented by the Governor assumes the Legislature is able to identify a revenue package that enables Vermont to maximize all its available federal funds. Federal formula funds require a state dollar match. If Vermont is unable to provide this match, then federal formula funds must be returned and projects delayed and/or suspended.

The additional funding needed to fully fund the proposed FY2014 transportation budget program is $36.53 million in state funds. Without action, we place at risk our ability to match all the available federal transportation dollars and would require cutting $123 million dollars in projects from this coming years budget.

 The Agency of Transportation  has proposed the following to achieve the immediate funding gap:

  • TIB (transportation Infrastructure bond) proceeds of $9 million, after issuance costs and debt reserve yields $8.3 million).
  • Decrease current per gallon gas tax by 4.7 cents from 19 cents to 14.3 cents per gallon. This reduces the transportation fund by $15.32 million. 
  • Index per gallon gas tax to inflation. (revenue neutral first year).  This action assists in a small way with the long-term structural funding problems mentioned earlier.
  • Sustain gas tax revenues by adding a 4% assessment on retail sales price. (yields $43.56 million) – assumes $10.89 million for each one percent based on $3.79/gallon price estimate.

Combining all the recommended funding options obtain the $36.54 million needed to fully access and maximize Vermont’s federal funds.  They are a starting point, and the House Transportation Committee will be discussing, hearing testimony and evaluating all options.   

Judiciary:  House Judiciary held a joint hearing with the Government Operations Committee on the administration’s bill on the forfeiture of public employee pensions when the public employee has been convicted of a crime.  They heard from the Secretary of Administration, Treasurer, Attorney General, and the Governor’s counsel. The bill applies to all public employees and changes the ground rules with regard to their pensions. Currently, there isn’t any authority for a court to order forfeiture or restitution if an employee is convicted of certain crimes. Our laws also don’t address recourse from the taxpayer. In short, this is shaping up to be a public trust issue because we expect conscientious public service.

Health Care: The Committee is turning its attention to the successful rollout of our varied health care reform efforts. We are in a very good place right now in not creating any new major reform, but in ramping-up current projects and monitoring the progress that is being made. Vermont’s health care system is heading towards a place of higher quality, more rational cost and greater access for Vermonters.

In particular, the committee is challenged to be sure there is successful implementation of Vermont Health Connect (exchange).  Members will be paying close attention to the development of education and outreach to enroll people in Vermont Health Connect. The committee understands that Vermonters will be faced with many new choices in insurance through Vermont Health Connect and that the outreach and support given to small business owners will not look the same as outreach to a family with young kids. 

The committee is also focusing on payment reform and cost containment efforts. It’s undisputed that at current rates of growth, the cost of providing health care the way we do is not sustainable. The committee is pressing the Green Mountain Care Board, DVHA and the Department of Health to save health care dollars by adapting our health care delivery system so that it improves quality and keeps people healthy.

The committee will give careful consideration to the cost of health insurance for Vermonters who were on VHAP and Catamount Assistance who will move to Vermont Health Connect (the exchange). This population includes working Vermonters who used to be eligible for some of Vermont’s health care coverage expansions who will need to move to a private insurance product with federal tax credits and/or premium subsidies. The federal benefits will leave many of these people with much higher out of pocket costs in health care. The committee will consider the governor’s proposal of how to keep these low income Vermonters from facing huge sticker shock in Vermont Health Connect.

Fish, Wildlife & Natural Resources: A bill passed last year required the Agency of Natural Resources to compile and submit a Water Quality Remediation, Implementation and Funding Report. The purpose of this report is to give some guidance and direction to the legislature with regard to the priorities; which sources of “point” (eg., wastewater treatment plants) and non-point (eg., run-off) pollution should be addressed first; and priorities for various sources of funding to implement that work. The committee is beginning to dive into that report and hear testimony on various points. 
Many construction projects in Vermont, such as roads and bridges and high elevation utility works, often require some form of blasting. At present there are no rules or statutes that regulate this activity, except for the licensing of the blasting contractors and other safety concerns.  A multi-department working group with the several state agencies is now developing some guidance procedures. These new procedures will have a trigger point of relevancy based on the volume of rock to be blasted. Two critical areas will need this guidance and monitoring; 1) the potential for chemicals and blasting residue to get into the ground water or the surface water and 2) the impact on the ability of the blasting area or areas surrounding a blast site to recharge ground water supplies. The committee is following this process. 

Commerce: This week House Commerce and Economic Development committee finished most of its oversight review of agencies and departments and started working on bills starting with proposals that passed the House last year but did not see final action in the Senate. First up is a bill to allow workers compensation benefits to be paid by an electronic payment card similar to a debit card on a voluntary basis and with no fees to recipients, (H.51).  If such a system had been in place during Irene, workers would have continued to receive their payments without interruption and added expense all around. The bill will likely pass out of committee next week.       

The committee is also working on a bill (H.57) that would set up a pilot program allowing some workers on unemployment to start their own businesses and while working to do so, would be relieved of job search requirements. A few other states offer this program and participants have been successful in launching new businesses often employing many others. The bill proposes starting out with a small number of individuals– up to 35– and would give the Commissioner authority to suspend the program if warranted. The Committee is working carefully to balance the need to keep us on track to solvency in the UI (Unemployment Insurance) trust fund while looking for innovations such as a self-employment mechanism.

The committee heard from the Vermont Employee Ownership Center about their work with companies in transition that might go out of business, often because family members no longer are able to continue. Employee ownership preserves employment; encourages new thinking for a company; and are much less likely to move. A Vermont example of an employee owned company is King Arthur Flour in Norwich. They are now the second largest flour company after Pillsbury in the US.

This week the committee  held a joint meeting at the Statehouse with House Judiciary and House Transportation on high gas prices, especially in Northwest Vermont. They learned that out of 400 gas markets in the US, northwest Vermont is currently ranked eleventh for profitability. The reasons are hard to fathom since prices are currently at least twenty cents less forty miles away in Middlebury or Montpelier and operating costs not necessarily that much higher in the Burlington area. They heard from gas pricing experts and from gas dealers on all sides of the issue. The Attorney General’s office has identified possible reporting measures the legislature could require that would allow us to see if anti-trust violations are occurring. Only a few owners control the majority of gas stations. For a deregulated market to work, there needs to be vigorous competition. 

Human Services: The Human Services Committee oversees the work of the Agency of Human Services, mostly in the Department for Children and Families (DCF), the Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living (DAIL), and the Department of Mental Health (DMH). These departments deal with issues relating to children, people with low incomes, people who are elderly, people with disabilities, and people needing mental health care. 

The Committee started the session by taking testimony on issues in several areas of the Agency of Human Services Budget Adjustment requests. They do this at the request of the Appropriations Committee so that we can provide feedback to them on those requests. We supported most of the Administration’s requests. One of the upward pressures in the Department for Children and Families (DCF) is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that an initiative called STARS (STep AheadRecognition System) to promote high quality in child care programs has been very successful. The downside to this is that it is costing more than anticipated because so many programs are participating. But this is the kind of bad news we actually like to hear because this investment will pay valuable dividends in the long run.

 In beginning to learn about the child care portion of the Governor’s Initiative on Education, we heard from Doug Racine, Secretary of the Agency of Human Services. 72% of Vermont children under the age of six have both parents in the workforce, a fact that makes access to high-quality childcare critically important. The committee will be looking at all of the investments that the State makes to assist children in getting the best possible start in life and to move families out of poverty. 

House General, Housing & Military Affairs: The committee kicked off the new session with a focus on homelessness.   Visits from service providers and state officials underscored extreme needs throughout the state, but especially in northwestern Vermont.   Homeless shelters are filling up and affordable housing options are scarce.  This means that more people are being placed in motels. 

The committee weighed in with the Appropriations Committee on the request for $2.2 million to enable motel placements for the balance of FY13.  While this figure is staggering,  the prospect of people sleeping outside during the winter is simply unacceptable. At the same time, the committee is concerned about safety and habitability problems with motels.  They look forward to hearing plans from the Department of Children and Families this session regarding more sustainable emergency housing in FY14.

Much creative work is being done by Vermont’s exemplary housing network.  Affordable, structurally sound alternatives to our older mobile homes are being designed, as new mobile home park coop ownership structures are actively explored.  Treasurer Pearce is especially interested in creative ways to finance housing development.  Efficiency Vermont is advancing energy efficiency initiatives.  While representatives of Senators Leahy and Sanders report severe housing impacts from the federal budget, Vermont continues to experience lower foreclosure rates than most other states. 

 Gen. Tom Drew, the interim Adjutant General of the Vermont National Guard, spoke about the state of the Guard.  Current enrollment is 2,820 members of the Army National Guard and 1,094 members of the Air National Guard.  Members are staying on longer and full enrollment is expected in 2013.  Expansion of the Vermont Office of Veterans Affairs’ service officer program is needed to support claims for federal Veterans Administration claims.  In addition, the committee heard from representatives of the American Legion, VFW, Vietnam Veterans Association, and other veteran’s service organizations about their programs and legislative agendas.

Natural Resources and Energy: The Natural Resources and Energy Committee is taking up a “land use” bill that would ultimately provide a statewide lens on development patterns. The current practice is developer-led, with each proposed project considered in a vacuum. They also anticipate taking up a thermal heating bill (linked above in “Ways & Means”)  that would make it easier and more cost-effective for Vermonters to weatherize their homes lower their heating bills. Heating our buildings currently costs us $600 million a year, twice what it cost ten years ago. This is a looming crisis as well as an opportunity for economic development and an increase in disposable income.

Wishing you all a warm, healthy, and prosperous week! 

Sincerely,

Sarah

 

Rep. Sarah E. Buxton 
Windsor-Orange 1 (Tunbridge & Royalton)
House Committee on Education, Clerk
(802) 233-0274 (mobile) 

Posted in Uncategorized

Survey Results and Legislative Session Preview

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Happy New Year! I’m starting off 2013 with a strong resolve to communicate more effectively. In the spirit of keeping my resolutions, here is your first legislative update of 2013. (If you know of people would like to be on this list, drop me an email with their address. Thanks!)

Campaign Survey Results
During the campaign, I distributed a survey to find out how voters felt on a number of topics. I appreciate the time over 100 of you took to complete and return the survey. The results are an instructive and constructive way for me to reflect your values and advocate for your interests. I am especially grateful for the comments that many of you made regarding these issues, and others.

(1) Teacher Strikes. Under Vermont law, when bargaining fails to produce a mutually acceptable employment contract, school boards have the power to unilaterally impose one. In return, teachers may “strike,” or stop working, in order to gain concessions for contract terms like fair pay or health benefits. We will likely see a bill proposing to eliminate both options and mandating an alternative dispute resolution process.
51% Support     27% Oppose     16% Neutral   7% Blank

(2) Decriminalization of Marijuana. Under federal and state law, it is illegal to possess marijuana. If the state were to decriminalize possession, it would likely apply only to very small amounts (2 oz or less). This change would not “legalize” marijuana, nor would it change the federal government’s power to prosecute. A person found in possession of small amounts of marijuana would likely face a civil ticket (similar to a traffic ticket) instead of criminal charges.

75% Support     19% Oppose     7% Neutral 

 

(3) Death with Dignity. Over a decade ago, Oregon passed a law that permitted a physician to provide terminally-ill patients with medication to end their own life. A similar bill was proposed in Vermont last session, but it limited the types of patients who may receive the medication (e.g. less than six months to live, several waiting periods, multiple requests, second opinions, no mental health diagnosis, etc.). The same bill, or one that is very similar, will probably be introduced next session.

 

74% Support     15% Oppose     7% Neutral       2% Blank

(4) Public Funding of Independent Schools.  Towns that do not maintain a public school must pay tuition for their students to attend a public or independent school elsewhere. Public schools must comply with numerous state regulations, including an obligation to provide an education for students of all abilities. The law isn’t clear about what independent schools must provide for students with special needs. Potential legislation would require that any school receiving public dollars be certified in a minimum number of special education areas.

 

58% Support     25% Oppose     11% Neutral    6% Blank

(5) Immunization Exemptions. Vermont physicians are reporting an alarming rise in the number of pertussis (“whooping cough”) and other infectious diseases (e.g. measles) in Vermont’s kids. At the same time, immunization rates are dropping. We will likely see a bill to eliminate the philosophical and/or religious exemption that a parent may currently claim in order to enroll their child in school without the required vaccinations.

 

57% Support     29% Oppose     9% Neutral     5% Blank

(6) Gun Safety. Vermont is heralded as having the least restrictive guns laws in the nation and still boasts a relatively low crime rate. In recent years, there have been several cases of accidental death or injury of a minor with a firearm. Advocates for gun safety are likely to propose a bill that holds a gun owner responsible for injury of a minor if the firearm used was loaded and stored negligently.

 

 

 

 

75% Support     14% Oppose     7% Neutral    4% Blank

(7) Raising Taxes. Vermont’s income tax structure is already progressive. That is, people who make more money pay income tax at a higher rate. In 2011, 1% of Vermont’s richest taxpayers were saved from paying over $100 million in taxes because of federal tax cut extensions. There will likely be legislation seeking a one-year surcharge – or a permanent tax increase – on the very wealthy so that Vermont could access that tax revenue. Low and middle-income earners are unlikely to be affected.

67% Support     20% Oppose     9% Neutral      4% Blank

(8) Prescription Drug Abuse. In 2006, Vermont created a database of pharmaceutical drugs prescribed in the state. Access to the database is largely limited to health care professionals. Despite opposition from civil liberties advocates, law enforcement officials are likely seek increased access to the database in order to investigate and prosecute cases of illegal use.

51% Support     30% Oppose     13% Neutral     5% Blank

(9) Broadband & Cellular Service. Do you have access to broadband internet (don’t count satellite service) and can you receive a reasonable cell phone signal at your home?

Note: I collected this information in a case specific way. I’m using this feedback in a report I’m submitting to the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) to press for service expansion. 

Legislative Preview (*my own predictions)

The first big vote we will take this year will be to “adjust” the FY 2013 budget. This happens every year and serves the important task of amending  the spending decisions we made at the end of last session in light of unanticipated fiscal changes in the last half of the year. This year, I expect that the budget adjustment will reflect a loss of federal funds for home heating fuel in recent months and money for critical mental health system needs. In general, this budget bill is mechanism for filling only immediate and emergency needs. Although not directly related, I wanted to flag a resource I highly respect, “The Public Assets Institute” in Montpelier. Jack Hoffman and Paul Cillo are thoughtful fiscal analysts who regularly produce in depth reports. Here’s their most recent report re: VT’s economy: http://publicassets.org/publications/reports/state-of-working-vermont-2012/
It’s no surprise that gun control will be a big topic this year. I was surprised to see that 75% of you favored some form of gun control. It’s a difficult public policy issue to navigate in Vermont; we have the most liberal laws of any state and have a very small amount of gun crime/violence. A bill to ban assault weapons is sure to be proposed, in addition to a “safe storage” bill. Here’s an interesting link that a fellow legislator shared with me today: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data. From public statements I’ve heard and conversations I’ve had, I think that a stable and strong mental health system is viewed as more important than gun regulations. In our area, this is expensive because we are rural, patients are more isolated, and the stigma is stronger (*my opinions).
In early December, the commissioner of tax sent a letter to legislators and school boards warning that property taxes are poised to go up $.05 this year. The education and tax departments predict that school budgets will pass with an average 5% increase – pushing taxes up higher. Every year the legislature sets the “base” education tax rate (this year it is $.89) which correlates directly with the aggregate of local school budgets around the state. I (and others) in the legislature are highly sensitive to the upward pressures on property taxes and will be working to find ways that the state can help stem the tax burden. Here’s a link to an article about the issue: http://vtdigger.org/2012/12/03/commissioner-warns-property-tax-rate-will-increase-by-5-cents-unless-lawmakers-change-formula/ . I’ve also attached a document from the tax department that shows education tax rates around the state. (You can see that Royalton and Tunbridge rates are still lower than many neighboring towns.)
The judiciary committee will have a full plate as it reviews bills to legalize and decriminalize marijuana, give law enforcement tools to combat prescription drug abuse, death with dignity, and granting migrant farm workers permission to drive on our roads. The commerce committee is sure to review the billion dollar development project in the Northeast Kingdom that depends on foreign investment for green card status and other workforce development issues. The agriculture committee will look at a genetically engineered food bill again.  Transportation will grapple with a huge budget gap because of declining gas tax revenue (among other things). Human Services and Institutions committees will continue to work on rebuilding our mental health hospital and support for our growing elderly population. The health care committee will be focused on the next steps in implementing health care reform (more info here: http://hcr.vermont.gov/ ). The education committee will  review progress in closing the achievement gap, teacher mentoring and evaluations, dual enrollment, and expanding pre-k education. In the energy and natural resource committee, a moratorium on large wind farms is likely to be proposed, scrutiny of our flood plain laws will continue, and careful monitoring of our solid waste facilities will take place. Government operations will take up a comprehensive campaign finance bill and some amendments to our election laws.
If you are interested in following the legislature more closely this year, keep track of committee work, bills, votes, and floor schedules here: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/. Let me know if you are tracking any particular issue closely or if you are interested in attending a committee meeting. All meetings are open to the public.
As for upcoming events …  Royalton’s weekly “Community Dinner” is on Friday’s at 6pm at the Red Door Church. Open and free to all. Help and donations appreciated. This Friday, Jan 4th at 7pm the Tunbridge Library begins it’s (free) winter series with a lecture by Ben Hewitt, Vermont farmer and author of “The Town that Saved Food” and “The Salmonella Chronicles: Humans, Bacteria, and Food Rights.”
That’s it for now… time to stoke the wood stove! 

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Vote Sarah Buxton

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Letter about easing property tax burden on seniors

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In a recent “Buxton Banner,” I stated that the legislature took action to address the property tax burden on seniors. A few weeks ago, a woman asked me to give her more information. I thought it would be helpful to others if I posted my response here. Sarah

“Several weeks ago, you asked me for more detail about what the legislature did to ease the property tax burden on seniors. I looked into the bill we passed (H.782) and found  more specific information.

As you may know, our property tax system permits two options for payment – one based on income and one based on a set tax rate. Most people use the tax rate because, unless you own an enormous amount of land, it is less costly. A person’s tax assessment under the rate formula also takes into consideration the household income. The tax department explained to me that the driving consideration in calculating household income is to determine a person’s “ability to pay.” 

In general, the household income form gives preference to those who receive “earned income” rather than investment income. The theory is that those who derive their income by working are usually less able to pay their full property tax. More accurately, they tend to have less access to accumulated wealth from which to pay. But in recent years, many seniors have come to depend on interest and dividends from past and current investments as their income. Acknowledging that the source of income is no longer as accurate of a predictor of a person’s ability to pay, we altered the law. Now, interest and dividend income over $10,000 is no longer “double counted” for claimants 65 or older. Check with your tax preparer to see if this will affect you.

In addition, we did a few other miscellaneous things in favor of seniors. Here are a few:

  • Amended the definition of veteran for the purpose of the veteran’s property tax exemption so that it will apply to more veterans
  • Gave the state’s taxpayer advocate the authority to assist an individual taxpayer in resolving disputes with the department of taxes, and established a process for the taxpayer advocate to recommend cases to the commissioner for extraordinary relief
  • Excluded payments made into health savings accounts from the definition of household income for the purpose of property tax assessment 

We also created a civil action against those who abuse, neglect, or exploit vulnerable adults.

I hope I answered your question. As always, feel free to contact me with any concerns.”

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