Education Finance Public Hearing this Wednesday 2/19

Public Hearing on Potential Changes to the Education Funding System
Wednesday February 21, 2018, 4:00-6:00 p.m.in Room 11
The House Committee on Ways and Means will hold a public hearing on

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 Potential Changes to the Education Funding System on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The hearing will be held in Room 11 on the ground floor of the State House in Montpelier from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Materials outlining the potential changes to the education funding system will be available and may be requested ahead of the hearing by emailing Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 3:45 p.m. on the day of the hearing. Each witness is limited to three minutes to testify. The Committee will also accept written testimony.
For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us by February 20, 2018 so that any accommodations can be made in advance.
Information on the proposal can be found here.
The Ways and Means Committee is expending a lot of time and effort to craft a solution to the perennial cry of high property taxes and should be commended.
I am concerned that this proposal doesn’t address the current lack of accountability to businesses and non residential taxpayers, that it doesn’t address the substantial inequities that exist for our students, and I am deeply concerned that the cost containment measure will add insult to injury for rural students while failing to capture significant needed savings throughout the system.  Nonetheless, I am listening and looking for opportunities to make positive changes for students and taxpayers.  Please be in touch if you submit testimony or plan to testify in person.
Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
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Legislative update – January 28, 2018

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Photo by Jim Therrien from the January 5th Bennington Banner story “What’s important to local lawmakers in 2018”

The 2018 Vermont Legislative Session began on January 3rd.  We’ve already seen marijuana legalized in the Session and it looks like we will be spending a considerable amount of time on education cost, delivery and equity. I was pleased that both both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s opening comments and Governor Phil Scott’s subsequent State of the State address noted the need to ensure rural Vermont is included in economic and community growth, and each made promises regarding addressing the current state of Vermont education – the Speaker on funding and the Governor on spending.  The critical piece that binds those two together – equity for all students – will be significantly served by the completion of the weighting study passed last year.  Here are links to both opening addresses:

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Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd.  Given the increased legalization surrounding us, particularly in MA, as well as increased public safety and education costsimage associated with that legislation, I am in support of taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco.  This is not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill.  Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation.  I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade.   Details of the bill can be found here: Marijuana Rules signed into law on January 22, 2018 and effective July 1, 2018

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fy19overviewcover2019 Vermont State Budget detail

Community-Based Public Hearings on the Governor’s recommended FY 2019 State Budget

The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations are seeking public input on the Governor’s Recommended FY2019 State Budget and will hold community-based public hearings on Monday, February 12, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the following 5 locations.

  • Johnson – Johnson State College
  • Rutland City – Rutland Public School
  • St. Johnsbury – St. Johnsbury House
  • St. Albans City – St. Albans City School
  • Winooski – Community College of Vermont

Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. in Montpelier.

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Reforming our education system for students and taxpayers:

I wrote an OpEd in December which outlined the challenges we are facing with Screenshot 2018-01-27 17.32.26regard to a proposed 7-9% increase in property taxes.  Here is what has been transpiring with regard to the situation since the beginning of the Session:

  • Weighting Study – the Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted.  The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and will likely be turned down by the Senate.  The administration is required to conduct the study.  An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
  • Governor’s List – Governor Scott issued a memo to the legislature outlining 18 possible cost containment initiatives to work on collaboratively with the legislature.  Without accurate weights, I’m opposed to a number of these initiatives, but not to all.   Proposals to cap per pupil spending or implement staffing ratios need accurate weights and scaling in order to not harm students and achieve the most savings.
  • Ways and Means – has been looking at the current funding source for education and developing a proposal to move towards lowering property taxes by shifting to partial income tax, as well as replacing the general fund transfer and separating municipal and .  The latest working draft can be found here and will likely undergo numerous edits prior to ever coming to the floor.  Keep an eye on updated work the Ways and Means Committee is doing here.

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New bills I have introduced and roll call votes I have taken can be found here.  Please let me know if you have questions about either. Legislation I have been working on in January:

Stamford, VT and Clarksburg, MA Interstate District – Next month representatives

from the two districts will travel to the statehouse for a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate Education Committees on developing legislation to form the VT/MA interstate agreement.

H.581 and H.582 – I’ve introduced two bills to increase funding for build out of last mile service.  H.582 temporarily increases the Vermont Universal Service Fee by one half of one percent to raise approximately $1.5M annually to be used in partnership with providers and municipalities to build our telecommunications infrastructure in undeserved areas.  This proposed increase was supported by roughly 75% of the 200+ respondents to my 2018 Legislative Survey and has encountered limited opposition during testimony to date.

Net Neutrality – The recent history on this fight centers around a 2015 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote to re-classify internet service providers (ISPs) as Common Carriers and a December 2017 FCC voted to reclassify ISPs as information service providers; unregulated in a competitive market. In addition, in 2017 the FCC prohibited states from regulating Net Neutrality.

  • A common carrier is classified by what they do.  Landline telephones and utilities are common carriers.
  • Common carriers have to serve everyone who wants to use the service.  Everyone has the same right to pay to use the service.
  • Common carriers have to charge everyone the same price for the same service.

In our district, and in much of rural Vermont, it’s difficult to recognize the benefits of an unregulated competitive telecommunications market. The more that modern life relies on being connected for healthcare, education, safety, the less acceptable it is for our rural citizens to not have access because of the lack of a competitive market. For this reason I began working on a Net Neutrality bill prior to the session. We are currently taking testimony on H.680. IF you are interested in testifying, please contact me.

Sexual Harassment – I’ve also co-sponsored H.707 which would prohibit employee agreements that prevent an employee from disclosing sexual harassment or seeking rights or remedies related to sexual harassment. The bill requires settlements to be registered with the attorney general and other provisions and has broad support from all parties and independents in the House.

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The Vermont House Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) held a public hearing in Montpelier on November 7th.  Below are four main areas that received a lot of input and provide a clear focus for legislative initiatives:

  • Extend high speed internet/broadband to every corner of Vermont.
  • Assist small towns and villages to establish community water and wastewater systems.
  • Strengthen the market and demand for Vermont forestry products.
  • Strengthen the integration of Career Technical Education in secondary schools

I co-chair this group which is comprised of House members from across the state and representing every party and independents.  This group meets weekly to track legislative initiatives related to these areas.

 

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Public Hearing regarding Vermont Firearms Laws

The Senate Committee on Judiciary of the Vermont General Assembly is holding a public hearing about Vermont firearms laws on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  The hearing will be held at the State House in Montpelier, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The hearing will be held in the House Chamber, second floor.  Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 4:30 PM.  Witness testimony will be limited to three minutes.  The Committee will also accept written testimony.  Due to space constraints, please consider viewing the live feed channel and submitting written testimony. https://youtu.be/vhfhCLYrgNk

For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, e-mail testimony@leg.state.vt.us

If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact testimony@leg.state.vt.us by January 20th, so that we can arrange those in advance

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Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

 

Without new state funding mechanism, Vermonter’s property taxes will keep rising

It’s the holiday season and for many a time of year filled with traditions among families and communities.  In Vermont we also have a unique tradition that kicks off the month of December.  December 1st brings about the annual receipt of the Vermont Tax Commissioner’s statutorily required letter to the legislature regarding anticipated property tax rates.  This event, while not anticipated with as much fondness as other time honored religious and secular conventions, is a predictable, if not pleasant, opening salvo in the annual education property tax public debate.  This year Vermonters are possibly facing a .09 increase. In addition to cumulative expected increases across the state in education spending, tax rates will see the effects of the Act 46 incentives (which will be even higher next year) and the effects of the compromise position reached last year regarding the Governor’s proposal to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state level which resulted in a budget veto.  Rather then shutting down government or seizing the unique opportunity for parity and accountability and the future ability to fairly manage healthcare costs, the legislature and administration agreed to use reserves and stabilization funds for a one year tax reduction.

The angst and anger resulting from this projected increase is understandable and predictable.  But it’s really not enough to simply continue to be outraged by the property tax.  It’s important to dig in and understand how this situation is happening. It’s not simple.  And it’s no longer acceptable to beg off being part of the solution because it’s “too complicated.”  There are great resources on the Department of Education, the Department of Taxes and the Vermont School Boards Association that explain the mechanics of education finance.

For added perspective, it’s important to also acknowledge that we have a major demographic crisis underway in much of Vermont in terms of declining workforce population which also manifests as declining student population. This crisis is creating a huge stress on our employers, our municipalities and communities all across the state.  The effects of this crisis are easiest to see in rural Vermont, and also shine a light on the myth that equity exists for Vermont’s students and taxpayers.  We have a state mandated education finance system for which no single entity is responsible for students or accountable to taxpayers, that can not scale equitably, resulting in taxes going up statewide and a education structure teetering on the edge of violating Brigham when it comes to student opportunity. (NOTE: First lawsuit filed.) On top of all this, our entire education governance system is in the midst of a complete reorganization through the aforementioned Act 46.

For decades lawmakers and both Democratic and Republican administrations have allowed themselves to believe that equal per pupil spending is an appropriate measure of equity of opportunity. Think about that. Our laws and funding mechanism are constructed to strongly encourage a classroom of 10 students to spend the same per pupil as a classroom of 20 students. Not the same per classroom, the same per pupil. Believe it or not, just about every year the Vermont Legislature, with urging from whoever the Vermont Governor is that year, undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.” It has almost always revolved around creating downward pressure on per pupil spending. The problem is this, we simply are not able to equally appropriate all of Vermont’s students into equally sized schools. And so almost every year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, and that frequently cause the most upheaval in Vermont’s most rural districts.

The “tragedy of the commons” describes a situation where a shared-resource system with individual users acting independently – according to their own self-interest – behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling that resource through their collective action. The shared resource at play in this situation is the statewide education property tax. The notion that that resource is controlled locally and a district’s budget decisions only impact that district’s voters is a fallacy. Every budget vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  For example, business and non resident’s education property tax rates have nothing to do with local budget decisions happening in their communities.  And while Vermont residents have the ability to control much of their local districts per pupil spending, they do not control all of the other factors that go into determining their local education property tax rates.  We have a statewide education/accountability/tax problem that cannot be solved locally.

The reason for the continued inability for any single district, lawmaker, governor or taxpayer to be able to deal with this tax increase is the current education finance mechanism which relies on ALL Vermont property tax payers to support hundreds of individual LOCAL decisions. There is no single year, silver bullet that fixes this without harming kids, despite the annual cries to simply wave a magic wand at the state level and adjust student staff ratios or mandate the lowering of per pupil spending. For those solutions to be effective, and more importantly constitutional, we’d have to have evenly distributed population, evenly distributed property wealth, evenly spaced out school buildings, equitable access to telecommunications, equitable access to public transportation, equitable access to school choice. And flat roads.   We do not have those things and we never will.  But our current education funding mechanism presumes most of those things exist.  And while the current funding mechanism serves large student and voter population centers, it is not serving rural Vermont students and it definitely is not providing Vermont taxpayers with a transparent means of understanding the return they are getting on their significant investment.   We need a new education financing mechanism.  One that is able to provide statewide accountability for all of Vermont’s students and all of Vermont’s taxpayers.

Hearings this week in Dover and Townshend on draft energy plan for Windham region

Windham Regional Commission Seeks Input on Draft Energy Plan

The Windham Regional Commission looks for public comments as they develop the Regional Energy Plan with four public meetings in December and January.  The meetings will be an opportunity for the public to come and learn about why the Regional Planning Commission is creating a Regional Energy Plan, what information is included in those plans, and what that means for towns.  The attendees will be invited to express comments on the draft plan and, more broadly, on energy planning in our region.

The draft plan was developed with guidance from the Department of Public Service and the three Regional Planning Commissions who have completed their Energy Plans. The draft plan and background information can be found on the WRC website: http://www.windhamregional.org/energy/act-174-energy-planning.

The meetings will be held:

The Windham Regional Commission is one of eleven regional planning commissions in Vermont, and since 1965 has been assisting the 27 towns in southeastern Vermont to provide effective local government and work cooperatively with them to address regional issues.

For more information contact Marion Major at Windham Regional Commission at 802-257-4547 x 109 or mmajor@windhamregional.org, or visit our website at www.windhamregional.org.

 

Rep. Sibilia update: Vermont budget development overview, survey results and two constituent events this week

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Thank you to the almost 200 Deerfield Valley respondents who took my 2018 Legislative Session priorities survey.

surveyagephotoThe survey required respondents to give their name and town of residence.  All other questions were optional.

35% of those who responded were under the age of 50.  21% were over the age of 65.

1.5% of respondents were unemployed, 2% were disabled and 22.5% were retired.  88% reported that they owned their home.

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survey overall ranking

No specific legislative proposals were presented for ranking.  The actual words that end up being voted on, what the words allow, prohibit or encourage, those words matter and are very often not the same words that were originally proposed.  And so with the ranking part of the survey I am not taking away support or opposition to specific legislation, but a sense of our  districts sense of what the important issues to focus on will be.  Issues areas were ranked according to how much time the respondent thought the Vermont Legislature should spend on them in the January – May 2018 Session with 1 being the most time.  Survey takers were not required to rank all 14 selections.  Healthcare, property taxes, drug abuse and internet/cell access topped the list.  Here are the results of respondents overall ranking of issues they want to see the 2018 Vermont Legislature spend time on.

In addition to asking for this prioritization ranking, three more specific questions were asked about specific legislation we could see this year.  The first was with regard to support for a .05% increase in the Vermont Universal Service Fee paid on telephone bills to increase public dollars available to build last mile internet service.  A similar bill passed the House in 2015 but was defeated in the Senate.  70% of those surveyed indicated they would be willing to pay this fee.  Multiple comments came from those opposed to new taxes and those skeptical the funds would actually reach those unserved. “…as long as it actually funds last mile projects and not more administration…”.

The second specific question was regarding a Vermont only ban on bump stocks.  70% of those surveyed said they would support a Vermont only ban on bump stocks.  surveybumpstocksThere is little to no gray area for voters with gun legislation.  Some commenters promised me they would never vote for me again if I vote for this legislation if it is proposed.  Other commenters promised me they would never vote for me again if I do not vote for this legislation if it is proposed.

The last specific question was regarding the use of Education Fund dollars to pay for increased child care or increased post secondary or work force training.  65% of those that responded were unwilling to have property taxes pay for increased childcare or post secondary.  25% were willing to pay increased education property taxes to pay for increased post secondary/workforce training programs.  Many commenters indicated a willingness to consider using education property tax dollars for child care or post secondary expenses if the education funding formula is fixed.

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fy19overviewcoverThe governor’s administration has released a high level budget priorities presentation which also provides two opportunities to weigh in with your thoughts on what budget the governor should propose as a budget for FY ’19.   I hope you will consider providing a few thoughts to the governor on what you’d like to see in the next budget.  Vermont is a small state and your voice really does get heard.  A reminder that the budget process requires the governor to propose and then the legislature provide feedback and funding.  The governor can either agree, or veto as we saw last year.

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This week I will be hosting constituent listening sessions in Dover and Wardsboro and invite you to attend and share your thoughts.
  • Tuesday November 28th from 6:30-8 at the Dover Town Hall
  • Thursday November 30th from 6:30-8 at the Wardsboro Town Hall
I also plan to attend the Twin Valley, Whitingham, Wilmington meeting with Rep. John Gannon in Wilmington on December 19th at 6 pm.
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December 15th deadline – Open Enrollment: Open enrollment is the time of year when you can make changes to your Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont or MVP Healthcare insurance coverage. The new plan year begins January 1, 2018. If you want to change plans, you should call the Vermont Health Connect Customer Support Center or log into your account. If you don’t contact them and confirm a plan choice by December 15, 2017, you likely won’t be able to change plans until the next Open Enrollment.

 

I hope that you all had a peaceful Thanksgiving with family and friends.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

 

 

 

 

Lawmakers Demand Secretary of Education Clarify Position on Education Weighting Study or Face Possible Litigation  

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE November 14, 2017

WILMINGTON, VT – State Representatives Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), John Gannon (D-Wilmington) and Ben Jickling (I-Randolph) sent a letter to Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education Rebecca Holcomb seeking clarification on the Secretary’s position on completing the mandated weighting study contained in Act 49.  A recent article quoted the Secretary as saying, “We do not expect to initiate or complete the mandated weighting study contained in Act 49 until we have capacity to do so.”  If the Secretary refuses to complete the study, the Vermont General Assembly’s Legislative Council has confirmed that seeking an enforcement action through the courts is appropriate in the absence of some other adequate alternative for enforcement of the Act 49 Education Weighting Study.

The Education Weighting Study called for in Act 49, Section 35 passed the Vermont Senate by a vote of 27-0 on May 5, 2017 and passed the Vermont House of Representatives on a voice vote on May 5th 2017.  Governor Scott signed Act 49 into law on May 23rd 2017.  The weighting study is due to the House and Senate Committees on Education, the House Committee on Ways & Means, and the Senate Committee on Finance by December 15, 2017.  The final weighting study contained in Act 49 included language proposed by Representatives Sibilia, Gannon and Jickling in H.274, An Act Relating to Rural Schools.

Sibilia said: “There are a whole host of conversations that are connected to this study that we could and perhaps should be having, including the chronic under staffing of the Agency of Education by multiple Administrations, the obvious need for additional human and research resources when reorganizing the entire governance structure of education in Vermont, or the fact that our rural towns are struggling with a lack of resources themselves.  But now is not the time for those conversations or arguments about the merits of the study or resources needed.  Now is the time to figure out how the study that was mandated by the Vermont Legislature and signed by the Governor into law gets done.”

Gannon said: “If the Governor did not want the weighting study conducted, he could have simply vetoed the legislation. Thus, I can only conclude that the Secretary’s actions appear to be deliberate effort by the Scott administration to challenge the authority of the legislature.

Jickling said: “The challenges facing rural Vermont schools are unique and systemic. The administration’s refusal to follow through on legislative action is counterproductive and stifles progress towards a more sustainable and fair funding model.”

CONTACT

Rep. Laura Sibilia

(802) 384-0233

Rep. John Gannon

(802) 490-4327

Rep. Ben Jickling

(802) 595-5285

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Rep. Laura Sibilia 2018 session survey

Goose City

Greetings from Goose City!

We are winding down from soccer with our son and looking forward to the holiday return of our girls.   I’m thinking more and more about the coming legislative session, and there are a number of public input sessions I want you to know about further on in this email.

This year I’m hoping you will consider giving some brief input prior to the the legislative session which begins January 3rd and will likely go through early May.  I’ve compiled a brief 10 question survey which is designed for you to weigh in on what areas you’d most like the legislature to spend their time on.   There are a few additional questions about issues that could emerge during the 2018 Vermont political discussion.

This survey is intended for my constituents in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro and Whitingham, but our weekend residents and neighbors are free to weigh in.  The only required questions are name and town of residence.

Take the survey

I have scheduled two meetings with constituents in Dover and Wardsboro and hope to see you there:

  • Dover Town Hall November 28th 6:30-8
  • Wardsboro Town Hall November 30th 6:30 – 8

In addition I will be attending the Stamford School District meeting on November 14th from 7-9 pm.

And the Twin Valley, Whitingham, Wilmington meeting with Rep. John Gannon in Wilmington on December 19th at 6 pm.

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Upcoming statewide hearings of interest:

Rural Caucus Hearing: The Rural Development Caucus will hold a Public Hearing at the State House from 5–7 pm on Tuesday, November 7 to hear from municipal, business, education, and nonprofit interests in rural Vermont about what the most pressing issues are for rural Vermont. The press release and instructions on how to testify are available here.

Equifax data security breach: The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development will meet to hold hearings around the State to discuss issues related to privacy and data security breaches. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Financial Regulation, and the Office of Legislative Council will join the Committee in presenting a brief summary of current law and recommended responses to security breaches.

The Committee will hear from the public their questions, experience with breaches, concerns, and suggestions. This topic is a continuation of the Committee’s work last session, and of particular interest in light of current events in relation to the Equifax breach.  A list of meeting dates and locations is available below. Sign-up will begin 30 minutes prior to the hearing’s start time.

Thursday, November 9th

12:30 p.m. Springfield Town Offices Selectmen’s Hall 96 Main Street Springfield, VT
5:30 p.m. Barton Village Office 17 Village Square Barton, VT

Tuesday, November 14th

12:30 p.m. Manchester Community Library Hunter Community Room 138 Cemetery Avenue Manchester Center, VT
6:00 p.m. Department of Health Conference Room 2B 108 Cherry Street Burlington, VT

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December 15th deadline – Open Enrollment: Open enrollment is the time of year when you can make changes to your Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont or MVP Healthcare insurance coverage. The new plan year begins January 1, 2018. If you want to change plans, you should call the Vermont Health Connect Customer Support Center or log into your account. If you don’t contact them and confirm a plan choice by December 15, 2017, you likely won’t be able to change plans until the next Open Enrollment.

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Education:

As you may recall, former Rep. Oliver Olsen and I have been fighting for years to commission a study of pupil counting, as we believe that the current system unfairly harms rural districts with small population densities, and we fought hard to have this study included in an act of the General Assembly.  We were finally successful in the 2017 session.
There is a fight brewing with AOE on whether or not this study will be done.  Right now they are refusing.
The chronically flawed funding formula which does not scale for size, the failure to capitalize on last year’s unique opportunity for significant savings through establishing statewide equitable healthcare benefits for education staff, increases in healthcare costs, the pending Act 46 incentives and other non-locally voted on expenses are going to result in yet another increase in property taxes this year.
Without changes to the way we count students, it is a virtual certainty that rural districts will be asked to make more substantial cuts then more population dense districts, once again unfairly and unequally hurting kids.  This study is the next important “tweek” needed for Vermont’s broken education financing mechanism.  It has been needed for many many years.  There is near universal consensus this formula does not work.  I am frustrated with the lack of transparency at all levels of state government about the non-local drivers of education property taxes.
Perhaps with last weeks news out of Whitingham there is light at the end of this very long tunnel for our taxpayers and our students.
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Some positive economic development progress stories from our district:
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As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions. Please don’t hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
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Congratulations to all of the organizers and volunteers of this year’s Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro – beautiful weather and record breaking turn out!

Connectivity build out in rural Vermont

Wired and wireless internet expansion projects in Stamford, Readsboro and Whitingham were announced by the Vermont Department of Public Service, Fairpoint and the southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative.   While I wish that these expansions were all resulting from service providers seeing increased market opportunities to sell their products, in fact these projects are the result of sustained local volunteer efforts and successful public private partnerships.

The story of these particular project investments starts many years ago in the town of Stamford.  Isolated from most of Vermont and sitting right on the border of Massachusetts they formed the Southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative, a paid wireless internet provider run by volunteers in the town.  These rural telecommunications pioneers refused to take no for an answer and came up with an entrepreneurial solution to connect their residents to modern life and the internet.   Fast forward to 2015 and the Town of Readsboro loudly letting me know that their town’s economy was being severely hurt by their lack of internet and cell service.  The selectboard formed a volunteer committee and together we set out to find out what was knowable about providers and coverage from the Department of Public Service.  Locals will remember that what we found out was both shocking and unacceptable.  Vermont coverage maps showed virtually all of Readsboro had acceptable internet speeds.  This supposed coverage had made most of Readsboro ineligible for a small competitive state broadband grant program and also unlikely to see expanded service by Fairpoint through a federally funded buildout program: the Connect America Fund (CAF) – also known as the universal service High-Cost program.  CAF is the Federal Communications Commission’s program to expand access to voice and broadband services for areas where they are unavailable.

And why was Readsboro (and much of the rest of rural Vermont) ineligible for these programs? Because VTel’s federally funded Wireless Open World program had indicated in their 2009 project they would cover virtually all of the unserved addresses in the town (and virtually all of rural Vermont).  And so most of the towns addresses were shown as “covered” by the VTel project.  Taxpayers will be pleased to know that addresses shown as “covered” were not eligible for most additional taxpayer funded build out investments.

Many will remember that as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, VTel was awarded an $81.7 million grant and a $35.2 million loan to bring fiber to homes in the Springfield area and to build 119 towers and antennas to set up a system of wireless broadband which would cover 33,000 unserved Vermonters in our state’s most rural areas.  Readers should understand that the landmass size required to cover those 33,000 is most of the state.  The 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan described the wireless project as “central to the state’s broadband efforts.” While the fiber to the home project is completed and an asset to the Springfield region, VTel has publicly acknowledged that seven years later, the wireless project only has about 3,000 subscribers.  And still, virtually no one in Readsboro can get the service.  And the towers that federal taxpayers funded VTel to construct in Dover and in West Wardsboro are still waiting for transmission equipment to be placed, by VTel, atop one of our highly cooperative local ski-resorts.

VTel’s wireless project has been removed from the state’s broadband coverage maps, thus opening up funding for other providers to serve what were previously considered VTel areas.  Places like Readsboro, where Fairpoint and the Southern Vermont Broadband Cooperative have recently both been funded by the Departmetn of Public Service to build out internet access in the town – wired and wireless.

Recent articles in our local Deerfield Valley News have featured some loud protests of these non-VTel investments by local VTel customers.  They have insisted that wireless internet is the future in internet.  This may or may not be the case.  What is true is that after almost a decade of waiting for wireless internet our fellow U.S. taxpayers paid for, it is unacceptable to ask the 30,000 mostly Vermonters still unserved by VTel to continue to wait for the company to install equipment in a timely fashion, staff a sales effort capable of providing 30,000 customers service and technical expertise, and have staff respond professionally to customers queries rather then the quirky, sarcastic, sing song replies that individual customers often get from the companies founder.

If VTel is working for you, that is fantastic.  These rare customers are amongst the lucky 10% who are actually successfully receiving the federally funded W.O.W. project.  For the remaining 90%, we need to keep working to support the creation and funding of local initiatives and planning efforts that our local volunteers are stepping up and creating.

Map of original VTel wireless project area here.

2017 Session perspectives

Happy late summer!  I’m looking forward to seeing you all at a number of events in the coming weeks and months in the valley.

An update on the end of the 2017 session: This year I served on a new committee focusing on Energy and Technology which was created by Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson.  There was previously no single committee responsible for state IT projects and telecommunications was a a commerce function. This committee has jurisdiction over both the Public Service Board (now the Public Utilities Commission) and the Department of Public Service, energy, IT projects, and telecommunications.   I was also appointed to the House Ethics Panel.

Highlights from 2017 bills:

Telemarketers Legislation: After hearing from many constituents about fraudulent calls, Bennington County Senator Brian Campion and I introduced mirror bills in the House and Senate and with support from the Attorney Generals office, this bill passed.  S.72 An act relating to requiring telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification information and established a data broker working group.  Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of dealing with what at best are nuisance calls and at worst criminal fraud activity.  Enforcement will present its own challenges.

The Attorney Generals office maintains a Consumer Assistance line to resolve problems you may be having with a business and to also report suspected scams.  I’d strongly encourage residents to call and sign up for their scam alert system 800-649-2424 (toll-free in Vermont) or 802-656-3183. Please consider checking out the “Stopping Scams” page at https://www.uvm.edu/consumer to better understand the tactics being used and how to protect yourself and your family.

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Rural Economic Development Infrastructure districts: Allowed the formation of Rural Economic Development Infrastructure Districts  Working with the Rural Economic Development Working Group, Rep. Chip Conquest and I introduced legislation to form REDI Districts . These special municipal districts can finance, own, and maintain infrastructure that provides economic development opportunities in rural and under resourced areas of the State, in designated areas within one or more municipalities.

Highlights from the Energy and Technology Committee:

  • Our committee recommended House agreement of an Executive Order establishing the Agency of Digital Services. The executive order elevated the Chief Information Officer to a cabinet level post charging the Agency of Digital Services to join IT personnel, software and hardware across state government to achieve the overall objective of improving the coordination and effectiveness of providing services to the public.
  • Reauthorizing Act 248A: Act 248A provides an ease in permitting for telecommunications facilities.  In addition, we passed legislation providing authorization for the Department of Public Service to issue administrative citations for alleged violations of statutes and approvals related to in-state energy and telecommunications facilities.
  • Energy Storage Bill: The House passed legislation I sponsored which requests a report from the Department of Public Service relating to fostering energy storage on the Vermont electric system and authorized the Clean Energy Development Fund to fund energy storage projects that support renewable resources.  Given Vermont’s abundance of renewable energy, our rural nature and our MA neighbors investments in energy storage, energy storage infrastructure is critically important for electric grid stability, protecting existing rate payers and efficient use of renewable energy.
  • 10 Year Telecommunications plan: The plan is being rewritten and requires a survey of residents and businesses as part of its development.  I successfully advocated for adding specific surveying requests from our healthcare, education and public safety sectors.  As many in our district know – our challenges with broadband and cell service can become life threatening when police, rescue or social service personnel are unable to utilize modern communications to assist citizens in need.  Representatives from Dover School, Grace Cottage and Rescue Inc. testified in support of this needed change.

Additional local interest items – Marijuana legalization:
Voters in our district have communicated passionately on this issue – both for and against.  In the past I have been a no vote on full legalization, and voted no for a home grow only proposal at the beginning of this past session.  With recreational use being legalized just over the border in MA, we are going to see an increase in legally acquired marijuana in traffic stops and possibly impaired drivers in our district.  For this reason I voted yes for a taxed and regulated recreational market.  We can’t ask Vermont law enforcement to deal with stops where drivers possess legally acquired marijuana, and may be under the influence, are increasingly crossing over the border without increasing funding for them to do so.  My sense is that there will be agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana sales and use in Vermont and we may see full legalization in the coming year.  It might have been possible to get agreement between the governor (who vetoed a legalization bill, but then provided a means for agreeing) and the legislature during the June veto session, but that would have required the legislature to be in session for a week, incurring additional costs .

Education
Between advocating for needed changes to Act 46, continuing to try to illuminate that the funding mechanism is creating inequities in our rural districts, working with Rep. John Gannon and others to try and secure Act 46 benefits for Twin Valley and other districts that merged prior to Act 46, and advocating for a statewide employee health benefit, no issue consumed more of my time this year then education.  I’ll be writing more about education and what I see on the horizon for impacts in Southern Vermont before the next session.

State Budget
The final budget passed by the House and the Senate and signed by the governor this year did not raise taxes or fees. Given the federal budget uncertainties, this was especially good news.  The Legislature invested $8.3 million in Vermont’s mental health care system, $2.5 million in child care services for working families and $3 million to the Vermont State College system. Some programs of value to rural Vermont were prioritized including working lands, Farm-to- School programs, and the logging industry.  There was no additional funding for telecommunications infrastructure build out.

Ethics
Though I noted my appointment to the House Ethics Panel, there is no state Ethics Commission for all of state government.  Vermont is one of only a handful of states without an Ethics Commission which can be an important factor in government accountability. Vermont’s first ethics law, S.8, establishes an independent State Ethics Commission which prohibits legislators, statewide office holders, and executive officers from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving office, imposes restrictions on no-bid contracting and requires financial disclosures for legislative and statewide candidates and executive officers. It requires the creation of a state code of ethics and each municipality to adopt a conflict of interest policy for all its elected officials, appointees, and employees.

Next session:

  • A payroll tax increase on every Vermont employee passed the House year.  The tax will pay for a new paid family leave program.  Employees who currently received paid family leave are not exempted.  I expect there will be a big push to pass this in the Senate next year.
  • Push for a $15 minimum wage continues. Some Burlington area lawmakers, surrounded by national chain establishments, have explained they see this push as adding revenue to Vermont.  Wages are rising which likely relates to Vermont’s continued shortage of workers, employers have to pay more to get qualified staff.  It’s my hope that we will spend equal or more energy trying to bring in new workers as we will spend trying to raise the minimum wage.

Be assured that I’m carefully monitoring the EB-5 Regional Center conversations and have been maintaining communications with federal and state officials and Mount Snow on both federal and state support for the local projects.

As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions.  I plan to hold several public forums later this fall and hope you will consider coming out and sharing your thoughts.  Please don’t hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham