This week I’m packing to head back up to Montpelier for the legislative session which starts on January 5th and will likely go through some unknown date in May. I’ve also been catching up with folks who have reached out to me on various issues they care about or problems they are trying to fix.
Being your Representative in the Vermont Legislature is a thought provoking and curious job. Often the requirement is helping empower and inform citizens on how to better navigate their government. There are just as many times I’m learning from constituents who possess deep background and knowledge on specific issues and who are trying to make their town, their school, or their industry work better. Thank you to all who have taken the time to reach out for assistance or to help me better understand their interest.
Topics of concern or specific issues ideas I have been hearing from you about since the end of last year’s session include numerous challenges with implementing the school governance reform Act 46, Vermont education finance, the clean-up of Lake Champlain, last mile challenges (in most of my towns!) with broadband and cellular, ATV access to state land, the uses of Act 250 fees, AirBnB regulation, emergency response times, Gilfeather Turnips!, the reliability of an eventually enacted state energy plan with 90% renewables, licensing of art therapists, a carbon tax and of course I have heard from folks both opposed and in favor of marijuana legalization.
In addition to the aforementioned issues and a host of other policy initiatives and ideas, Vermont is again facing a current year and project FY 17 deficit. This is largely associated with Medicaid and is a direct result of having increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for benefits through both the federal and state health care actions, but not increasing taxes to pay for the newly eligible recipients. The situation is even more urgent due to inadequate reimbursement rates for healthcare providers. Last year the Governor proposed a .08 payroll tax to pay for the increased eligibility demands, but the tax was not supported by the Legislature. This year he is saying he will not propose new taxes but will reduce other services in order to pay for the medicaid expansion. The solution almost certainly will involve either cutting benefits, raising taxes, or some of both.
In December I spent the day in Montpelier attending the pre session legislative briefing put together by the Joint Fiscal Office.
The Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) was created in 1973. The primary mission of the office is to provide non-partisan financial analyses to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, the House Ways & Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, the House and Senate Transportation Committees, and the Joint Fiscal Committee. The Office also provides additional non-partisan staff support to committees in a variety of fiscal areas including health care, education finance, institutions and general fiscal analysis. There is a tremendous amount of financial information on there website, a great resource for Vermonters.
The chief economist for the legislature, Tom Kavet, gave his assessment of the current economic and demographic trends in Vermont.
Education Secretary Holcomb during the December 1 briefing
We were also briefed by members of the Governor’s administration including the Secretary of the Administration and the Commissioner of Finance on how the current year budget is doing (there is a 48M+ shortfall), and how the upcoming years budget will look if revenues and expenses stay the same (another potential 58M+ shortfall). The Governor’s Secretary of Education gave an update on implementation of Act 46.
On December 1st the Commissioner of Taxes released forecasts related to education tax rates for the upcoming fiscal year, FY2017. The statutorily required forecasts are a joint effort between the Agency of Education, Department of Taxes, and Joint Fiscal Office. This year the forecast shows that the projected average homestead property tax rate will rise by 1 cent to $1.535 per $100. The projected average nonresidential property tax rate will rise by three tenths of one cent to $1.538. The projected average income rate will go down slightly from 2.74% in FY2016 to 2.72% in FY2017 (which begins on July 1, 2016). The average tax bill for all three types of payers is projected to increase 1.12%. Read more on this here
This year I hope to increase the number of updates from the State House – feel free to let me know if you are hearing too much or too little! You can also monitor the work my committee is doing and check in on how I am voting on issues by going to the legislature website www.http://legislature.vermont.gov/
As always, I encourage folks to weigh in on issues that you care strongly about. The best way to reach me is email at email@example.com or cell at (802) 384-0233. And if you are in Montpelier on business or to testify, give me a call and let me know if you’d like to try and meet.