We are three weeks in to the session, and a number of items are seeing some legislative action.
Of local importance, this week Wardsboro’s native Gilfeather Turnip made a significant step towards being named the Vermont State Vegetable after passing the House. Congratulations to the Wardsboro students who have testified in support of this significant piece of Wardsboro history and the Friends of the Wardsboro Library for their continued advocacy! My fellow Windham County Legislator Rep. Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture and forest Products Committee brought in enough turnips for lunch in the the State House Cafeteria. This week the bill, H.65 will be introduced in the Senate.
BUDGET and HEALTHCARE
On Thursday Governor Shumlin delivered his last budget address. The current year projections were for a 58 million dollar deficits, largely associated with having increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for health care benefits through both the federal and state laws, but not increasing taxes to pay for the newly eligible recipients.
Last year the Governor proposed a .08 payroll tax to pay for the increased eligibility demands, but that tax was not supported by the Legislature. In the budget address Thursday, he proposed raising roughly
30 million in new taxes and fees and making 38 million in cuts to close this year’s budget gap. The taxes and fees are from a new provider tax on dentists and independent physicians as well as an increase in the registration fee for mutual funds. Proposed cuts included raising the income threshold for pregnant woman to qualify for medicaid, closing a prison work camp and reducing the number of out of state prison beds. By Friday the Governor’s office had changed it’s mind on removing the pregnant women from medicaid, so additional cuts will need to be proposed.
The healthcare situation is even more urgent due to inadequate medicaid reimbursement rates for healthcare providers, ambulance and other services. In fact last Monday many members of the Windham County delegation met with representatives from Deerfield Valley Rescue and Rescue Inc. and learned that Rescue Inc has recently had to reduce services due to the medicaid reimbursement situation. We were surprised to learn that medications given on ambulances are not reimbursable, nor are any responses that do not result in taking a patient to the hospital.
The first three weeks of the session have been a pointed reminder of just how little consensus there is with regard to how our education finance system works and how to reform it.
Last year the Legislature passed Act 46 which provided incentives for school districts to consolidate their boards. Consolidating school boards is intended to provide more equal opportunities for students. There was no consensus that consolidating school boards would save money in the short term, and only a “hope” by some that it would save money in the long term. And so there was general consensus that something additional had to be done last year to limit property tax increases. Per pupil spending caps were considered, as was a dramatic
lowering of an existing per pupil excess spending penalty threshold. These measures would have almost exclusively impacted the 5% of students and spending attributed to small schools.
The final cost containment piece that was included last year was a 2% allowable growth rate (AGR) threshold that varied according to your existing per pupil spending, and impacted all schools including those large and extra large schools responsible for 60% percent of the students and the statewide spending.
It is little surprise that putting downward pressure on the spending of almost all school districts in Vermont resulted in calls for repeal of the AGR. The Governor called for repeal of the AGR. The Senate indicated early on that they would be looking to repeal. However, the House leadership indicated that repeal was not likely. House Ed. Chairman Dave Sharpe floated the idea of a .09% increase in everyone’s AGR to account for uncontrollable costs like an 8% increase in health insurance premiums. All sides concurred that if any changes were to be made, they would need to be made right away when the legislature reconvened. School boards have to have budgets prepared in January and finalized for Town Meeting and Town Meeting Handbooks.
As expected, the Senate voted to repeal the AGR the second week of the session. The House discovered that the Agency of Education had given school districts the wrong AGR percentage and troubled over how to correct that for a bit. Watching my fellow lawmakers trying to find consensus on repealing, correcting or modifying the AGR reminded of the game twister. While most school budgets at this point have already been finalized, the relevant committees were turning themselves inside out trying to find a way forward that could win the approval of the whole House. While I genuinely admired the effort, it truly seems like many don’t really understand the budget timeline process our school boards are in. Next week we will vote on a bill that includes the .09% increase, holds the school districts harmless for the Agency of Education miscommunication, and reduces the overall penalty for going over the AGR from 100% to 25%.
Senator Diane Snelling has introduced language to amend the Vermont Constitution and have our Governors serve four year terms. One of the biggest challenges Vermont faces is the disincentive a two year term provides to creating and following long term strategies, and so I support this effort. Amending the constitution requires an affirmative vote of the Legislature in two different bienniums. So a vote this year, and a vote in 2017 or 2018, will allow for Vermonters to vote on the amendment in 2020.