Time to eliminate the Venn of Doom

“By the 1930s nearly 90% of U.S. urban dwellers had electricity, but 90% of rural homes were without power. Investor-owned utilities often denied service to rural areas, citing high development costs and low profit margins. Consequently, even when they could purchase electricity, rural consumers paid far higher prices than urban consumers.” – from the University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives  Research on the Economic Impact of Cooperatives

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Vermont has state-of-the-art communication technologies. We have cell service throughout much of our state and wireless internet solutions in areas where the topography works. We have middle mile fiber, cable and dsl that connects residents and businesses to the global economy, their doctors and public safety and even provides phone service through VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocols).  Modern life is possible in much of Vermont. Still it’s no secret that access to wired and wireless phone and internet is unevenly available in the Green Mountain state. What may not be as widely known is that in some of the most rural parts of Vermont this situation is not static, it’s deteriorating. We have a negative relationship of conditions which has developed; a Venn diagram of doom if you will.

An early morning call from one of my constituents this summer drove this point home. She lives in a community which is almost exclusively limited to dial up or satellite for internet, sadly VTel’s federally taxpayer funded wireless network is still not available in her town. The only cell service in her town, CoverageCo limited 2G, is non operational and has been for some time.  She recently had serious surgery and is also handicapped. It takes over 30 minutes to get the State Police to her town, at least 30 minutes for an ambulance assuming a volunteer and driver are able to respond immediately and the hospitals are 30 minutes away (when the roads are open and not closed with snow accidents or washed out roads). She called because her landline phone line was not working and the repair date she was given – more than a week – had her worried for her safety.

This summer I received an unusually high number of complaints about phone service repairs and installations. There has been a corresponding increase in complaints about repair times to the Public Utility Commission which regulates landline telephone service and other public utilities like electricity.  Because of this, it would not surprise me to see an investigation opened up and action taken against the rural landline telephone provider. The irony here is the regulated landline telephone provider is the ONLY provider required to supply service to those Vermonters who reside at the intersection of the “Venn of Doom” – the place where no cell service, no internet service, and long distances from emergency response and emergency healthcare meet.

Vermont – and all other state’s – have limited ability to regulate the build out of wireless (cell service) and wired internet (cable) due to federal preemption. These for profit providers compete in an extremely dynamic marketplace, with rapidly innovating technologies, in Vermont’s densely populated areas. They compete with each other and they also compete with the regulated telephone providers who must provide service and repairs of critical infrastructure to all Vermonters, not just those they can make a profit selling a high end product to. Guess which type of provider is losing landline customers in the easy – and cost effective to provide service to – densely populated service areas? Guess who still has to provide essential telephone service even when they lose landline customers? Guess who Vermont can penalize for poor service or lack of coverage?

This declining situation is not acceptable.  My colleagues in the legislature have heard me declare more then once that we aren’t just going to roll up rural Vermont and put it away – real people, families, students and businesses live there. Real businesses and towns are unable to participate in Vermont’s economy and services. We have allowed a situation to develop that is increasing risk and vulnerability in rural Vermont.

The time for patiently waiting for this situation to improve has passed. Concerns about vulnerable rural Vermonters landline access have been communicated to the Public Service Department. An RFP to find a provider to replace the CoverageCo cell service has recently been released – which is important to many towns and schools in our district. These short term actions will help. But going forward we need a shift in how we think about telecommunication access and the market for communication products, who is responsible for ensuring critical infrastructure is accessible everywhere in our state, we are going to need to develop a plan for empowering communities or regions to manage and finance connectivity expansions. In each of the last two bienniums the House has overwhelmingly passed funding measures to address parts of this challenge – we will need our Senate colleagues to join us in this next biennium. In the administration we need the DPS to have more resources and partners trying to solve this public safety, education, healthcare access, economic issue. As a state, and with our private sector providers, Vermont must take a long hard look at the regulatory structures that have produced this outcome and ensure our regulatory environment going forward supports reliable affordable essential communications infrastructure availability for all Vermonters.

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Dan French appointed new Vermont Secretary of Education

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New Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French

Governor Scott has announced the appointment of Dan French as Vermont’s next Education Secretary.  Secretary French is very familiar with our districts two supervisory unions: WSWSU and the WCSU.  He previously served as the Superintendent in the Bennington Rutland Supervisory Union to our north, and consulted on several Act 46 mergers and on behalf of previous AOE Secretary Holcomb, opportunities for collaboration between our two supervisory unions.

Secretary French is highly qualified and experienced in the function and dysfunction of Vermont’s current education delivery and financing system which includes multiple major reform initiatives currently being led at the local level.  He is also specifically familiar with the Twin Valley mergers and all of the Act 46 efforts currently underway in both of our supervisory unions.  I am cautiously optimistic about this appointment.

Hopefully with this appointment, we will see prompt follow through at the AOE on reexamining the issues of student weight as doubly required by statute.  This is perhaps the most critical component for both lowering property taxes and ensuring equity under the current financing formula.  I hope Secretary French makes the case for additional AOE staffing resources to support Act 46, Special Education, employee healthcare efforts currently underway at the local level by local citizens.  It is my hope that his experience will temper consideration of any additional major policy initiatives in the next two years  – including, especially, mandatory state directed staff ratio adjustments.

I have recently heard from a number of non income sensitized property owners that they were surprised by the size of the increase in this year’s property tax bill.  It remains a priority for me to successfully address property taxes and maintain accessible high quality education for students in our communities.  We can do both if we are willing to look at the major cause of our inability to control the tax rate or ensure equity for all Vermont students – disconnected state funding and local decision making systems.

Please stay engaged and stay in touch via email lhsibilia@gmail.com or phone 802-384-0233.

Rep. Laura Sibilia
State Representative
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
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GOVERNOR PHIL SCOTT APPOINTS DAN FRENCH AS EDUCATION SECRETARY

The two affirm their joint vision for improving education quality, efficiency and equity from cradle-to-career

Montpelier, Vt. – Governor Phil Scott on Thursday announced Dan French, Ed.D. as the new Secretary of the Agency of Education.

French started his career in education as a high school social studies teacher, K-12 principal and superintendent in Canaan, Vt. After living and working in the Northeast Kingdom for 15 years, he moved south to serve as superintendent for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union from 2007-2016. In 2009, French was named Vermont Superintendent of the Year, and he served as president of the Vermont Superintendents Association from 2010-2012. From 2016-2018, he was the coordinator of the School Leadership Graduate Program at Saint Michael’s College where he taught graduate courses in school leadership, the legal and financial management of schools and using data to improve schools.

Per Vermont statute, the State Board of Education initiated a search for the next Secretary of Education in April. Of the candidates that applied, the State Board forwarded three candidates to the Governor. The Governor interviewed all three candidates this summer, ultimately selecting and appointing French.

French, 54, currently lives in Manchester Center. He starts his new role at the Vermont Agency of Education on August 13.

Governor Scott provided the following statement:

“I want to thank the State Board of Education for their diligence and urgency in advancing three highly qualified candidates. Secretary French has tremendous understanding of Vermont’s education system and the opportunity we have to strengthen and transform it from good to great. We’re very excited to have someone with his expertise in this critically important post within state government.

“This is a pivotal moment in the history of public education in Vermont. As we know, the biggest single investment we make as a state – approaching $2 billion – is in our kids through funding education. And the fact is – like many other areas – the education system is being weakened by our changing demographics and an increasingly inefficient system that’s diverting budget dollars away from kids.

“As most Vermonters know, the K-12 system was built to educate more than 100,000 students. Today, we’re educating less than 80,000. In fact, we’re educating about 27,000 fewer than 20 years ago, and declines continue at an average rate of about three students per day. Our student-to-staff ratio has decreased from about six kids for every one adult to about four to one. 

“These trends have contributed significantly to the affordability crisis many families face, persistent inequality between districts, and expanding inefficiencies that divert millions of dollars away from our kids. 

“Think of it this way: We are now spending about $1.7 billion to educate fewer than 80,000 students. According to the National Education Association, we have the largest per-student investment in the country, spending twice the national average. We have a good graduation rate, but our student test scores are only two percentage points higher than the national average. We are not making substantial gains in improving outcomes for disadvantaged students. And only about half of our high school graduates go on to receive a technical or trade credential or earn a college degree. 

“Outcomes and funding from school to school remain unequal. We have some schools offering a wide range of foreign languages, environmental studies and cutting-edge science, technology and engineering programs. And we have other schools that can’t offer any of these opportunities.

“The fact is, it’s time to have the courage to admit we can do much more for our kids, achieve better outcomes and attract more families – and that is why I am appointing Dan to be our next secretary of Education.

“Dan sees the opportunity and the necessity we have to transform our system from good to great. And he has the expertise to work with districts and local education leaders to re-center the system’s focus on expanding opportunities and improving outcomes for our kids in a way that’s sustainable and affordable for taxpayers.

“Finally, I want to thank Acting Secretary Heather Bouchey for her leadership, and all the staff at the Agency of Education for their hard work through this transition. Over the last four months, Heather has been a valuable and relentlessly positive member of my Cabinet and has worked closely with the staff to manage the day-to-day operations at the Agency without interruption. We are fortunate to have her at the Agency of Education.”

Secretary Dan French provided the following statement:

“I want to thank Governor Scott for the opportunity to serve as Vermont’s next Secretary of Education. Although we have challenges in our education system, we are fortunate to have significant talent and capacity for innovation at all levels. Because of this capacity, I am optimistic about our future.

“Many of our challenges in education can be seen as systems or organizational challenges. Act 46 has been very successful in moving us down a path toward rightsizing our governance structure. We must now leverage this work to transform our system into a world class education system, a system that offers expanded learning opportunities for every Vermonter, and a system that contributes to broader social and economic development of our state.

“I am excited about this work and the opportunity to help modernize our education system to better meet the future needs of our students, their families and our state.”

About Secretary French:

Daniel M. French started his career in education as a high school social studies teacher, K-12 principal, and superintendent in Canaan, Vt. He then served as the superintendent for the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union from 2007-2016. In 2009, French was named Vermont Superintendent of the Year, and he served as president of the Vermont Superintendents Association from 2010-2012. From 2016-2018, he was the coordinator of the School Leadership Graduate Program at Saint Michael’s College where he taught graduate courses in school leadership, the legal and financial management of schools and using data to improve schools.

French also provided consulting services to Vermont school districts and the Vermont Agency of Education with a focus on assisting districts with improving their organizational performance as a result of merging. He has been very active in the development of major Vermont education policy initiatives including Act 153, Act 156, Act 77 and Act 46. 

French obtained his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Connecticut in 1985, his master’s degree in educational administration from Plymouth State University in 1996, and his doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Vermont in 2014.

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Final update of the 2018 session

The eventful 2018 session has come to an end and my final review of the session follows.  Over the summer and fall you can expect to hear more from me on updates to the State’s Act 46 plan, telecommunications and CoverageCo, the scheduling of a public forum on healthcare.  I did previously announce my intention to run for re-election and I’m writing a piece about what it is like to run and serve as an independent in Vermont.

As always, please be in touch with your thoughts and concerns through email at lhsibilia@gmail.com or phone at 802-384-0233

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

PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
cell: 802-384-0233

The final Budget and Tax bills

The total FY 2019 Budget of $5.8 billion is up .5% over current fiscal year.  The budget adds beds for mental health care and also increases child care provider reimbursements. It also provides $5 million in revolving state funds for home weatherization and pays off $3.9 million in debt at Vermont Life Magazine, which will no longer be published.

Related to education, the budget and tax bill pay down a portion of the $1.3 billion existing liability in teacher pension fund by $100 million.  We have also moved expenses img_1392from education fund into general fund (renter rebate, community high school of Vermont, Adult Education, Flexible Pathways). This is something voters in the Valley have repeatedly asked for in the last decade and a half and was part of Speaker Johnson’s education financing proposal at the beginning of the session.

Property Tax Adjustment for education rates will be reduced by lowering the value of house site for those paying property tax based on income.  This change effects 16,000 households across the state.

Statewide bargaining for public school employee’s health care contract has been agreed to – Governor Scott had asked for this to happen last year and this issue was the cause of the 2017 budget disagreement.

There is also a commission to study student/staff ratios in public schools, supported by the Vermont School Board Association Board of Directors. This work must be done in conjunction with the twice passed and funded student weighting study if it is to result in tax savings and maintain constitutionally required equity on opportunity.

There were several personal tax changes this year, including some necessitated by increases that would have resulted from the federal tax changes. Vermont will reduce personal income tax rates by .2% and collapse the top two income brackets.  The legislature also established Vermont standard deductions ($6,000 single, $12,000 joint) and personal exemption of $4,150.

There is now a 5% tax credit on charitable donations (limited to $1,000), and Social Security Income for low and moderate-income households (under $55,000) is exempted from income taxes.

The Vermont Earned Income Tax Credit has been increased from 32% to 36% of federal level and a Vermont Tax Structure Commission to review current  guardfunding sources to support state government has been created.

Tuition reimbursement for Vermont National Guard soldiers, the only remaining New England state not to have offered the benefit, was agreed to.

The budget also included a study on carbon pricing.  I support this study, because it will outline issues that will need to be addressed prior to any kind of carbon tax being implemented.

New gig/sharing economy regulations:

  • Act 10 creates a registry for all short-term rentals in the state by requiring hosts to
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    Image credit: Crunchbase

    register online and acquire a rooms and meals tax identification number, which they will need to publish on all their advertisements and visibly post that number in their rental units with emergency contact numbers. (AirBnB, Homeaway and other short term rentals)

  • H.725 Regulating Transportation Network Companies established insurance requirements for companies like Uber and Lyft to cover drivers and passengers for up to $1 million, plus med pay of $5,000.  The companies are also required to vet drivers using background checks and the records are subject to inspection by the Vermont Department of motor Vehicles.

Internet access and security:

  • Data Brokers H.764 will provide consumers with greater protection over their personal information by starting to regulate data brokers – those who buy and sell personal information of individuals with whom they have no other business relationship. Those brokers will be required to register with the state and provide the Attorney General with information about the nature of the information they collect and their means of collecting it.  The law also requires data brokers to disclose when they experience a breach of personal information.
  • Net Neutrality S.289 requires internet service providers (ISPs) that contract with the State of Vermont to adhere to net neutrality standards which includes not downloadblocking content, engaging in paid prioritization of internet services or acting to “throttle, impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of Internet content, application, or service.” As part of the legislation, the Vermont’s Attorney General will:
    • determine whether internet service providers in the state follow net neutrality standards and report back prior to the next legislative session
    • make the ISP’s public statements about their Net Neutrality function information available to consumers by posting it on a website
    • conduct a joint study with the Department of Public Service to determine whether Vermont should put additional net neutrality rules for internet providers in place in the future

Governor Scott signed an executive order in February requiring internet companies that do business with the state to abide by net neutrality principles. I co-sponsored the House net neutrality legislation and secured a unanimous vote out of our committee on an amendment to the Senate bill.  Whether or not ISP’s are honoring net neutrality principals will need to be monitored vigorously in the future.  The whole world of telecommunications is rapidly changing and evolving and competition for future survival is fully in play at the national level.

Healthcare:

  • Individual mandate Vermont: With the repeal of the individual mandate federally, Vermont became the 3rd state to require the individual mandate after Massachusetts and New Jersey. Starting in 2020, residents of Vermont will be required to have health insurance or be subject to state tax penalties with the passage of a revised legislative bill H.696. The specifics for how the statewide mandate will exist have not been determined but will be determined by a working group in 2019 prior to the launch of the new requirements starting on January 1, 2020. In the meantime, no state penalties will be imposed on residents who do not obtain healthcare coverage prior to 2020. Vermont residents will be contacted by state officials as part of “educated outreach efforts” to answer any questions and inform residents of the policies and procedures as they are determined prior to going into effect in 2020.
  • Drug importation from Canada S 175 directs the state Agency of Human Services to Flag_of_Canada_(Pantone).svgdesign a program to import wholesale prescription drugs from Canada. Drugs included in the program would have to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) standards and “generate substantial savings for Vermont consumers.” The agency must submit a program proposal to the legislature by January 1, 2019, and a formal request to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by July 1, 2019.
  • Rep. John Gannon and I will be hosting a Valley wide info session later this Summer/Fall on both these items as well as giving residents an opportunity to share issues or concerns they are having with regard to healthcare.

Civil Protections:
Equal Pay H.294 prohibits employers from requesting a person’s salary history prior to making a job offer, a practice which often leads to unequal pay between genders.  Employers may still post a salary range, and an applicant may still post salary requirements, but asking for a salary history is now off-limits.

“MeToo”: H.707 I also co-sponsored this tri-partisan legislation which aims to shed some sunlight on habitual harassers and ensure those who were subject to the harassment are not the only ones suffering consequences.

  • Companies cannot require people to sign away their right to report sexual harassment as part of a pre-employment contract. 
  • All supervisors and managers, including those who oversee or contract with volunteers, interns and independent contractors, have an obligation to ensure the working relationship is “free from sexual harassment.”
  • Sexual harassment settlements cannot prohibit the person making the complaint from working for the employer in the future.
  • The Attorney General’s Office can visit workplaces and require employers to change their practices.
  • Vermont will create an online portal for making complaints of discrimination and sexual harassment.

Marijuana legalization:
The law took effect on July 1. Read the legislation here. Adults who are at least 21 years imageold are allowed to possess and grow marijuana: possess up to one ounce of marijuana or for growing two mature marijuana plants and four immature marijuana plants per housing unit.

  • The plants must be in a secure enclosure that is screened from public view.
  • Marijuana harvested from plants doesn’t count toward the one-ounce limit as long as it’s stored on-site, in an indoor place.

Convictions for possessing more than one ounce of marijuana, or more than two mature and four immature plants, are imprisonment up to six months and fine up to $500.  Providing marijuana to a person under 21 years old can result in imprisonment up to two years and fines up to $2,000. It is a misdemeanor crime to use marijuana in a car with a child, with penalties starting at $500 and two points on a driver’s license.  Impaired driving remains illegal under the law, and neither drivers nor passengers are allowed to use marijuana in a vehicle. Anyone with an open container of marijuana in a vehicle can be fined $200.

Marijuana use is limited to “individual dwellings” and is prohibited in any street, alley, park or sidewalk. Landlords can ban possession and use of marijuana as part of a lease agreement. Using or growing marijuana at a child care facility is not allowed.

Here is a summary of all legislation which passed in 2018.

Failed efforts:

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Making the case for funding for internet expansion & connecting rural Vermont.

Legislation mandating an increase in the minimum wage and paid family leave passed the House (without my support) and the Senate, but did not have enough votes to overturn the governors veto.

Legislation increasing the Vermont Universal Service Fund fee by .05% passed the House with a veto proof tri-partisan vote. This increase would have raised a very modest 1.5 Million a year for internet expansion and would have raised a $100 phone bill by .50 cents. Unfortunately, just like in 2016 when we passed this bill, the Senate refused to bring it to the floor for a vote.

Rural Economic Development Working Group: I’m a Co-Chair of this tri-partisan and independent group of House members with Rep. Chip Conquest and Rep. Charlie Kimbell.  With the support of the Speaker, we held a hearing last fall to hear about issues that were important to rural Vermont.  Based on that hearing, the House Rural Economic Development Working Group advocated for three primary issues during the 2018 legislative session:

  1. Provide regulatory relief for the forest products industry and for additional ways to support their industry.
  2. Expand high speed, broadband technology into rural Vermont to give communities the opportunity to participate in today’s economy.
  3. Provide small communities with planning assistance and access to financing to design, build and maintain community wastewater and potable water systems.

Several bills passed the legislature with REDWnG’s support and assistance that provided the following to rural Vermont:

  • Gave individual homeowners, including owners of multifamily homes, access to funding for wastewater systems that are close to failing, with very favorable terms.
  • Enabled private entities to tap into the state Revolving Clean Water Fund to build wastewater treatment systems.
  • Foresters were granted the right to conduct forest harvesting operations without risk of being shut down because of complaints of neighbors provided that they follow best forestry practices.
  • Certain forestry machinery was granted exemption from purchase and use tax to make it more affordable to purchase new equipment.
  • Funding for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, supporting agricultural businesses, was increased to $700K.
  • Freed up $1.2 million that had been parked in a now defunct telecommunications authority project to be used to support the expansion of broadband and cellular phone connectivity.
  • Created a pilot project to fund expansion of the outdoor recreation industry through “model communities.”
  • As a result of our advocacy, the Department of Environmental Conservation is working closely with the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to remove regulatory obstacles for towns looking to replace or construct properly sized wastewater systems.

surveybumpstocks2019 Constituent Survey:

The results from last years survey were really helpful to me as I considered policy and the best use of my time during the session.  I’m interested in hearing any questions you think might be helpful to ask a broad valley audience

Voting to override the Governor’s veto

Thursday of last week Governor Scott vetoed the budget proposed in H.13.  This budget was virtually the same budget that a tri-partisan majority of senators and representatives approved during the regular session in H.911, but removed the items under contention between Governor Scott and the Vermont Legislature – namely how to spend unanticipated revenues from one time tax changes, tobacco and other settlements and – good news – growth in receipts from a recovering economy.

The legislature refused to negotiate the “tax bill” H.4 until the governor signed the budget.  The governor refused to sign the budget until the legislature agreed to use those funds to artificially lower all property taxes so that there would be no increase on property taxes for a second year in a row. The legislature won’t agree to artificially lowering this year’s property tax rates because it sets up a significant property tax increase next year.  The governor won’t move from his position because he believes Vermonters are with him, school-boards have issued a call to override the governor because they believe acquiescing supports a false narrative about how education property rates are determined and sets up a negative chain of events for next year.

We are at a stalemate.

On Friday I attended a day long series of hearings between the legislature’s relevant committees – appropriations, ways and means and education – and members of the administration, the Vermont State Treasurer and the Joint Fiscal Office.  Pretty much all agree that doing what the governor has requested – artificially zeroing out property tax rates – is going to cause a very significant property tax increase next year regardless of what locals decide to vote at next year’s Town Meeting. We could return those funds in some other less precarious way to Vermonters by paying down future debt, or even as straight up refunds, but the governor is insistent they have to be returned through the property tax. That’s a problem. And it’s bad policy.

With some limited movement from the legislature and even less movement from the administration, at this point I’m voting to support the school boards and communities working to change the system.  I can’t support the governor’s current position and will vote to override.

Governor Scott has successfully applied downward pressure on increasing taxes and fees.   I think many Vermonters, like me, thought we needed a pause to catch our breath from the rapidly increasing – and costly – new nation leading programming we were implementing year another year, and that – more then any other reason – is why our moderate Phil Scott is governor.

However it is important for all to remember that at the same time Governor Scott was elected, Vermont was also beginning to undergo massive education transformation through Act 46.  Last year and this year we have pushed forward additional MAJOR reforms in special ed, weighting and considerations for teachers healthcare being negotiated at the state level.  These are significant, difficult and cost containing state policy changes being implemented at the local level.  As a planner, I know these processes take years to be fully realized.  With our distributed governance system – we are on the locals timeline.  I can not willingly vote to undermine the work going on by communities and school districts by supporting a built in tax increase next year that will have absolutely nothing to do with educating Vermonts students.

I support the goal of returning excess funds to Vermonters.  I do not support the largely false narrative that we control property tax rates in Montpelier and that we should not “raise” rates, because it just isn’t true.

We are approaching unchartered territory with the reality of a potential government shutdown needing to be acknowledged by all responsible parties.

The vote tomorrow will be close and regardless of whether or not the governor is sustained there will be ongoing negotiations.  It is my sincere hope that during those negotiations House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate Pro Tem Tim Ashe will not only work to return as much excess revenue as possible to Vermonters, but that they will steadfastly defend Vermont’s students and the integrity of our rapidly changing education governance and finance system to ensure Vermonters future access to high quality education throughout our state. I hope Governor Scott will agree to moderate his position on this issue and commit to those same goals.  And that all will respect and encourage the ongoing and extremely difficult work going on in our communities. If these goals are shared we will quickly finish our business, pass a budget, provide unexpected additional tax relief and let the rest of Vermont get on with their lives.

Legislative update – January 28, 2018

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Photo by Jim Therrien from the January 5th Bennington Banner story “What’s important to local lawmakers in 2018”

The 2018 Vermont Legislative Session began on January 3rd.  We’ve already seen marijuana legalized in the Session and it looks like we will be spending a considerable amount of time on education cost, delivery and equity. I was pleased that both both House Speaker Mitzi Johnson’s opening comments and Governor Phil Scott’s subsequent State of the State address noted the need to ensure rural Vermont is included in economic and community growth, and each made promises regarding addressing the current state of Vermont education – the Speaker on funding and the Governor on spending.  The critical piece that binds those two together – equity for all students – will be significantly served by the completion of the weighting study passed last year.  Here are links to both opening addresses:

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Recreational use of marijuana and a policy of limited “home grow” was legalized on January 22nd.  Given the increased legalization surrounding us, particularly in MA, as well as increased public safety and education costsimage associated with that legislation, I am in support of taxing and regulating marijuana use like we do with alcohol and tobacco.  This is not a tax and regulate bill and therefore I voted against this bill.  Thank you to all who contacted me regarding this legislation.  I expect Vermont will be working to adjust marijuana legislation on an annual basis for the next decade.   Details of the bill can be found here: Marijuana Rules signed into law on January 22, 2018 and effective July 1, 2018

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fy19overviewcover2019 Vermont State Budget detail

Community-Based Public Hearings on the Governor’s recommended FY 2019 State Budget

The Vermont House and Senate Committees on Appropriations are seeking public input on the Governor’s Recommended FY2019 State Budget and will hold community-based public hearings on Monday, February 12, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. at the following 5 locations.

  • Johnson – Johnson State College
  • Rutland City – Rutland Public School
  • St. Johnsbury – St. Johnsbury House
  • St. Albans City – St. Albans City School
  • Winooski – Community College of Vermont

Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 6:00 – 7:00 p.m. in Montpelier.

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Reforming our education system for students and taxpayers:

I wrote an OpEd in December which outlined the challenges we are facing with Screenshot 2018-01-27 17.32.26regard to a proposed 7-9% increase in property taxes.  Here is what has been transpiring with regard to the situation since the beginning of the Session:

  • Weighting Study – the Weighting Study passed by last year’s House, Senate and signed into law by the Governor has not yet been conducted.  The administration made a request for 300K in this year’s budget adjustment to conduct the study which has been turned down by the House and will likely be turned down by the Senate.  The administration is required to conduct the study.  An accurate weighting (equalizing) of students is critical for sustained property tax relief that reflects the Vermont Constitution’s requirement for equity.
  • Governor’s List – Governor Scott issued a memo to the legislature outlining 18 possible cost containment initiatives to work on collaboratively with the legislature.  Without accurate weights, I’m opposed to a number of these initiatives, but not to all.   Proposals to cap per pupil spending or implement staffing ratios need accurate weights and scaling in order to not harm students and achieve the most savings.
  • Ways and Means – has been looking at the current funding source for education and developing a proposal to move towards lowering property taxes by shifting to partial income tax, as well as replacing the general fund transfer and separating municipal and .  The latest working draft can be found here and will likely undergo numerous edits prior to ever coming to the floor.  Keep an eye on updated work the Ways and Means Committee is doing here.

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New bills I have introduced and roll call votes I have taken can be found here.  Please let me know if you have questions about either. Legislation I have been working on in January:

Stamford, VT and Clarksburg, MA Interstate District – Next month representatives

from the two districts will travel to the statehouse for a joint hearing with members of the House and Senate Education Committees on developing legislation to form the VT/MA interstate agreement.

H.581 and H.582 – I’ve introduced two bills to increase funding for build out of last mile service.  H.582 temporarily increases the Vermont Universal Service Fee by one half of one percent to raise approximately $1.5M annually to be used in partnership with providers and municipalities to build our telecommunications infrastructure in undeserved areas.  This proposed increase was supported by roughly 75% of the 200+ respondents to my 2018 Legislative Survey and has encountered limited opposition during testimony to date.

Net Neutrality – The recent history on this fight centers around a 2015 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) vote to re-classify internet service providers (ISPs) as Common Carriers and a December 2017 FCC voted to reclassify ISPs as information service providers; unregulated in a competitive market. In addition, in 2017 the FCC prohibited states from regulating Net Neutrality.

  • A common carrier is classified by what they do.  Landline telephones and utilities are common carriers.
  • Common carriers have to serve everyone who wants to use the service.  Everyone has the same right to pay to use the service.
  • Common carriers have to charge everyone the same price for the same service.

In our district, and in much of rural Vermont, it’s difficult to recognize the benefits of an unregulated competitive telecommunications market. The more that modern life relies on being connected for healthcare, education, safety, the less acceptable it is for our rural citizens to not have access because of the lack of a competitive market. For this reason I began working on a Net Neutrality bill prior to the session. We are currently taking testimony on H.680. IF you are interested in testifying, please contact me.

Sexual Harassment – I’ve also co-sponsored H.707 which would prohibit employee agreements that prevent an employee from disclosing sexual harassment or seeking rights or remedies related to sexual harassment. The bill requires settlements to be registered with the attorney general and other provisions and has broad support from all parties and independents in the House.

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The Vermont House Rural Economic Development Working Group (REDWnG) held a public hearing in Montpelier on November 7th.  Below are four main areas that received a lot of input and provide a clear focus for legislative initiatives:

  • Extend high speed internet/broadband to every corner of Vermont.
  • Assist small towns and villages to establish community water and wastewater systems.
  • Strengthen the market and demand for Vermont forestry products.
  • Strengthen the integration of Career Technical Education in secondary schools

I co-chair this group which is comprised of House members from across the state and representing every party and independents.  This group meets weekly to track legislative initiatives related to these areas.

 

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Public Hearing regarding Vermont Firearms Laws

The Senate Committee on Judiciary of the Vermont General Assembly is holding a public hearing about Vermont firearms laws on Tuesday, January 30, 2018.  The hearing will be held at the State House in Montpelier, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

The hearing will be held in the House Chamber, second floor.  Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 4:30 PM.  Witness testimony will be limited to three minutes.  The Committee will also accept written testimony.  Due to space constraints, please consider viewing the live feed channel and submitting written testimony. https://youtu.be/vhfhCLYrgNk

For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, e-mail testimony@leg.state.vt.us

If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact testimony@leg.state.vt.us by January 20th, so that we can arrange those in advance

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Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

 

Without new state funding mechanism, Vermonter’s property taxes will keep rising

It’s the holiday season and for many a time of year filled with traditions among families and communities.  In Vermont we also have a unique tradition that kicks off the month of December.  December 1st brings about the annual receipt of the Vermont Tax Commissioner’s statutorily required letter to the legislature regarding anticipated property tax rates.  This event, while not anticipated with as much fondness as other time honored religious and secular conventions, is a predictable, if not pleasant, opening salvo in the annual education property tax public debate.  This year Vermonters are possibly facing a .09 increase. In addition to cumulative expected increases across the state in education spending, tax rates will see the effects of the Act 46 incentives (which will be even higher next year) and the effects of the compromise position reached last year regarding the Governor’s proposal to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state level which resulted in a budget veto.  Rather then shutting down government or seizing the unique opportunity for parity and accountability and the future ability to fairly manage healthcare costs, the legislature and administration agreed to use reserves and stabilization funds for a one year tax reduction.

The angst and anger resulting from this projected increase is understandable and predictable.  But it’s really not enough to simply continue to be outraged by the property tax.  It’s important to dig in and understand how this situation is happening. It’s not simple.  And it’s no longer acceptable to beg off being part of the solution because it’s “too complicated.”  There are great resources on the Department of Education, the Department of Taxes and the Vermont School Boards Association that explain the mechanics of education finance.

For added perspective, it’s important to also acknowledge that 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 communities all across the state.  The effects of this crisis are easiest to see in rural Vermont, and also shine a light on the myth that equity exists for Vermont’s students and taxpayers.  We have a state mandated education finance system for which no single entity is responsible for students or accountable to taxpayers, 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. (NOTE: First lawsuit filed.) On top of all this, our entire education governance system is in the midst of a complete reorganization through the aforementioned Act 46.

For decades lawmakers and both Democratic and Republican administrations 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 mechanism 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, with urging from whoever the Vermont Governor is that year, undertakes an effort to “cut property taxes.” It has almost always revolved 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 almost every year, when state elected officials try to cut property taxes, we are instituting cuts that will be felt unequally, unpredictably, and that 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. The shared resource at play in this situation is the statewide education property tax. The notion that that resource is controlled locally and a district’s budget decisions only impact that district’s voters is a fallacy. Every budget vote in every district impacts every other district in the state.  For example, business and non resident’s education property tax rates have nothing to do with local budget decisions happening in their communities.  And while Vermont residents have the ability to control much of their local districts per pupil spending, they do not control all of the other factors that go into determining their local education property tax rates.  We have a statewide education/accountability/tax problem that cannot be solved locally.

The reason for the continued inability for any single district, lawmaker, governor or taxpayer to be able to deal with this tax increase is the current education finance mechanism which relies on ALL Vermont property tax payers to support hundreds of individual LOCAL decisions. There is no single year, silver bullet that fixes this without harming kids, despite the annual cries to simply wave a magic wand at the state level and adjust student staff ratios or mandate the lowering of per pupil spending. For those solutions to be effective, and more importantly constitutional, we’d have to have evenly distributed population, evenly distributed property wealth, evenly spaced out school buildings, equitable access to telecommunications, equitable access to public transportation, equitable access to school choice. And flat roads.   We do not have those things and we never will.  But our current education funding mechanism presumes most of those things exist.  And while the current funding mechanism serves large student and voter population centers, it is not serving rural Vermont students and it definitely is not providing Vermont taxpayers with a transparent means of understanding the return they are getting on their significant investment.   We need a new education financing mechanism.  One that is able to provide statewide accountability for all of Vermont’s students and all of Vermont’s taxpayers.

Hearings this week in Dover and Townshend on draft energy plan for Windham region

Windham Regional Commission Seeks Input on Draft Energy Plan

The Windham Regional Commission looks for public comments as they develop the Regional Energy Plan with four public meetings in December and January.  The meetings will be an opportunity for the public to come and learn about why the Regional Planning Commission is creating a Regional Energy Plan, what information is included in those plans, and what that means for towns.  The attendees will be invited to express comments on the draft plan and, more broadly, on energy planning in our region.

The draft plan was developed with guidance from the Department of Public Service and the three Regional Planning Commissions who have completed their Energy Plans. The draft plan and background information can be found on the WRC website: http://www.windhamregional.org/energy/act-174-energy-planning.

The meetings will be held:

The Windham Regional Commission is one of eleven regional planning commissions in Vermont, and since 1965 has been assisting the 27 towns in southeastern Vermont to provide effective local government and work cooperatively with them to address regional issues.

For more information contact Marion Major at Windham Regional Commission at 802-257-4547 x 109 or mmajor@windhamregional.org, or visit our website at www.windhamregional.org.