Vermont’s extended session: reality vs. hyperbole

The Legislature continues in session overtime as a major fight about fairness in our education system continues to unfold.  Despite the dramatic headlines about the “assault” on employees and “stripping” collective bargaining away from school employees,  the most common question I am getting back home is an incredulous “why is this such a big problem?”.

Let’s first ground this ongoing discussion in some Vermont reality:

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 our rainbow of communities statewide. We have a state education finance system for which no single entity is accountable, 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.   On top of that,our entire education governance system in the midst of complete reorganization through Act 46, and the next few  years are going to find us paying the (tax) piper even more because of the tax incentives associated with Act 46.

To recap the current situation in Montpelier:

Because of changes that came about as part of the federal Affordable Care Act, Vermont’s Education Health Initiative (VEHI), changed all of the health insurance products offered to school districts for employee benefit plans.  This was done largely to avoid the “cadillac tax” that the ACA imposed on high cost employer sponsored healthcare plans: an annual 40% excise tax on plans with annual premiums exceeding $10,800 for individuals or $29,500 for a family starting in 2020.

Currently every school board in Vermont has to bargain the changes to employee health insurance benefits as part of regularly scheduled negotiations as a result of these new plans. On January 1, 2018, all school employees will be on the new health care plans.

On April 20, the Governor held a meeting with the Speaker of the House, President of the Senate, the VT-NEA, VSBA, and VSA in order to discuss a proposal to transition school employee health insurance negotiations to the state.

The Governor proposed to change the scope of bargaining at the local level to specify that health insurance negotiations for school employees would take place between the State and the VT-NEA.  This proposal is not a stripping teachers’ ability to collectively bargain.   Rather, it changes the dynamic and means the transition to new VEHI plans would be negotiated at the state level.  Contracts that have already settled locally would not be impacted.  If adopted, the plan could result in up to $13 million in savings to the Education Fund in FY 2018 and ultimately Vermonters, depending on the outcome of negotiations.

In Vermont, there is variety in total compensation provided to educators, depending on the region of the state and the socioeconomic makeup of a community.  In 2017, we have a unique opportunity to ensure equity in the health care coverage available to all school employees, while at the same time delivering the opportunity for millions of dollars in savings in property taxes.  Despite the fact that we have a statewide education property tax, enacted as part of Act 60 to ensure educational opportunity equity throughout Vermont, (required by our Vermont Constitution!) there are almost no mechanisms in place to ensure that equity is happening.

For decades lawmakers 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 mechanisms 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 undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.”  It almost always revolves 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 in almost every other year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, threaten program and staff cuts, and 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.  There are a number of shared resources at play in this current debate: the statewide education property tax, the incredible education staff throughout Vermont, and the dedicated, primarily volunteer, citizens serving on school boards throughout the state.  The notion that any one of those resources is controlled locally and only making decisions for its voters is a fallacy.  Every vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  Every negotiation impacts other negotiations throughout the state.  The Governor’s proposal to lift healthcare negotiations to the state level is the very first proposal I can ever recall that looks to create a mechanism that will ensure that both investments and reductions in teachers healthcare will be felt equally by our dedicated education employees throughout the state.  Additionally, the Governor’s proposal presents an opportunity to achieve these savings without harming anyone. The proposal invests nearly $50 million back into educators to ensure they are not paying higher out of pocket costs.

The Governor’s proposal, to negotiate at the state level and modified slightly to return all savings to the Education Fund, was introduced in the House as the “Beck amendment” and failed in a tie vote.   I was a co-sponsor of the Beck amendment and spoke at length on the floor on behalf of my students, districts and taxpayers.  A second proposal by my House colleagues, the “Webb amendment” would have essentially maintained the status quo in individual district negotiations except that any savings a district realized would be collected at the state level and returned to the district as a grant.  This proposal was little more then an optical illusion in terms of changes to the status quo, did not include a mechanism to ensure there will indeed by savings, and provided no relief to school boards or help in negotiations.  The current proposal from the Senate withholds 6 months worth of the Governor’s estimated $26M in savings from districts on an individual district basis.  It does not require that those savings come from healthcare, and so the very real possibility is that those savings will come from educational programming for students.  And that we will be right back in the same place of assigning unpredictable and uneven cuts in our school districts statewide.

What we have in front of us is a proposal for statewide accountability of our statewide resources.  Through a statewide collective bargaining with employees, we have the ability to provide parity in benefits for ALL of our employees and accountability for ALL taxpayers.   When I am out in my communities they are demanding the accountability.  I am proud that Vermont’s Governor is requiring the parity that statewide bargaining can bring for all employees in addition to taxpayer accountability.

The Legislature will return to Montpelier tomorrow.  This is the second week over the regular session.  We have to pass a budget and resolve this standoff.  If you have not weighed in and you are reading this, I encourage you to do so.  This is really important.  You can find the links to contact your legislators, to call Governor Scott or to listen online at the Vermont Legislative webpage.  Call me at 802-384-0233 with questions, complaints or support.

Week ahead: paid family leave, ethics, property taxpayers and marijuana legalization

The coming week, presumably the final week of this year’s legislative session, is loaded with significant bills that will likely generate heated debate on the floor of the House.  My votes on these bills will be made after taking into consideration ALL of the language in the bill, as well as any amendments that may pass, any fiscal analysis that has been done, and what I am hearing from constituents.  I encourage you to monitor the daily calendar for potential legislative activity and to be in touch with concerns or information you want to ensure I’m considering.

H.196 PAID FAMILY LEAVE: The proposed legislation will direct Vermont to develop a state run family and medical leave insurance program for public and private sector employees in the state.  Enrollment by employees is mandatory, even if already covered by a paid family leave plan. The program is estimated to require $5.4M in administrative costs to create.  Self-employed individuals, small farmers with a payroll under $20,000, and federal employees are exempt and will neither pay into, nor collect, any benefit.

Qualifying conditions include:

  • Pregnancy, birth, adoption, foster (both maternal and paternal).
  • Serious illness or non-work related injury of the employee’s close family member.

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Maximum duration of paid benefit: Up to 6 weeks. Compensation: 80% wages up to a cap of 2x the livable wage ($13 per hour), as calculated by the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office.

Employees would have to have been employed for at least 12 of the previous 13 months to qualify for the insurance program.  The insurance program will be financed by a 0.141% payroll deduction (up to $150,000 in wages) paid for by the employee by default with the option for employers to pay all or a portion of the cost.

Employers would need to protect an employee’s job while they are out on qualifying leave unless:

  • The employee works for an employer with fewer than 10 employees.
  • The position was going to be terminated prior to the employee’s request,
  • The employee would have been laid off for reasons unrelated to the leave,
  • The employee performed a unique service and hiring a permanent employee to replace the employee was necessary to prevent substantial economic injury to the employer’s operation

The program would be administered by the VT Department of Labor (DOL).  If the DOL denies an employee claim for paid family leave, employees can appeal in court.

S.8 ETHICS BILL:  The bill requires increased financial disclosures by candidates for stock-photo-info-text-graphic-ethic-145461094elected office and executive branch employees and their spouses as well as a one year time lapse for former legislators or executive branch employees prior to employment as a lobbyist.  S.8 would also establish a State Ethics Commission to implement and enforce State ethics laws for current and former legislators, State Executive officers, and candidates for State and legislative office. The Commission would consist of five members and would be staffed by an Executive Director who would work half-time.  There is some concern by legislators about a potential invasion of privacy of spouses in this legislation; nonetheless, I wholeheartedly support the very modest ethics legislation passed out of the Government Operations Committee.

H.509 AMENDMENT TO SAVE PROPERTY TAXPAYERS 26 MILLION:  Vermont’s school employees receive health coverage through the Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI). Actuarial analysis of current VEHI plans indicates they have among the highest actuarial values of any health insurance plan offered in the State of Vermont. Premiums for VEHI plans are up to nine percent higher than those for a BlueCross BlueShield platinum plan offered through Vermont Health Connect.

In response, VEHI is replacing existing school employee health insurance plans with plans designed to be competitive with Vermont Health Connect.  This change means that, as of January 1, 2018, all school employees will be on new health care plans.  The new health plans cover the same health care services and networks, but they have lower premium costs. The savings associated with lower premiums is estimated to be as high as $75 million.

The new plans also create higher out-of-pocket exposure through deductibles and co-payment requirements. However, because the premiums for these plans are markedly lower, there are opportunities to keep employees’ out-of-pocket costs at current levels while also realizing up to $26 million in savings.

These new plans have made health insurance negotiations more complex. In at least 20 supervisory unions, the parties have declared impasse over the inability to negotiate the transition to new health insurance plans.  The State of Vermont is uniquely positioned to bargain health care benefits and coverage with school employees in a manner that ensures fairness and equity for school employees and delivers savings for property taxpayers.  Governor Scott, the Vermont School Boards Association, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Superintendent’s Association have all come out publicly in favor of moving these negotiations to the state level.

Believe it or not, virtually every year the Vermont Legislature tries to enact property tax reforms.  Our education financing system is only able to deliver somewhat predictable outcomes on the tax collection side of the equation which the state controls.  Efforts to cut education spending at the state level are impossible to do if you want to know how individual students, classes or districts will be impacted (even though the Vermont imageConstitution arguably requires us to know those impacts) .  This impossibility is because spending is controlled at the individual district level.   The unique situation that has presented itself with the VEHI change in plans presents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Vermont to act as a state to save ALL property taxpayers and to also know (for once!) that there will not be negative impacts to individual students, classes or districts as a result of that action.

Governor Scott has indicated he will veto the budget if the Legislature doesn’t find a way to capture these significant savings.  I have co-sponsored an amendment that would move teacher healthcare bargaining to the state level.  My final vote on the budget will be dependent on two things regarding this bargaining proposal:

  1. That we approve moving healthcare negotiations for school employees to the state level.
  2. That we return ALL of the savings achieved by taking this action to the taxpayers and do not use the savings to pay for additional programs/costs put into the education fund.  Both the Governor and the Senate have proposed putting additional programs into the education fund this session.


H.170 POSSESSION AND CULTIVATION OF MARIJUANA BY A PERSON 21 YEARS OF AGE OR OLDER 
The intent of this bill is to eliminate all penalties for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana for a person who is 21 years of age or older while retaining civil and criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana and criminal penalties for unauthorized dispensing or sale of marijuana.  This bill allows for cultivation of up to three mature marijuana plants.  This act also retains civil penalties for possession of marijuana by a person under 21 years of age, which are the same as for possession of alcohol by a person under 21 years of age.  This bill does not allow for the regulation and taxing of marijuana sales.image

In November 2016, voters in Massachusetts and Maine approved possession and cultivation of marijuana for personal use by adults 21 years of age or older.  In July 2018, both states will begin to allow retail sales of marijuana and marijuana-infused products through licensed stores.  Canada is expected to act favorably on legislation legalizing marijuana possession and cultivation for adults 18 years of age or older and federal administration officials have cited the summer of 2018 as the date at which licensed retail stores will begin selling marijuana and marijuana-infused products to the public.

Legalization and legal markets adjacent to Vermont will increase costs in Vermont enforcement of impaired driving; particularity in areas close to the MA border and with large amounts of tourism traffic; like our district.  Whether or not Vermont acts to legalize, there is no increased revenue to offset the costs associated with the expected increase in impaired driving, or youth prevention.

The Senate has passed a full tax and regulate with home grow policy.

The House is expected to vote on H.170 in this final week.  It has been improved to prohibit use in child care establishments (over 50% are home based).   I am currently working on an amendment to require a Commission be established to produce a full tax and regulate policy.  Regardless as to my personal belief on marijuana legalization, I do believe Vermont needs to be able to address the impacts of legislation in adjacent states and countries.

This last week will likely be very busy and also have periods of very little activity as we wait for the senate or conference committees to act.   The very best means of reaching me this week, in addition to emailing lhsibilia@gmail.com, is likely through text (please tell me who you are!) at 1-802-384-0233.  I may only receive late in the evening or very early morning.   Alternatively, you can call the Sergeant at Arms office at 802-828-2228 and ask them to have me call you.

AND, speaking of the Sergeant at Arms, a reminder for any students who will be entering eighth grade next year – you can apply to be a (paid!) legislative page next winter by September 30th 2017.  The details on this 6 week program can be found at http://legislature.vermont.gov/the-state-house/civic-education/become-a-legislative-page/ .  For any parents of students who are interested, I am happy to answer questions on the process and experience.  I would highly encourage mature 8th graders with an interest in civics and how our government works to apply!

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura H. Sibilia

 

 

 

 

 

Session end in sight

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As the final weeks of the 2017 Session wind down, legislative changes are moving quickly through both the House and Senate.    Several items of interest to our area include changes to education legislation and increased tools for rural infrastructure and telecommunications.  Two education bills most likely to impact our district are the Senate miscellaneous education bill S.130 and the Senate bill providing increased flexibility for achieving the goals of Act 46.  Rep. Gannon and I have proposed amendments to each.  Notable aspects of S.130  include:

  • the creation of an Approved Independent Schools Study Committee to consider and make recommendations on the criteria to be used by the State Board of Education for the approval of an independent school,
  • moves assessment of Vermont public schools by Secretary from every two years to annually 
  • House Education committee has added a weighting study which has to do with how the equalized number of students are calculated for each district.

We will propose an amendment to the weighting study that would do two things – first it would require the work be done by those who have the technical knowledge to make assessments about the current weighting system: Agency of Education, Joint Fiscal Office and the Office of Legislative Council.   Second, consideration of an additional population density weighting would require utilizing research being conducted nationally by research and education intuitions.

Notable aspects of S.122 are flexibility in the creation of side-by-side districts, an extension on alternative structure proposals to six months after the Agency of Education has finalized the rules, decreasing the minimum number of students in a districts from 1100-900 and requiring the State board of education to list what districts it considers geographically isolated by September 30th of this year.  Rep. Gannon and I have worked with a number of legislators from five other joint or union school districts which came together in advance of Act 46 through either joint contracts or by becoming union districts but lost their small schools grants as a part of the process.  In our area this includes Whitingham and in our neighboring supervisory union this also includes Brookline and Newfane.  The other districts are Rupert, Bridgewater, Elmore, Fairlee, Pomfret, Vershire and East Fairlee.  These districts are being asked to further comply with Act 46 despite their purposeful merger actions prior to the state mandaes included in Act 46.  Small school grant eligible districts that merge under Act 46 are able to keep their small schools grants as incentives.  We are asking for these 10 districts to be afforded the same incentive if they take the further steps necessary to comply with Act 46.

In addition to these contemplated pieces of education legislation, Governor Scott has made a proposal to take advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to make a statewide spending cut.  As a result of the Affordable Care Act or “Obama care”, all teachers in the state of Vermont are about to see a change in the healthcare plans available to them.  The Governor has proposed that Vermont take this unique opportunity to have healthcare benefits for teachers negotiated at the state level.  The purported annual savings are 26 million dollars a year.  The Vermont School Boards Association and Superintendents Association have both offered support for this proposal.  It is virtually impossible to propose statewide cost cutting measures in education that don’t produce wide varieties of impacts for students and learning opportunities.  This proposal is one of the first I can recall.  Impacts from this proposal would include teachers unions having to bargain locally and as a statewide unit.  The savings this proposal might produce are currently being considered as part of a means to increase funding for higher education and childcare.

There are a number of very important votes coming up.  In Wardsboro there will be a revote on the Act 46 merger with Dover and Marlboro on May 1st 2017.  In Windham Southwest Supervisory union all districts will be voting on Act 46 proposals on May 31st.

Representatives Chip Conquest (D‐Newbury) and I introduced House bill H.459 which provides a process for creating flexible, inter‐municipal districts that may finance, build, acquire, own, and operate community‐based infrastructure to enhance local economic opportunities. These are known as REDI (Rural Economic Development Infrastructure) districts.

Originally conceived as a better way to obtain financing for high‐speed broadband networks in areas too small or too fragmented to consider forming communications union districts enabled in Act 411, it is apparent that REDIs may also be used for other economic development projects in agriculture, local food systems, alternative energy, and other sectors.  This language has been incorporated into S.135 which is an omnibus economic development bill.  We are hopeful for passage this year.

The legislature appear to be on track for a May 6th adjournment.  Thank you to all who have reached on to communicate on issues regarding domestic violence, marijuana, and automobile inspections.  Please stay in touch!  My cell phone number is 802-384-0233 and my email is lhsibilia@gmail.com.  I am posting updates on other legislative actions we are taking at http://www.laurasibiliavt.com.

Budget, Taxes and Act 46 public hearing

“We always hear about the rights of democracy, but the major responsibility of it is participation”
~Wynton Marsalis
April 1, 2017  
Public Hearing on possible changes to Act 46: The Senate has passed S.122, which would make modifications to Act 153 and Act 46.  The bills stated purpose is to provide increased flexibility for school district mergers.

The House Education Committee will hold a public hearing on S.122 on Tuesday evening, April 4, 2017.  The hearing will be held in room 11 at the State House in Montpelier from 5:30-7:30 PM.Witnesses may begin signing up at 5 PM for time to speak.  Testimony will be limited to three minutes per person with witnesses speaking in the order of sign up.  The Committee will also accept written testimony.  Testimony and questions may be directed to:

Marjorie Zunder, Committee Assistant, House Education Committee
mzunder@leg.state.vt.us

802-828-2258

This is an important opportunity for boards and members of the public to share information that can assist the House Education Committee as they consider the changes the Senate has suggested and whether or not to accept those changes and whether or not to make additional changes themselves. 

This is an important hearing. Testifying is easy.  Consider writing out your three minutes of testimony, and also consider framing it the form of a suggestion.  What could the legislature do that would make the job of improving opportunities for students easier?  If you do plan to come up and testify, please send me an email or text to let me know so I can plan to meet up with you.

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Important Wardsboro Meeting also happening on April 4th:

Wardsboro has scheduled a re-vote on the Dover/Marlboro/Wardsboro Act 46 merger articles to be held on May 1, 2017.  The board has warned the following meetings:

April 4, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at Wardsboro Elementary School – regularly scheduled school board meeting which will be attended by Brad James and Donna Russo-Savage from the Agency of Education.  Brad is a long time AOE staffer and Donna literally wrote Act 46 when she was employed as one of the lawyers for the legislature.  This will also be a good opportunity for Wardsboro residents to get answers to questions they have prior to the re-vote.

April 24, 2017 @ 6:30 p.m. at the Wardsboro Town Hall (public forum specifically for Act 46 reconsideration vote)

An abundance of information, previously posed questions and answers, and the proposed merger articles can be found at http://wcsu-committee.blogspot.com/

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This past week the House passed the tax bill unanimously – raising virtually no new taxes, but banking on increased enforcement for a small amount of funding. There was nearly unanimous support for the budget which increased by 1%.  The budget was largely uncontroversial with the exception of a study on education spending.  Rep. Heidi Scheuermann from Stowe and I, both proponents of property tax reform, spoke at length in opposition to this proposed study which calls for identification of cost drivers in education and legislative proposals to address the cost drivers.  Rep. Scheuermann spoke to dozens of studies which have been done on cost drivers in the past and called for action on the funding formula.  I spoke to the statutory definitions that make per pupil spending the definition of equity of opportunity called for in Brigham and also called for action on the funding formula.  Our request to strike the study received tri-partisan support but was was ultimately defeated 86-42.

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Thank you to all who have been contacting me on issues impacting or interesting you individually and our communities collectively.  I want to take a moment to share a few thoughts on particular bills I have heard from a number of folks on:

H.422 An act relating to removal of firearms from a person arrested or cited for domestic assault.  This bill passed the House 78-67.  This bill was initially troubling for me.  I am a strong supporter of our Constitution, but also know very well the danger and unpredictability in domestic violence situations.   Ultimately I voted against this measure because the law basically changed only one thing, whether or not a judge was contacted prior to removing a firearm after a crime had been committed which did not convince me made anyone safer and did infringe on due process for the accused.

H.170 An act relating to possession and cultivation of marijuana by a person 21 years of age or older.  Voters may recall I voted against last years (very different) marijuana legislation.  I’m convinced legalization will happen, but as long as it is still illegal federally, Vermont legislation needs to thoroughly consider taxation, regulation, impaired driving and youth prevention in order for me to consider voting for it.  This past week H.170 came to the floor for a vote.  I made a motion to send it to the Human Services Committee for additional considerations on youth prevention, which was agreed to.  My sense is the bill may yet emerge for a vote in the House.  If a vote passes the House it is expected to pass the Senate which overwhelming approved last years bill.

H.316 An act relating to renewable energy goals for Vermont’s total energy consumption.  This legislation seeks to put Vermont’s renewable energy goals into law, that is that we will provide 90% of our energy by renewable resources by 2050.  I am not opposed to this legislation, which was also introduced in the Senate.  The bill is in my committee for consideration this year or next, along with about 30 other bills.  We have taken zero testimony on this bill, and that will definitely happen prior to us taking it up.  Given that the session is 3/4 over, the chances for this bill this year are pretty slim.   I was surprised to be contacted by a number of constituents asking me for action on this bill, notifying me that VPIRG had been persistently contacting them and urging them to contact me.  VPIRG is the largest nonprofit consumer and environmental advocacy organization in Vermont.  They are in the statehouse every single day, and in my committee more days then not.  To the best of my knowledge, they never even asked our Committee Chair, never mind me, if he would take this legislation up this year.  VPIRG does some good work including grassroots outreach.  Unfortunately, this is not my first experience with them misleading my constituents – unnecessarily I might add.  Thank you to the folks who reached out to me to ask me about this!

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We are starting to hear talk of coming back in October to address federal impacts on the Vermont budget.  There may be significant impacts to healthcare, education and environmental programs.   As soon as more is known definitively, I will share that information.

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I am honored to represent you in the Vermont Legislature.  In order to do so effectively, I need to hear from you about ideas, issues or opportunities.   My cell phone is 802-384-0233 and my email is lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Please stay in touch, and stay engaged,

 

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

House to vote on S.79 ~ An act relating to freedom from compulsory collection of personal information

constitutionA month ago, Governor Phil Scott  announced a series of steps his Administration is taking to protect the rights of all Vermonters, following executive orders from President Trump relating to immigration and refugee resettlement.

Here is a link to read S.79, legislation which directly supports the Governor’s actions and which has passed the Senate unanimously 30-0 .  When the Legislature reconvenes after the Town Meeting week break, the House will take up S.79, which is expected to pass, though not unanimously.  I will support the bill, and have engaged our local law enforcement.  The Governor’s office has prepared a frequently asked questions sheet with regard to Vermont’s actions.  Please call me with any questions you have 802-384-0233.

2017 Town Meeting update

Town Meeting Update March 2017

presentation1It’s an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and to communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this Town Meeting update.

BUDGET: Governor Scott has provided a 7.93B budget to the Legislature which outlines his priorities for the state.  Included were increases for early childhood education, higher education, workforce training and housing.  The Governor proposed paying for cradle through college services through the state’s education fund, proposed increased efficiencies and effectiveness opportunities through combining the agencies of Commerce and Labor as well as the Liquor and Lottery Commissions.  These proposals have been met with varying degrees of pushback in the Legislature,including a significant increase proposed to the property tax and some concerns about ensuring worker protections.  I have voiced my opposition to both the Governor’s office and to our house leadership regarding increases to the property tax resulting from added services being paid for out of the education fund. The House Appropriations Committee has been working through the proposals and has hosted public hearings around the state to gather feedback.  We will vote on the House’s proposed budget in the coming weeks, and then the process will move to the Senate.

EDUCATION:  Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcomb has been reappointed by Governor Scott to lead the Agency of Education.  ACT 46 Many legislators in the House support consideration of a number of changes to Act 46, including clarity around alternative structures and increased time for districts, through H.15.  There has been resistance by the education committees toward making any changes to Act 46 prior to Town Meeting when a number of merger votes will take place, but the Senate Education Committee has been working on a bill that would increase Act 46 timelines if certain criteria are met and provided more flexibility in establishing a side by side district.  Education Finance I have been named to an Education Finance Committee Speaker Mitzi Johnson has established.  We have been told that our goal is to produce options for changes to the financing mechanism for next year.  This year, we have at least six different education finance proposals.  Along with Rep. Olsen, Rep. Long and Reps. Gannon, I have co-sponsored H.183  which proposes a temporary funding solution for school districts with declining student enrollment like Twin Valley and Leland and Gray.  I have also proposed H.274 which asks the Agency of Education to make a recommendation on the addition of a school district population density factor to the weighting factors used to determine equalized pupil counts, an outline of the minimum high schools located in rural Vermont should be required to have, and an opinion on the consequences of schools in rural Vermont closing.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS: New Committee  This year the house created a new committee, Energy and Technology, to provide greater focus for both telecommunications and IT projects.  This is the committee I have been placed on for the next two years.  Act 248a We have been working on H.250 which reauthorizes Act 248a for three more years.  248a was enacted to provide an easier means of erecting telecommunications technology then Act 250.  My colleague Rep. Yantachka has written a helpful brief history of Act 248a.  Telecom Plan I’ve also introduced H.347 which seeks to have the Vermont 10 year Telecommunications Plan developed in consultation with Education, Healthcare and Public safety agencies, in addition to Commerce.  Locally I have been working with the Department of Public Service and CoverageCo, a company contracted to delivery limited cellular services to communities isolated during T.S. Irene.  Both Readsboro and Whitingham have these sites operational, though in some cases the placement has not been optimal.  Wardsboro was to have two sites which to date have not been installed.  We are working with the company to do some Town Meeting surveying to better inform next steps.  Along with Rep. Chip Conquest, I’ve introduced H.459, a bill looking to help municipalities finance telecommunications infrastructure projects.

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Much of this year’s focus in economic development is on workforce training and recruitment needs and career and technical training.  There are also a number of communities who are looking to lift the limit on the number of Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) Districts in the State.  TIFs are a municipal infrastructure financing tool, used widely throughout the country.  In Vermont, almost all TIFs exist in Chittenden County, and there is a ban on establishing any new districts.  In my committee we have been looking at what impact energy storage can have both on helping us achieve our renewable energy goals and on providing more stability to the energy grid.  Our neighbors are getting ahead of us in developing storage which could have negative impacts for Vermont ratepayers in the future.

ON THE HORIZON:   Paid family leave insurance program, $15 minimum wage, marijuana decriminalization, and a fight over how to pay for the cleanup of Lake Champlain.

FEDERAL IMPACTS ON STATE:  There are a number of federal impacts to workforce, education, healthcare that are being carefully monitored by both Governor Scott’s Administration and the Vermont Legislature.  It is not clear how our budget, heavily dependent on federal funding, may be impacted by changes to healthcare.   Working with Governor Scott, both the House and Senate have bills which address possible over reaches by the federal government with our law enforcement personnel and with the collection of personal information.  H.228 has passed the Senate 30-0 and is likely to be voted on in the House this week.  More information on what these bills do and do not do can be found on my website www.laurasibilivavt.com 

I look forward to seeing folks at town Meeting and over the town Meeting week legislative break.  As always, don’t hesitate to call me 802-384-0233 or email if I an answer questions or be of assistance.

Kind regards,

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

 

2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

Times and locations for our districts Town Meeting and Australian Ballot items are belowAct 46 Australian ballot votes and other notable Town Meeting education articles are in green.   On Monday night March 6th, I’ll be traveling to all of the Bennington County Towns, starting with Searsburg, then Stamford, then ending in Readsboro. On Tuesday March 7th, town Meeting day, I’ll be accompanied by Windham County Senator Becca Balint as I travel to our Windham County Towns beginning with Wardsboro’s Town Meeting, then Dover and ending in Whitingham.

Additional INFORMATIONAL meetings:

  • Twin Valley Joint School District Informational Meetings will be held on Tuesday February 28th at 7 pm at Twin Valley Elementary in Wilmington and on Thursday March 2nd at 7 pm at Twin Valley Middle high School in Whitingham
  • Dover, Wardsboro and Marlboro Act 46 Study Committee final meeting on Monday March 27th at Dover Town Hall (next to the Dover Free Library) at 6:30 PM
  • Dover Candidates Forum Tuesday February 28th at 6:15 pm Dover Town Hall
  • Dover Pre-Town Meeting Tuesday February 28th at 7:00 pm Dover Town Hall

Stamford

Stamford Elementary School
Town Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7 p.m. Warning
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7:30 pm Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Stamford town officers
  • Stamford school district officers

Readsboro

Readsboro School Auditorium
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m. Warning
Australian ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Readsboro town officers
  • Readsboro school district officers

Searsburg

Searsburg Town Office
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m.

Wardsboro

Wardsboro Town Hall
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 6:30 p.m.
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 9 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Wardsboro town officers
  • Wardsboro school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Dover

Dover Town Hall on Dover Common
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Dover town officers
  • Dover school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Whitingham

Twin Valley Middle/High School
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning

  • Article 32: Shall the town raise and appropriate 100,000 to the litigation fund in the event we need to litigate with the state due to the inequality of the education tax

School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

Public Meeting February 22 on CoverageCo cellular resiliency sites in Whitingham, Readsboro and Halifax

On Wednesday February 22nd, Reps. Laura Sibilia and John Gannon will host a public meeting from 6:30 – 8 pm at the Jacksonville Municipal Center, 2948 Vermont Route 100, in Jacksonville, VT.  The purpose of the meeting will be to hear from the Vermont Department of Public Service about the Vermont EDA  funded Resiliency Project, a disaster recovery project created in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene to provide rural communities with critical, limited, cellular communications and internet.

That project is being implemented by CoverageCo out of Lexington, MA.  Vanu Bose of CoverageCo will be on hand to talk about the project’s purpose, obstacles the company has encountered, hear residents ideas about getting more people using the network, how towns might positively impact the project going forward, and the high level, financial costs and revenues associated with each site.  Residents from Whitingham, Readsboro and Halifax are encouraged to attend.

Govenor Scott’s budget recommendations

Governor Scott released his first recommended state budget for Vermont today.  He prefaced his comments by pointing to Vermont’s shrinking workforce as our single largest obstacle – I wholeheartedly agree.  His budget proposed a massive realignment of our education system to include early education and childcare as well as post secondary education, and innovative realignments at the Agency of Comerce and Department of Commerce.  True to his word, he delivered a budget without an increase in taxes or fees, and which takes a fresh look at how government is best organized to serve Vermonters. It is the second part that I most appreciate, because we can’t level fund and protect the most vulnerable if we don’t examine how we are currently operating for opportunities to innovate.

The Governor has proposed a radical relook at our education system.  He has proposed funding school districts at their FY 2017 district spending levels and holding median property tax bills to their current FY 2017 levels.  I know at least one of my rural districts, currently looking at a .50 property tax increase despite cutting their budget by 750K, would very much like for this proposal to be possible.  The Governor has also asked school boards, a number of whom have already finalized their budgets, to go back and sharpen their pencils in order to come back with level funded budgets.  In order to accommodate that work, the Governor has proposed that all school budgets be voted on on May 28th, four months from today’s budget address.  I hope to meet with the Administration in the coming days to understand how they envision this working with the myriad pending Act 46 votes and whether or not they are supporting an extension of any of the Act 46 deadlines as a result of this proposal.  

Governor Scott has also proposed significant additional programs for Vermont’s property taxpayers to fund.  We do not currently have an education system that can be easily modified to do what the Governor has recommended and maintain equity.  The system we do have is in the process of a massive and historic reorganization.  Here is a link to the Governor’s budget recommendations. I will be reading these recommendations with an open mind, remembering that Vermont students have equal protection under the law provided for them in the Vermont Constitution and that the property tax burden is largely considered to be untenable at current rates.

The Governor has also proposed that non-Medicaid eligible clients be able to bypass the Vermont Health Connect system to enroll with the healthcare provider of their choice, needed increases in funds for opiate treatment, investments in workforce housing, closing the Windsor work camp, a scholarship program for Vermont National Guardsman, and an entrepreneurial reorganization of Vermont’s Commerce and Labor entities.

The House Appropriations Committee has announced a series of public hearings on the Governor’s proposed budget. The full schedule is linked here, but the Southern Vermont hearing will be Feb 13th in Bellows Falls at the Windham Antiques Center at 6 pm.  After reviewing the Governors recommend budget, consider either attending this hearing, or submitting written comments.  Do you love the Governor’s proposals, or think you have a better idea?  It actually does matter and your voice will be considered.

The pace of things and #WomensMarchVT

The size and window of opportunity that exists when all of Vermont’s legislators come together for the winter months is truly significant. We have the opportunity every day to meet and work with our colleagues from around the state and members of the Administration on solving problems for Vermonters.  This week I have been busy working with my colleagues to establish a Rural Vermont working group, consider appropriate legislative changes to Act 46, travel home to Dover midweek to meet with my fellow Act 46 study committee members to host our second public input meeting, learn more about a rural cell service project that is in jeopardy, talked with multiple perspectives about universal background checks, coordinated a conference call for seven Southern Vermont towns to learn more about financing fiber to the home projects, participated in multiple discussions around school choice, civility and the crushing burdens some state education finance policy is placing on our rural schools.

I am grateful to be able to work full time on these challenges and many more for my district during these four months.  While the long work days are rewarding and invigorating,  I also look forward to my ride back to Dover on Friday night and my weekends at home with my boys.

This weekend I am still in Montpelier.  Today I am going to march with other women in our Vermont capitol.  The specific individual motivations of the marchers here will be varied and numerous.  Mine are to stand with my daughters, people of color, a free press and the LGBT community.  I also stand with those who march today in the right to life parade in Montpelier and their First Amendment right to express their religious beliefs.