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
    gig-economy-032116

    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:

img_1375

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

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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.

2018 special session continues

At the end of this year’s regular legislative session both education finance/tax and state budget bills passed by large tri-partisan majorities.  The Governor vetoed both – citing the property tax increases that the bills allow to go into place.  This update will focus almost exclusively on the education finance aspects of the bills that are being debated in what is entering a 3rd week of a special session.

H.911 was passed during the regular session and contained the tax legislation required  to set residential and non-residential property tax rates.  This would have allowed an increase of 2.6 cents on the residential rate and 5 cents on the non-residential rate, to pay for the school budgets that voters approved at Town Meeting.  The state budget which passed at the end of the regular session would have also put one-time funds towards teachers retirement.

The two bills we passed included:

  • $9.8 million in one-time money going into the education fund to restore reserves
  • Capping income sensitivity adjustments at $400,000 of property value, rather than $500,000
  • A removal of the general fund transfer instead committing all the revenue from the sales and use tax, and 25 percent of the meals and rooms tax to the education fund. The education fund would have no longer paid for adult education programs, renter rebates, or the Community High School of Vermont.
  • Fixed an inadvertent $30 million income tax hike on Vermonters from the federal tax changes enacted last year, created a Vermont standard deduction and Vermont personal exemptions. The bill also reduced Vermont tax rates and collapsed the top two tax brackets and established a charitable tax credit for Vermonters that would be capped at $20,000
  • 34.5 million in one-time money to pay down obligations to the teacher’s retirement fund which is projected to save $100 million in interest over time.

I voted for both the budget and the tax bill during the regular session because I believe they struck a good balance for where we are in time with our distributed education system.

Screenshot 2018-06-01 06.40.22

The Governor vetoed both bills over the property tax increase they allow this year.  In addition, and importantly, his administration wants to be able to be able to pull funding out of the current system to be able to pay for expanded childcare and post secondary education in upcoming years.

The administration’s end of session proposal has six components and relies on the projected savings over 5 years to pay back funds used this year to eliminate the property tax increase:

  1. Move to new Special Education payment method (legislation is passed & signed)
  2. Lowering income sensitivity house value from $500K to $400K (agreed to by the legislature)
  3. Increase student/staff ratio working with task force (task force agreed to by the legislature, $250 million in projected savings by 2024 not agreed to)
  4. Significantly reduce per pupil excess spending penalty
  5. Transition to statewide healthcare bargaining unit
  6. Property tax adjustments for new homesteads after 7/1/2018

The backdrop for this debate is the massive organizational transformation Vermont’s education system is currently undergoing.   Since Act 46 passed in 2015, voters in 146 towns have voted to merge 157 former districts into 39 new unified districts, in 33 former Supervisory Unions, for a net reduction of 118 districts and 4 fewer supervisory unions.  The latest evidence of this historical transformation came out June 1st with the release of the Secretary’s Proposed Plan under Act 46, Sec. 10

Governor Scott reminded Vermonters in a recent oped that there is good reason for the ongoing organizational changes in Act 46: “…our education system is being weakened by a decline in our working-age population and an increasingly inefficient system that’s diverting budget dollars away from kids. The K-12 system was built to educate more than 100,000 kids. Today, we’re educating about 76,0000 – that’s 27,000 fewer in 20 years, and declines continue.”

At the state and local level we are all working overtime to stabilize a system that is critical for Vermont’s children and future.  Situations with very few changes occurring are considered “stable”.  Systems that are not stable – undergoing a lot of change –  require careful management to avoid system failures.

Governor Scott’s administration and the Vermont legislature must acknowledge and respond appropriately to the level of stress that exists in many of our communities (and institutions) given just how much change is occurring in our demographics, our communities and our rural education system.   We need to be careful.  The full effects of the 157 Act 46 school district mergers noted above will take at least 10 years to fully unfold, and additional future merger recommendations are ongoing.

In this historic period of time, Vermonters have choices to make if we want to have a strong publicly funded education system 10 years from now. When making these choices in the next few years, Vermont’s policy makers must prioritize stabilizing the system first with an eye towards positively impacting quality and cost.  This will be challenging given Vermont’s education system has shared state and local roles.

It is virtually impossible to manage for both costs and quality in our current system of shared state and local decision making.  Vermont has a state education taxing and finance system for which no single entity is accountable to tax payers and which currently cannot scale equitably.  When it comes to quality of student opportunity, the responsibility is squarely placed on local decision makers who must assess student and budget needs, develop a budget based on those needs, assess information from the state on how much per pupil spending is acceptable this year, and who then are held accountable by local voters at Town Meeting for the ensuing tax implications.

So how are we going to find a compromise between the governor and legislators?  The debate has been defined as whether or not to use unanticipated revenue and one time funds to buy down tax rates for one year, or pay down borrowed teachers retirement funds and save interest.  We will likely land somewhere in the middle.  There are several proposals under consideration right now to find consensus on new tax and budget bills:

  • House Ways and Means has proposed to use one time funds to eliminate the residential property tax increase this year.  Like we did last year.  This comes with the knowledge that we are artificially lowering tax rates, even though spending went up this year.  And that means we will likely see a bigger increase next year.
  • Rep. Cynthia Browning has proposed using one time funds to pay for the Act 46 incentives instead of raising taxes to pay for them.  She rightly notes that no local school budgets included the cost of the incentives, and these are a state imposed cost driver of tax rates.  This year that cost was about $10 million dollars.  In the next two years it will be $14 million each year.
  • Last year’s budget was vetoed over a failure to agree to move teachers healthcare negotiations to the state.   Unique circumstances presented an opportunity to manage both costs and quality.  I strongly supported that proposal, (driven by the governor’s determination to reduce property taxes), becasue it was the first savings proposal I have seen that didn’t create unpredictable and uneven impacts for kids.  We should move this proposal forward as part of a compromise this year.

Decreasing the excess spending threshold and banking on savings from the staff/student ratio task force are not acceptable in this current dynamic atmosphere.  Neither is the “Beck mechanism” which did not make it into the final bill we signed during the regular session, but it is being floated as a part of a “compromise”.  This mechanism acts like the excess spending threshold by presuming that all students are the same and are educated in the same environment and in identical sized communities, but it is able to impose much more aggressive penalties to local taxpayers and students in rural districts.

Most importantly we need to remember the effects of this disagreement are not contained to Montpelier.

After leaving the statehouse one night during week two of the special session, I received an uncharacteristically terse phone call from one of my district’s longest serving school board chairs – “Do you guys have numbers for us yet? Central office says we need to provide our numbers to you, but I don’t understand how you all think we can give you our numbers when you haven’t given us yours.”

This 25 year veteran has not only cautiously and steadily shepherded our local district and our joint district study committee through the Act 46 process, he led our entire Supervisory Union through the first successfully completed S.U. process in southern Vermont.  He is working with our superintendent to try to wrap things up in one district while simultaneously working with two communities to establish staffing, curriculum, transportation and school norms in a new district.  He is really frustrated that the administration and the legislature cannot get on the same page on this year’s education tax rates so he can focus on those things.  He could use quality educational support, technical expertise, and encouragement from Montpelier.  He is not helped by Montpelier trying to manage staffing levels in individual school districts, or by the imposition of extreme per pupil spending penalties on individual rural schools in less densely populated regions of the state.  We can not take his ongoing service for granted.

This phone call points to a central tension in most of our Vermont education debates including the current one: Who do Vermonters want to manage the schools?

Maybe it is time to finally put the state on the hook for using the state’s education fund to ensure equity for all students instead of the Hunger Games scenarios we repeatedly set up in rural and poor Vermont districts.

Pledges to keep property taxes level or lowered are admirable.  They need to be partnered with a sense of responsibility for ensuring we aren’t violating (or exacerbating existing violations) of our constitutional requirement to ensure all Vermont students have substantially equitable educational opportunities.

Please stay in touch, and stay engaged,

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

“The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” – Tom Bodett

Agency of Education releases statewide plan

Today, the Agency of Education released its proposed statewide plan as required by Section 10 of Act 46.

Today the Agency of Education submitted the draft to the State Board of Education. The statewide plan is a recommendation from the Agency on what the Board should consider for each of the 43 “section 9” proposals that have been submitted from 88 towns and 93 school districts. Section 9 proposals are requests to the State Board of Education for Alternative Governance structures – these are mergers or non-mergers that do not meet the criteria laid out in Act 46.

In other words, these are the requests from districts that have not yet undertaken a merger through Act 46 and, in many cases, would like to be exempt from the requirements of the law. The Board has authority under Act 46 to require mergers – this plan is largely to inform how to make those decisions. The Board has until November 30th to finalize the plan.

You can see the plan from AOE here: http://education.vermont.gov/sites/aoe/files/documents/edu-secretary-proposed-plan-act46-sec-10_0.pdf

In the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union both the Stamford and Searsburg proposals were accepted. In Windham Central Supervisory Union the Stratton proposal was accepted and the Windham proposal was NOT accepted.

Please let me know if you have questions on this map.

We just ended the 2nd week of a special session. Please look for an update on where we stand later this weekend.

Kind regards,

Rep. Laura Sibilia

School Safety Forum planned for March 18th in Whitingham

Deerfield Valley Residents and employees invited to attend

A significant discussion about school safety is happening throughout Vermont and the Deerfield Valley following the Florida and Fair Haven, VT school incidents.  There is a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem, which includes considering new safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns. Governor Scott has issued a memo detailing ideas he would like the Legislature to consider in order to improve school safety.   Deerfield Valley State Representatives Laura Sibilia and John Gannon want to ensure residents, students, staff, and law enforcement in the Deerfield Valley communities are able to weigh in.

A School Safety Forum for residents and employees who work in the towns of Dover, Halifax, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Readsboro, Wardsboro, Whitingham and Wilmington will be held on Sunday March 18th from 4 pm to 6 pm at Twin Valley Middle High School 4299 Vermont Route 100 Whitingham, VT.    Gannon and Sibilia are hosting the forum and met with school administrators, board members, and staff, law enforcement and community representatives to plan the event.

The purpose of the forum is for those who live and work in the 9 towns to be able to share ideas about possible legislative and non-legislative solutions to school safety. This will be a moderated discussion.  To allow as many people as possible to speak, individuals who live and work in the 9 towns will be given three minutes to speak and share their thoughts on school safety.

Questions from residents or employees of the Deerfield Valley on the upcoming forum can be sent to Rep. John Gannon at jgannon@leg.state.vt.us or Rep. Laura Sibilia at lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

Local Reps planning school safety forum

For Immediate Release:

Local Reps planning school safety forum

Rep. John Gannon and Rep. Laura Sibilia have been contacted by and are having conversations with a number of individuals in the Deerfield Valley following the Florida and Fair Haven, VT school incidents.  There is a significant discussion about school safety happening throughout Vermont.

The Governor has stated he wants to “determine if we are doing all we can to prevent violence.”

The Speaker of the House has stated, “If we think school shootings are something that need to be changed, and I do, then we all need – at the local, state, and federal level – to come up with a plan that fits our values.”

Their is a sense of urgency to the conversations happening in Montpelier, led by the Governor, Speaker and Senate Pro Tem, which includes considering new safety measures as well as legislation increasing regulation of guns. Rep. Gannon and Rep. Sibilia are working to ensure residents, students, staff, and law enforcement in the Deerfield Valley communities are able to weigh in. Planning for a public forum in mid-March is underway.

The public forum will be for the purposes of learning what people are thinking about regarding our schools and safety and what additional actions we can or should take to protect students and the Second Amendment.

Representatives from the WCSU and WSWSU Supervisory Unions have been invited to participate in the planning of the forum. An additional announcement will be made finalizing the date and place of the agenda after Town Meeting.

Questions from residents of the Deerfield Valley on the upcoming school safety forum can be sent to Rep. John Gannon at jgannon@leg.state.vt.us or Rep. Laura Sibilia at lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us

Education Finance Public Hearing this Wednesday 2/19

Public Hearing on Potential Changes to the Education Funding System
Wednesday February 21, 2018, 4:00-6:00 p.m.in Room 11
The House Committee on Ways and Means will hold a public hearing on

CTCT-20170330_144109_0

 Potential Changes to the Education Funding System on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. The hearing will be held in Room 11 on the ground floor of the State House in Montpelier from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Materials outlining the potential changes to the education funding system will be available and may be requested ahead of the hearing by emailing Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
Witnesses may start signing up to speak at 3:45 p.m. on the day of the hearing. Each witness is limited to three minutes to testify. The Committee will also accept written testimony.
For information about the format of this event or to submit written testimony, contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us.
If you plan to attend and need accommodations to participate, please contact Sorsha Anderson at sanderson@leg.state.vt.us by February 20, 2018 so that any accommodations can be made in advance.
Information on the proposal can be found here.
The Ways and Means Committee is expending a lot of time and effort to craft a solution to the perennial cry of high property taxes and should be commended.
I am concerned that this proposal doesn’t address the current lack of accountability to businesses and non residential taxpayers, that it doesn’t address the substantial inequities that exist for our students, and I am deeply concerned that the cost containment measure will add insult to injury for rural students while failing to capture significant needed savings throughout the system.  Nonetheless, I am listening and looking for opportunities to make positive changes for students and taxpayers.  Please be in touch if you submit testimony or plan to testify in person.
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

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.

Rep. Laura Sibilia 2018 session survey

Goose City

Greetings from Goose City!

We are winding down from soccer with our son and looking forward to the holiday return of our girls.   I’m thinking more and more about the coming legislative session, and there are a number of public input sessions I want you to know about further on in this email.

This year I’m hoping you will consider giving some brief input prior to the the legislative session which begins January 3rd and will likely go through early May.  I’ve compiled a brief 10 question survey which is designed for you to weigh in on what areas you’d most like the legislature to spend their time on.   There are a few additional questions about issues that could emerge during the 2018 Vermont political discussion.

This survey is intended for my constituents in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro and Whitingham, but our weekend residents and neighbors are free to weigh in.  The only required questions are name and town of residence.

Take the survey

I have scheduled two meetings with constituents in Dover and Wardsboro and hope to see you there:

  • Dover Town Hall November 28th 6:30-8
  • Wardsboro Town Hall November 30th 6:30 – 8

In addition I will be attending the Stamford School District meeting on November 14th from 7-9 pm.

And the Twin Valley, Whitingham, Wilmington meeting with Rep. John Gannon in Wilmington on December 19th at 6 pm.

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Upcoming statewide hearings of interest:

Rural Caucus Hearing: The Rural Development Caucus will hold a Public Hearing at the State House from 5–7 pm on Tuesday, November 7 to hear from municipal, business, education, and nonprofit interests in rural Vermont about what the most pressing issues are for rural Vermont. The press release and instructions on how to testify are available here.

Equifax data security breach: The House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development will meet to hold hearings around the State to discuss issues related to privacy and data security breaches. Representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Financial Regulation, and the Office of Legislative Council will join the Committee in presenting a brief summary of current law and recommended responses to security breaches.

The Committee will hear from the public their questions, experience with breaches, concerns, and suggestions. This topic is a continuation of the Committee’s work last session, and of particular interest in light of current events in relation to the Equifax breach.  A list of meeting dates and locations is available below. Sign-up will begin 30 minutes prior to the hearing’s start time.

Thursday, November 9th

12:30 p.m. Springfield Town Offices Selectmen’s Hall 96 Main Street Springfield, VT
5:30 p.m. Barton Village Office 17 Village Square Barton, VT

Tuesday, November 14th

12:30 p.m. Manchester Community Library Hunter Community Room 138 Cemetery Avenue Manchester Center, VT
6:00 p.m. Department of Health Conference Room 2B 108 Cherry Street Burlington, VT

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December 15th deadline – Open Enrollment: Open enrollment is the time of year when you can make changes to your Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont or MVP Healthcare insurance coverage. The new plan year begins January 1, 2018. If you want to change plans, you should call the Vermont Health Connect Customer Support Center or log into your account. If you don’t contact them and confirm a plan choice by December 15, 2017, you likely won’t be able to change plans until the next Open Enrollment.

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Education:

As you may recall, former Rep. Oliver Olsen and I have been fighting for years to commission a study of pupil counting, as we believe that the current system unfairly harms rural districts with small population densities, and we fought hard to have this study included in an act of the General Assembly.  We were finally successful in the 2017 session.
There is a fight brewing with AOE on whether or not this study will be done.  Right now they are refusing.
The chronically flawed funding formula which does not scale for size, the failure to capitalize on last year’s unique opportunity for significant savings through establishing statewide equitable healthcare benefits for education staff, increases in healthcare costs, the pending Act 46 incentives and other non-locally voted on expenses are going to result in yet another increase in property taxes this year.
Without changes to the way we count students, it is a virtual certainty that rural districts will be asked to make more substantial cuts then more population dense districts, once again unfairly and unequally hurting kids.  This study is the next important “tweek” needed for Vermont’s broken education financing mechanism.  It has been needed for many many years.  There is near universal consensus this formula does not work.  I am frustrated with the lack of transparency at all levels of state government about the non-local drivers of education property taxes.
Perhaps with last weeks news out of Whitingham there is light at the end of this very long tunnel for our taxpayers and our students.
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Some positive economic development progress stories from our district:
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As always, thank you for providing feedback and suggestions. Please don’t hesitate to call or email with questions or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lhsibilia@gmail.com.
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Congratulations to all of the organizers and volunteers of this year’s Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro – beautiful weather and record breaking turn out!