2016 End of Session Report

Dear friends and neighbors,

This year’s session ended Saturday, which also marked the completion of the 2015/2016 biennium.  The last days of the second year of a biennium are incredibly chaotic, as any legislation introduced in 2015 or 2016 Sessions must pass or start the process all over again next year.

Below are some summaries of how key legislation, and legislation important to our district ended up:

Possible state purchase of TransCanada Dams:
Glory Hole Empty May 2009A seven-member working group was formed by the Governor, the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem to determine whether the state should try to buy 13 dams TransCanada has put on the market.  Windham county legislators were successful in our efforts to include a regional representative of impacted municipalities.  You can monitor this working groups progress here on the Agency of Administrations website.

On April 27th 2016 members of the Windham and Bennington County delegation met with Vermont Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson and Windham Region Commission Executive Director RC Chris Campany regarding the possibility of a State of Vermont purchase of TransCanada assets. Secretary Johnson outlined three items the state was currently working on:transcanada
1. Scope of work for an RFP to get a consultant to look at work done by the state 12 years ago when the possibility of acquiring power generation assets had previously been considered.
2. Develop legislative language that is modeled to set up authority to run dams needed; however, the Secretary indicated he didn’t see how the state would do this without without a partner.
3. Valuation of some of the dams under state ownership.

Marijuana legalization:
The House had three votes on marijuana policy.  The first vote on the Senate proposal to legalize marijuana failed by a vote of 121-28.  The second vote to hold a non binding referendum during the August Primary elections failed 97-51.  The third vote, to decriminalize home cultivation of two plants failed 77-70.  It seems likely that legalization will occur in the coming years.  Since marijuana is illegal federally, I believe thoughtful regulation needs the input of many more legislative committees than have been involved to date, and will require more time then one year.  Given the session’s time constraints and resulting lack of vetting, as well as the fact that we have very large healthcare and educational reforms happening during a historical state leadership transition, I voted against all three measures.

Budget:
The Senate and House agreed to approve total budgets of 5.76B which is a 2.4% increase over last year.  I voted to support this budget largely because of the process by which it was created. Every legislator had multiple opportunities to participate in its development, voters were provided additional multiple public forums to participate in, and the House Appropriations Committee required every Agency and Department to prioritize and justify its programs with outcomes.  Read the summary here: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/appropriations/fy_2017/2017_budget_summary_COC_May_2016.pdf

Taxes: The tax and fee bills to support the budget included an increased fee on mutual fund providers and an assumption of increased rooms and meals tax collection as a result of tax compliance initiatives aimed at internet based lodging providers like AirBnB.  The original House tax bill had included an employer health care assessment which included an assessment on some employees or dependents who had health care through their partner or spouse.  I vote against the original House tax bill because of that potential double coverage penalty and given the number of employers who dropped their health care coverage, made their employees eligible for Green Mountain Care, and paid the amounts previously spent on premiums to their employees for their deductibles – as recommended by state officials.  With the employer assessment gone, I voted to support these bills.

It is important to note that Healthcare reform initiatives remain the single biggest increased cost driver in our state budget challenges.  By a lot.  We have significantly increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for publicly funded healthcare but have not significantly increased taxes to pay for that care.  We are going to have to kick people off of publicly funded healthcare, dramatically reduce other programs, or raise more money in order to sustain this current system.

Telecom: The House overwhelmingly passed a bill which required providers to provide mapping data on their coverage areas or lose access to public funds, made changes to Act 248(a) which deals with equipment siting, funded restoration of services to the blind, and raised the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee by half a percent to raise 1.6 million annually to expand broadband in unserved areas.  The Senate refused to take the bill up.  Rep. Sam Young (D) Glover led an effort by the Ways and Means Committee to attach the entire telecom bill to another bill sent to the Senate which provided long awaited reforms to the estate tax, but in the end, the Senate still refused to take up the bill.  This represents a temporary set back for towns and areas, previously thought to be covered by VTel, which are working to expand service, as their will be less state funding this year then expected.The Senate did include one claw back provision regarding VTel which received over 2M in state funds to purchase equipment meant to provide cell service to under-served areas.  Unless evidence of 2000 cell customers covered is provided, VTel will have to repay those funds in 2017.  Additionally the State Auditor has requested copies of VTel’s federal grant to develop a wireless network to provide service to unserved Vermonters and expand it’s existing fiber to the home.

Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone: This year’s Economic Development bill included50K in funding to support the development of regionally based economic development collaboration in

Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D) Windham Chairs the House Agriculture Committee

Bennington County.  This process is needed to support future plans to develop a comprehensive economic development plan with Windham County.  I’ve championed this zone initiative, which began last year, along with Rep. Oliver Olson (I) Londonderry and Rep. Kiah Morris (D) Bennington.

Gilfeather Turnip: Wardsboro’s Gilfeather turnip will officially become Vermont’s state vegetable on May 24th when the Governor signs the bill in Montpelier.  Kudo’s to the Wardsboro students and Wardsboro library volunteers who worked so hard, over two years, making the historical case for this to happen.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge and Senator Bobby Starr were instrumental in the bills passage, and in patiently explaining to Wardsboro’s students how long the process would take.

Please don’t hesitate to be in touch on issues of importance to you.  The best means of contacting me is email lhsibilia@gmail.com or cell 802-384-0233.

Warm regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia

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