Town Meeting Legislative Update
March 3, 2015
Dear Friends and Neighbors:
It is an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this newsletter. I have been busy since the beginning of the session working in my committee, researching issues and developing legislation. There appears to be growing consensus that we have to look at structural changes in how we govern ourselves and provide for our people as the budget challenges we are facing in this and the coming few years are serious, and so is the mood in Montpelier.
Thank you to all who have reached out to me with suggestions, concerns and encouragement. There are so many issues and opportunities being considered by the Legislature that it can be difficult for me to understand how every one might impact you, your family, town, school or business. When you contact me about specific policy concerns, it helps me understand what the policy implementation is looking like. Even if I do not share your opinion on an issue, I do want to understand your concern or hope and perhaps assist in finding alternative solutions.
Working with all of our colleagues in Southern Vermont’s Windham and Bennington region, as well as a number from the Northeast Kingdom, Rep. Kiah Morris (D) of Bennington and I introduced legislation last week that would require the Administration and Legislature to give significant deference to regional planning and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) when dealing with the impacts of a significant loss of jobs. The bill is intended to ensure that our local and regional voice and work is honored, and it’s was inspired by the years of work residents, towns, non-profits and business invest in regional land use and economic development planning.
The section by section summary of H.361 (the education bill that passed out of the education committee last week) is linked at http://legislature.vermont.gov/committee/document/2016/10/Date/2-27-2015. There are significant implications for small communities and schools, school choice, governance and a 2% spending cap that could possibly work more like a club then a scalpel the smaller your district is. This is NOT a major overhaul of our education system or a sustainable mechanism to fix property taxes AND provide equitable opportunity. However, there are some elements here to help districts that are struggling to provide opportunities for their students. I will be working closely with a number of colleagues to ensure communities have all of the resources and assistance needed to seriously consider and implement these and any other mandates that are eventually enacted.
To that end, I have introduced legislation that would require the Agency of Education to project both the 5 year savings and 5 year improvement in educational opportunities for all districts that currently receive a small schools grant, if those communities consolidated there school district. I have also introduced legislation that establishes a joint education and commerce working group to work with towns and their school districts to plan steps that can mitigate the impacts of a proposed or induced small school closure. Similar work is already required in New York State.
This year, half the cost of Dual Enrollment programs, part of the Flexible Pathways initiative, are required to be paid for by individual districts. There is discussion about having these funds come out of the Education Fund instead to share the costs throughout the state instead of just on districts. There is data about current usage of this important program which can be found at http://education.vermont.gov/laws/legislative-reports .
The governor identified water quality, particularly that of Lake Champlain, as an area of major focus in his Inaugural address. A Water Quality Bill (H.35), was passed by the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee 7-2 late on the afternoon of February 20th and is now in House Agriculture. The bill establishes standards for the agricultural and forest industry; for development and for impervious surfaces; and for the state and town highway system. It looks to provide additional staffing to the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture, along with funds for municipalities and local nonprofits to address the requirements of Lake Champlain’s pollution as required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The financing of the bill calls for a .5 cent increase to the rooms, meals, and liquor taxes (sunset after 3 years), a 2 cent gas tax, and new fees on agriculture.
The Ways and Means Committee is responsible for all revenues coming to the state. Currently the committee has recommended considering changes to the state’s Current Use program. This is the program that taxes property on its use right now, not its potential use. Nearly half the land in the state is enrolled in Current Use, and these properties are assessed an average reduction in property tax of 88%. This is a total cost to the education fund of $45 million and cost to the municipal taxpayers of $15 million. There is legislation underway to change Current Use by assessing land pulled out of current use at its actual value instead of a diffused value.
Ways and Means has moved a bill to the House floor already, the Fee Bill. The fee bill is an annual event for the Administration and the Legislature. Every year, up to one third of all fees that Vermont assesses for a host of different licenses and inspections are reviewed. This year’s proposal was to increase fees by over 2.8 million. The biggest percentage increases were on small restaurants which were looking at increases in the 70% range. I originally told House Leadership I would not support the bill because of the impacts to our districts business community, but was encouraged by Rep. Oliver Olsen (I) Londonderry to try and do more than just vote no.
Working with Legislative Council, and with the assistance of Rep. Jim Condon (D) from Colchester and Rep. Patty Komline (R) of Dorset, I drafted an amendment that reduced the proposed fee increases on small restaurants by 100K. The Ways and Means Committee agreed to the amendment and the House passed it. I’m glad to have been able to work with others to do something for small businesses other than just vote no.
H.117 expands the Department of Public Service’s telecommunications division into a Division of Telecommunications and Connectivity and assigns the functions and assets of the former Vermont Telecommunications Authority to that division. A new advisory board has been established to work with the Commissioner and telecom providers to improve broadband speeds and incent build out in higher cost areas. We are going to need significantly more public investment than we are currently budgeting for if we want to be able to leverage high speed connections for economic growth in our rural state.
S.31, an act relating to possession and transfer of firearms, appears to have stalled in Senate Judiciary where it had the support of the President Pro Tem John Campbell. A similar bill, H.250, was introduced into House Judiciary on February 20.
In addition to our efforts on a number of other issues, Rep. Barbara Murphy of Fairfax (another freshman Independent) and I were asked by constituents to introduce support H.65 by folks interested in the history of this uniquely Vermont vegetable. We are pleased that the Wardsboro 5th and 6th grade classes will be able to testify to the House Agriculture Committee and learn about both the Legislative process and the Vermont heritage of this native vegetable.
Stay in touch!
Representing the towns of Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356