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

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Legislative updates and upcoming candidate forums

October 3, 2016

Dear friends and neighbors,

A few legislative updates and some upcoming candidate events:

Act 46
I recently posted an update about Act 46 and education reform taking place in the Valley.  This post includes links to the law, guidance from the AOE, and updates from other parts of Vermont, and so I am posting it again to maintain that link to information for voters, taxpayers and parents.  Readers may have recently read in this past weeks Deerfield Valley News that the draft articles of agreement submitted by the WSSU have been sent back for further development. I have been in touch with the Agency of Education, the Vermont School Boards Association and elected and contracted supervisory leadership regarding next steps for the districts.   There are significant untapped resources that are still available to provide assistance to the districts as they work to comply with the requirements of Act 46. I am working to help the supervisory union’s districts access them. Please stay involved in these historic and important conversations about the future of education in the valley.

The WCSU elementary school study committee has a website to track materials being considered, agendas and minutes http://wcsu-committee.blogspot.com/

Draft all-payer waiver agreement

On Wednesday of last week the Shumlin Administration announced they had reached an agreement with the federal government on a draft all-payer model for delivering healthcare.  In the current healthcare system, providers get paid for each service they give.  In an all-payer system, doctors will be paid monthly based on the health of the people they treat.
This is not the same as “single-payer” which references the number of entities (one public entity) paying healthcare providers.
On Friday the locations for three public forums were announced for this coming week, with Gov. Peter Shumlin, Human Services Secretary Hal Cohen and Al Gobeille, Chairman of the Green Mountain Care Board, to present a draft of the All-Payer Model. The draft proposal is under review and is expected to be amended before it receives the final approval of the Governor, Secretary Cohen, Chairman Gobeille, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) . The hearings are designed to present the plan to the public and those involved in Vermont’s health care system, and to take questions and comments from the audience.
  • Monday, Oct. 3, 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. Montshire Museum of Science Nonprofit Community Room, One Montshire Road, Norwich
  • Thursday, Oct. 6, 4-6 p.m. University of Vermont Recital Hall, 384 South Prospect St., Burlington
  • Tuesday, Oct. 11, 4-6 p.m. CVPS/Leahy Community Health Education Center, Rutland Regional Medical Center, 160 Allen Street, Rutland
When these dates for public comment were announced on Friday at 2:40 pm, I placed a call to the Governor’s office inquiring about the lack of notice, and also accessibility to Southern Vermonters.  If any new dates should be noticed, I will send those out.  If recent history has taught us anything it is that we should be thorough and thoughtful about changes to Vermonters healthcare.

Meet with Laura

It has been wonderful talking with you as I have been going out door to door during this campaign season, thank you for the time you are taking to tell me your concerns and hear from me about why I want to be re-elected as your state representative.

I have been out making my way through the district, and have also scheduled additional times for voters to talk with me in person. This is a great opportunity to ask questions and also tell me about issues or priorities you, your business or your town may have.

Questions at recent sessions have ranged from marijuana legalization to community policing, healthcare, school choice and taxes.  Next meet up sessions are:Wednesday October 5th in Wardsboro at 7 pm – Wardsboro Town Hall

Wednesday October 12th in Stamford at 7 pm at the Stamford Elementary School gym

Candidates Forums

 

The Deerfield Valley Rotary and the Wardsboro Public Library have arranged two candidate forums where both I and my challenger will appear and answer questions from the audience.  This is an important opportunity to ask questions and hear the answers from both candidates.  Voters from Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham should feel welcome to attend either or both of these forums.

  • Thursday October 20th 7 pm at the
    Dover Town Hall
  • Friday October 28th 7pm at the Wardsboro Public Library
Support Laura’s re-election

Thank you very much for the financial, volunteer, sign hosting and letters to the editor support to date as I seek re-election to continue representing Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro and Whitingham.

I have had to turn campaign contributions away because as your independent state representative I continue to choose not to accept support from special interests, political parties or political action committees.

Unfortunately, special interests, political parties and political action committees are once again funding opposition to my campaign. And that is going to increase now with the end of the campaign in sight. I appreciate any level of support my constituents might be able to provide – every $10, $25 or $50 helps a lot! Donating is easy online here:https://laurasibiliavt.com/help-send-lauras-voice-to-montpelier/

Letter’s to the Editor are also a great way to show support and tell other voters why they should re-elect me.  Most of our towns read the Deerfield Valley News where support letters go to editor@vermontmedia.com with the exception of Stamford where folks would send support letters to the Berkshire Eagle directed to news@berkshireeagle.com

As always, if you need help or assistance don’t hesitate to call me at 384-0233 or email at lhsibilia@gmail.com.

Kind regards,
Rep. Laura Sibilia
State Representative
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham
The Official Vermont State Vegetable!

October 22, 2016  — Saturday
14th Annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival     

All Day   Live entertainment in Town Hall and outdoors

and Gilfeather Turnip Contest

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS:

9AM  Gilfeather Turnip Art show opens at the Library, 170 Main Street, closes at 1 PM

10 AM  Festival Opens – Indoor & Outdoor Vendors Booths, Farmers Market
10 AM  Turnip Cart Selling Fresh Turnips
10 to 11 AM  Coffee & Donut Kiosk
10 AM to Noon  Register Turnips for the Turnip Contest
11 AM  Cafe & outdoor kiosk open for lunch & soup take-out
Noon   Deadline to Enter and Judging of Turnip Contest
1 PM   Turnip Contest Awards announced in Town Hall

Final weeks of the session coming up

Act 46 and School Choice updates: Last week I participated in a regional panel discussion on Act 46 sponsored by Marlboro Colleges Center for Creative Solutions alongside Brad James from the Agency of Education, Superintendents Ron Stahley and Dan French,  Wilmington student Peyton Eisler and Whitingham student Kassidy Walkowiak.  It is inspiring to have students voices engaged in the discussion about what the future education delivery system in our region should be.

educationpanel

At the Marlboro College Center for Creative Solutions Act 46 discussion

Dover has recently voted to move forward and study becoming part of a side by side study with one or more districts.  This means working with one or other districts to see if educational opportunities for kids can be improved by joining forces with another district.  Though yet undetermined, the most likely districts for Dover to work with are Wardsboro and or Marlboro.  Dover and Wardsboro operate pre-k through 6th grade and Marlboro operates pre-K through 8th grade.  Any merged district is required to operate the same for all students under one unified budget, so in this case, if all three school districts merged, all students would likely retain school choice beginning either in the sixth or eight grade depending on the results of the study and the articles of agreement agreed to by the districts studying the merger.  The final decisions to merge and approve the articles of agreement rest with the voters of each district.  Searsburg, which does not operate a school and has complete school choice, is continuing to try to work with another geographically reasonable non-operating district to fulfill the requirements of Act 46.  Readsboro and Stamford, which both operate pre-k through 8th grade, are part of a study committee with Halifax which also operates a pre-k through 8th grade.  In all cases, in our district, school choice as it exists now is able to be preserved under the original language of Act 46 if the voters choose to do so.

You may have heard or seen that school choice is under threat from Act 46.  Act 46 very  stated that no town could be forced to give up school choice.  Some towns in Vermont have recently given up school choice by vote of the residents.

Yield bill: The House passed H.843 which set the property tax yield at $9,701 and the income yield – for those that pay using income sensitivity – at $10,870. The penny rate is still used to calculate the nonresidential property tax for commercial property and second homes. Under the current education tax proposal, the rate would be reduced from $1.59 to $1.53 per $100 of assessed property value.  H. 843 also changes the excess spending threshold from 121 percent to 119 percent.  This is the old cost containment piece that almost exclusively impacts small and rural schools.  Rep. Oliver Olsen (I) Londonderry, working with Rep. Ann Manwaring, myself and others, led an effort to postpone the re-engagement of

Talking Yield with Rep. Olson and Rep. Manwaring

Talking excess spending penalty with Rep. Olson and Rep. Manwaring

the excess spending thresholds until a study could be done to determine if changes needed to be made in other aspects of the funding system.  He read from the course catalogues from several of Vermont’s high schools, highlighting the current inequities in opportunities between rural and more urban high school districts.   This is the exact issue my constituents have have been raising for years.  The House was determined to pass the excess spending thresholds, and so as a result, turned down Rep. Olsen’s amendment.   However the next day, for the final reading of the bill, I led efforts to resurrect Rep. Olsen’s study language on how pupils are counted in an amendment that will study whether we need to be looking at a heavier weighting for students in lower population density areas.  This amendment passed!  Though the study will not be completed until 2017, it has the potential to FINALLY begin to assess whether or not equal funding is providing equal educational opportunities for students in districts of all sizes.

Independent Contractors: On March 11th, after 52 hours of testimony and almost as many witnesses, the House Commerce Committee voted out H.867, an independent contractor bill on a bipartisan 11-0 vote.  On March 31st, the bill was sent back to our committee for additional work without the bill ever hitting the House floor for discussion or vote.  Three amendments, sponsored on behalf of labor organizations, were proposed.  Additional amendments are being worked on, including by a group of legislators I am working with.  We have been told by House leadership that the narrowest opportunity still exists for a bill to make it through the House and Senate and to the Governor’s desk.  The issue at hand: Currently in Vermont, nearly every person who is working is potentially required to be treated as an employee of someone else for the purposes of workers comp insurance.  Even if the individual is an entrepreneur, and in business for themselves.  At the same time, the owner(s) of a business can waive the requirement to purchase workers comp insurance for themselves.   This situation is creating instability in the labor market with businesses and general contractors afraid to hire independent contractors for fear they will be charged with paying the independent contractors workers comp premiums through a state audit, and independent contractors having to forgo the benefits of being in business for themselves as most are required to be someone’s employee.  This unpredictable and dated model does not support the entrepreneurial business climate we need to promote in Vermont.   I hope we will be able to introduce modern independent contractor reforms that protect workers in this session.

Telecommunications Bill: This week our committee’s telecommunications bill, H.870 will be voted on in the House.  This bill provides new funding for internet upgrades or expansions for schools, adds funding for news services for the blind, modifies Act 248a for telecommunications tower siting, and increase the Universal Service Fund tax by .05 cent.  Additionally,  telephone providers who wish to access high cost funding from the USF, will need to comply with telecommunications mapping data  requests from the Department of Public Service.  This is an exceptionally important provision for rural Vermont, including much of our district. 

Whitingham connectivity meeting: A community wide public meeting with the Vermont Department of Public Service, Telecom and Connectivity Division and interested Whitingham  citizens has been scheduled for April 18th at 5:30 pm in the main hall of the Jacksonville Municipal Center.  The purpose of the meeting is to share data about existing broadband availability and broadband and cell projects and upcoming deployments happening in the Whitingham area. This public meeting will help inform the next steps in determining how Whitingham may choose to participate in expanding cell and broadband services in the town. The Connectivity Initiative Program run by the Department of Public Service, seeks to provide funding for hard to serve areas. More information on the DPS and their various programs is available at: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/topics/connectivity. The meeting is open to the public.

I am continuing to work to understand what has transpired with the 5 1/2 year old VTel Wireless project, WOW and why folks that were to have been covered by this project remain uncovered.  If you are currently a VTel customer in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro or Whitingham, I would very much like to hear from you as our towns begin to consider developing a “Plan B” for connectivity.

Tax and Budget bills: The preliminary budget, tax and fee bills have passed the House and gone to the Senate.  These bills are required to originate in the House every year.  It is very likely what passed the House will be changed, added to or subtracted from in the Senate.  The bills will then come back to the House where we will either agree with the Senate changes, or ask for a conference committee to negotiate the differences.  At that point the House and Senate will both vote yes or no on the recommendations from the conference committee.  These will almost certainly be the last bills voted on before we adjourn.  I voted in favor of the  preliminary House budget, but not in favor of the preliminary tax bill.  My budget vote explanation below:

“Mr. Speaker: I campaigned and arrived for my first biennium deeply concerned about the relationship between Vermont’s revenues and Vermont’s budget. I am still concerned. However, I believe there are not an abundance of easy or inconsequential choices to cut in front of us.

I voted to support this budget process, the inclusivness extended to the public and all members of the House, the commitment to examining each aspect of the budget to assess if it was serving Vermonters and how well, and the request for all committees to examine the programs within their jurisdiction and prioritize them. I voted for this budget because of the process and progress I believe the committee is making. Clearly there is still work to do. And clearly a budget needs to be paid for.

My vote on the tax bill this afternoon reflects lingering specific concerns I have with some of the specific tax increases. I am hopeful with amendments those concerns may be alleviated.”

Completely related to the budget and tax bill is a recently passed independent audit of Vermont Health Connect: No single issue has contributed more to our current budget situation then our Healthcare reform efforts and the expansion of medicaid.  We want more access for Vermonters then we have been willing/able to pay for.  Additionally, many legislators for many years have been calling for an independent review of Vermont Health Connect, the healthcare exchange access point which continues to plague Vermonter’s with challenges.   Last week the House approved a $400K independent audit of the exchange and assessment of whether or not it should be abandoned.  This independent will come back next December, in time for a new Governor, new Lt. Governor, new Speaker and many new legislators to utilize in determining how best to move forward.

November 9 presentations

Thank you to those who attended the Act 46 information session Rep. Ann Manwaring and I hosted on November 6th in Wilmington. Rep. Dave Sharpe, Chair of the Vermont House of Representatives Committee on Education presented. Links to his presentation here.

This meeting was also videotaped – I will send out a link once available. Representatives from the public and boards were present from Dummerston, Dover, Marlboro, Readsboro, Searsburg, Stamford, Whitingham, Wilmington and Twin Valley. Many accepted the invitation to update the broader region about how they were approaching trying to implement this law in their communities. My sincere thanks for giving voice to our areas collective efforts. After the meeting Rep. Sharpe noted that it was particularly helpful to hear this information from the various boards.

Many thanks to WSSU Superintendent Chris Pratt, WCSU Board Chair Rich Werner and Bob Edwards for providing logistical support for the meeting.

Please note I have posted a page on my website with information on Act 46, “an act relating to making amendments to education funding, education spending, and education governance” and added both of these links there.

This session it is likely we will be addressing concerns and making possible clarifications with regard to “sharing economy” business models like AirBnB and Uber. I have already been contacted by some traditional Bed and Breakfast owners outside of our area with a request to look at the taxing and regulation of those taking the opportunity to participate in the sharing economy. I’d also like to hear from folks in our area who have an interest in this conversation, and I’m working with the Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley chamber to set up a round table discussion. Please send me an email if you would like to participate.

On December 1st the Vermont Legislature will gather for a briefing on the upcoming legislative session. State agencies have been asked by the Administration to submit level funded budgets. The expansion in medicaid eligibility from both the federal and state healthcare reform initiatives has not come with any new funding to pay for those newly eligible. It appears we will again be looking at very high gaps between revenue available and projected spending. Here is a refresher on where we ended up with last year’s budget.

Act 46 and the future of education in the Deerfield Valley

October 27, 2015 for immediate release and posting:

A public discussion on:

Act 46 and the future of education in the Deerfield Valley

For: taxpayers, residents and participants in the Pre-K /12 education delivery and governance community in the towns of: Wardsboro, Dover, Wilmington, Whitingham, Halifax, Readsboro, Stamford, Searsburg, Windham Southwest Supervisory Union and open to all neighboring districts including those in the Windham Central Supervisory Union

Hosted by: Rep. Ann Manwaring and Rep. Laura Sibilia

What: A meeting to help community members understand Act 46, the significance of the law, and the work school boards and supervisory unions are undertaking.  Chairman of the House Education Committee Dave Sharpe will speak and take some questions.   School boards will be invited to briefly share what they are currently working on and considering under Act 46.

When: Friday November 6th, 2015 6:30-8 pm

Where: Memorial Hall 14 West Main Street, Wilmington

Why:  Act 46 is transformative legislation that was passed in the 2015 Vermont Legislative Session. The law requires all school boards to seriously consider the benefits of working with other towns and districts to improve education opportunity.  The law provides tax incentives for consolidating school boards.  This legislation states an intention to promote increased opportunity for students, protect small schools and preserve school choice.

Act 46 will change the face of education governance and taxpayer accountability in our towns. School districts will need to decide if they want to keep, reduce or expand school choice.  Implementation of the law may change how many of our towns vote their school budgets.  The quality and availability of Pre-K through 12th grade education programs in our towns and the overall region significantly impacts our quality of life, our economic vitality, the property values of our homes, and the grand list values for our towns.

A very significant amount of work, which will have long lasting impacts, is being undertaken by our school boards and administrators.  Almost every one of our boards are talking with other boards.  It is important for our communities to engage with our boards as they begin to identify what educational opportunities our communities want for our students in the future.

Agenda:

6:30 – 6:40 Welcome and explain the purpose of the evening Reps Manwaring & Sibilia

6:40 – 7:15 Rep. Dave Sharpe Presentation/Discussion

7:15 – 7:45 Report outs from local boards

7:45 Questions from public

Like it or not, Act 46 likely once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

A discussion with far reaching implications is happening at school board and community meetings across Vermont right now.   The discussion, required by this past Legislative session’s Act 46 “the Unification Act”, is about things we all hold very dear, our children, our communities, and our future.   In terms of public participation, this discussion still seems to be flying under the radar.

As a state, we have had some challenges with our education system prior to Act 46.  The state education funding mechanism under Act 60 and Act 68 has enabled the creation of, in some cases very large, inequities of opportunity between small and large schools, while at the same time allowing for huge increases in spending.  Our current statewide education funding mechanism is not based on what funding is need to provide equal educational opportunity, it is based on ensuring every child has access to the same level of spending (equal dollars) based on equalized state property tax rates.   This has happened at the same time that significant national and rural state demographic challenges are impacting not only the size of our areas workforce but also our school age populations.The result of Act 60, Act 68 and the larger then rural Vermont demographic challenges we are facing is that some small schools, particularly smaller higher schools, cannot afford to provide appropriate educational opportunity for their students.  That’s not acceptable.

Act 46 is not likely to lower taxes over the long term because it doesn’t fix the flaw in the education funding mechanism.   It’s not going to fix the declining workforce and student population issue, because it is looking to shed net seats, not fill them.  What Act 46 is seeking to do is consolidate school boards, thereby starting to ease some of the inequity of opportunity that our system currently holds. If your school board and my school board have to work together for both of our sets of students, we’re going to make sure “our” students receiving the same opportunities. Right?

The communities I represent in the legislature contain 4 small elementary schools with secondary choice, two non-operating school districts with K-12 choice, and part of the Twin Valley joint contract district.  A quick count of school board meetings I’ve attended since the end of the session is in the sixty range.  It’s in the seventies if you start adding in community discussions, school board members from other parts of Vermont or meetings with other legislators about Act 46.   I’ll bet many of Vermont’s Legislators are spending a lot more time with their school boards since the passage of Act 46.

What I have been seeing and hearing from most boards and board members is a willingness to consider how and if they can improve opportunities for kids in light of Act 46. Many boards and Supervisory Union boards have also been meeting a lot more then they typically would. They are talking passionately about their community’s values, about what they want to save, about how to keep the state Board of Education from deciding what is best for their community (which is what happens in 2018 if communities refuse to comply). They are wrestling with how best to establish new governance partnerships with neighbors, or sometimes boards that aren’t neighbors.  They are working on how to  keep, eliminate, or establish school choice for their students. They are trying to understand a law which has some very significant flexibility in it, but also some significant incentives for acting quickly, and some pretty big sticks for failure to comply. There is much to know and learn.

I’m a long time school board member myself, and what I am seeing is an inspiring doubling down by board in their commitment to students and communities. Boards are stepping into the challenges created by Act 46, to try and find the best opportunities created by Act 46. This is not easy.  They are being encouraged to “think big” and to “act fast” at the same time.  I hope you will support the heavy lifting your boards are doing by staying informed of their discussions, as well as discussions at the statewide level.  It is very easy to receive minutes from your local board meetings by contacting your Supervisory Union.  School board meetings are open to the public, and every board I have spoken with would welcome more community participation. In addition to my contact info, you can find links to the legislation, the Vermont Agency of Education and your Supervisory Union at https://laurasibiliavt.com/act-46/

Something I have learned over and over is that the biggest opportunities often come right at the moment of greatest challenge. Whether we like the law or not, there is actually a once in a lifetime opportunity, right now,  for our communities to re-imagine how we would devise an education system that could provide more opportunities for students and our communities.

2015 Session Wrap Up

At 11:15 pm on Saturday May 16th,  the gavel fell signaling the end of 2015 Legislative Session.  Since then I have resumed working full-time at my regular employment job – Director of Economic and Workforce Development for SE Vermont’s Windham Region, attended the last school events of the season for my middle schooler, and celebrated the return home of my two daughters from college.

I’ve found some time to enjoy planting the raised garden beds my husband built this Spring and have been able to attend some wonderful community events like the Whitingham and Wilmington Memorial Day ceremonies, the Plant Sale in Wardsboro (picked up my Gilfeather Turnip seedlings!), Fiddlehead Festival in Dover, the Readsboro Central School play and Readsboro Hometown Redevelopment’s five-year celebration of the Bullock Building.   Last night I attended The Dover School’s wonderful 6th grade graduation ceremony.  It’s good to be back in the district and talking with you all.

As I drove home from Montpelier the evening of adjournment I reflected on the highs and

lows and best lessons from my freshman session. There were a number of interesting and unusual developments from January 8th through adjournment on Saturday, many of which I shared on social media and in earlier posts and some of which I will reflect on further in this update and in future updates. Below are descriptions of where major bills of interest ended, and if there was a vote, how I voted and why.

Budget –The Legislature passed state spending of 5.531 billion dollars, including general fund, education spending, and federally funded programs. Total spending is up 1.1%. Total spending for education is up 2.95% and total general fund spending was up 4.1%.  FY 2015 saw revenue downgrades of $40 million dollars.  I voted in favor of the budget for a number of reasons, but chiefly because the size of the structural budget problem requires a multi-year solution and I believed the, largely new, appropriations committee has actually committed and begun the process of bringing spending and revenue into alignment.  Additionally, this year’s process included multiple transparent opportunities for every Vermont Legislator to provide ideas on cost containment, and for every committee to prioritize the agencies, staffing and initiatives under their subject matter jurisdiction. I’ll be looking for this process to not only continue, but expand next year.
Here is a great easy to read summary on this years final agreed upon budget.

For those who are concerned we are not reducing spending fast enough, you are countered by, and may have even read op-eds from, a vocal group of folks who are actually calling this an “austerity budget” and have urged policymakers to raise more taxes on the highest earners in Vermont. I think we’re somewhere in the middle.  Next year Vermont is already projected to have an estimated 70 million dollar budget gap to face, and reductions in a number of federal program funds.

Revenue Bill – This is H. 489, the tax bill that raises 38.2M in funds to pay for the budget.  This bill included a lower restaurant fee increase I successfully proposed early on in the session, and raised revenue by removing the itemized deduction for state and local income taxes and caps other deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction (except medical and charitable), and removing the tax exemption on soft drinks and vending machine items.

This bill DID NOT include a number of proposed tax increases that I had found particularly objectionable including increasing the employer assessment for health care, increasing the meals and rooms tax, adding a room surcharge, elimination of the exemption for candy, satellite tv tax, sugar excise tax, disallowing Vermont companies with a global presence availing themselves of global tax havens.

Again, considering the size of the financial challenges we are facing, I think the final tax proposal was reasonable.  However, I did not vote in favor of the final agreement between the House and Senate.  The capping of the mortgage interest deduction was a significant concern for our district’s fragile real estate recovery, an important aspect of this district’s jobs and economy.

Economic Development – As a first year member of the House Commerce and economic Development Committee, I was proud to be part of developing the final 173 page Economic Development bill, S.138, that passed the House and Senate. Windham County Freshman Senator Becca Balint was also on the final conference committee charged with reaching an agreement between the House and Senate versions of the bill, a big deal for a freshman!  I also had significant opportunity to learn about banking and insurance regulations and a number of emerging consumer protection issues like regulating litigation lenders and online dating services.  The most immediate statewide impact pieces of S.138 are the repeal of the cloud tax, increased licensed lending from 75K to 250K, approval of additional one time funds for Vermont to develop an economic development marketing program, and a first time home buyer tax credit paid out over three years.

I was especially pleased to have worked with Rep. Oliver Olsen of Londonderry and Kiah Morris of Bennington and Senator Becca Balint on language to create a Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone and committee.  This zone is comprised of the two regions covered by the Bennington and Windham Region Planning Commissions and Development Corps.  I’ll be writing more on this topic as the committee is named and begins it’s work over the session, but this is a significant long term opportunity for increasing economic development collaborative action by public, private and non profit entities in Southern Vermont.

Education – Much has already been reported about H.361. As communities begin to try and implement the law, much more will be reported.  The two votes on this bill were the most agonizing for me of the session.   Ultimately I voted in favor of the bill.  I know it may cause significant short term challenges for schools in my district, I know the bill does not address the root cause of the property tax crisis which is the flawed funding mechanism that bases equity on unscaled dollars available to students instead of scaled program available to students.

So why did I vote for it?

Though it wasn’t understood, this bill, particularly the governance consolidation pieces, were a done deal when we arrived in January. There was a literal freight train of education policy makers, boards and associations on the tracks rolling over opposition and alternate views, sometimes in stunning over the top fashion and sometimes just interesting data selection pieces such as the April Fools Day selective data piece published as the House was preparing to vote on H.361.

I voted for it in return for getting changes that I believed would somewhat diminish the impacts to our districts students and taxpayers being driven by the premise bigger is cheaper and provides higher quality.

As a freshman, I was able to highlight the very significant impacts the legislation will have on small schools and created a small schools caucus.  The legislation allows for consideration of capacity at neighboring schools and quality of program to be determinations for maintaining small schools grants, and I was able to get a 300K adequacy study, proposed by a Warren area community effort led by Heidi Spear in response Speaker Shap Smith’s request for proposals, included in the final bill.

NONE of the governance legislation is going to produce structurally sustainable statewide property tax relief.  At least in the next five-ten years.  The other freight train most legislators understood was on the tracks was voter demand for property tax relief.  So some measure that specifically addressed property taxes was going to be included.  In the final days of the session, the cost containment piece that was being proposed was a very significant reduction in the excess spending threshold.  This would have almost exclusively impacted the 5% of schools and statewide budgets attributed to small schools. The final cost containment piece that was included, a variable 2% cap that CAN be surpassed with penalty, hits all schools including those large and extra large schools responsible for 60% percent of the students and the costs.

Sen. Sears I believe correctly classified efforts like mine and others as “attempts to make a bad bill better”.  This was the strategy I employed on H.361 rather then just voting no.  There are some meritorious items in the legislation that districts should pay attention to like incentive opportunities for some districts who are ready to consolidate governance or buildings.  For some districts in the state, this legislation will also provide a very compelling reason to have long term strategic discussions about how to maintain quality education in their rural communities.  Those are very very important discussions which will greatly impact the future of Vermont.

The Agency of Education, the State Board of Education, Vermont School Boards Association and others are all participating in planning for further implementation and providing districts with more assistance and guidance on the final 144 page bill which can be found here. As opportunities are put forward I’ll be communicating those out to the district.

Citizens and boards within our district continue to engage in the statewide conversation on education reform and connect with others throughout the state.  Interested folks can connect on their Facebook site – Concerned Citizens from Small and Rural Schools(education funding) Another citizen led state group to connect with is the Vermonters for Schools and Communities.

Healthcare – The healthcare legislation that passed is most noteworthy in how small in scope, scale and cost it is.  Significant legislation to expand premium subsidies and medicaid payments to doctors was proposed early in the session, but a host of tax proposals to pay for it were unsellable to legislators.  These included the Governor’s proposed payroll tax, increasing the employer assessment on businesses that don’t provide healthcare, a sugar excise tax, an increase in the room and meals tax and a lodging fee.  The final legislation was paid for by an increase in the cigarette tax.  I voted for the final, extremely modest, proposal.

The expansion of medicaid eligibility under the federal affordable care has, as intended, increased the number of Vermonters on medicaid.  There has been no corresponding revenue raised and we are expected to meet a 40 million dollar shortfall in January.

Other significant healthcare bill included S.108 Preserving End of Life Choices – the bill that passed, effectively said that Vermont will leave its existing law and protections in place. I voted in favor of this bill.  Finally H.98 Reportable Disease Registries and Data included a repeal of the vaccine philosophical exemption for students attending public schools.  I voted in favor of this legislation, and shared my own experiences as a parent who questioned vaccine schedules here.

As a new Independent Legislator, representing our district well and with integrity is an honor and tremendous responsibility that I didn’t and don’t take lightly.   Many have asked if serving in the Vermont Legislature was what I expected.  Yes and No.  This was an especially contentious, challenging and adversity filled year starting with the 113 million dollar budget gap, the Legislative vote for Governor, the protests over single payer, the session long education reform debates, gun debate, and the arrest of Senator Mcallister.

I didn’t expect quite that volume of contentiousness.  Unlike a number of Legislators, I also need to maintain year round employment, and I got a new (and thankfully, flexible) boss just before the session started.  My sense is I had a unique opportunity to gain significant experience having navigated those numerous unique challenges this first year.

I also didn’t expect, and was so pleased to find, so many others working with integrity and doing their best to represent their constituents and Vermont – even though I didn’t agree on policy with them all.  That discovery was the most hopeful to me.  I’m looking forward to next year and using all of the knowledge I gained this session.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me about the session, challenges you are facing or ideas you have.  The best times to call me are in the evening after work,or on the weekends at 348-7131.  Email can be sent anytime to lhsibilia@gmail.com.

www.laurasibiliavt.com  

In the news:

Vermont schools at the tipping point

House gives preliminary approval to expanded economic

Local lawmakers reflect on governor’s decision

Gilfeather Turnip visits Official Twitter Offices

Education reform bill, money woes top issues in 2105 session

All of the pieces are coming together

Gilfeather Turnip!

Gilfeather Turnip!

Rep. Sibilia 2015 Town Meeting Legislative Update

Town Meeting Legislative Update  

March 3, 2015

Dear Friends and Neighbors:

It is an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this newsletter. I have been busy since the beginning of the session working in my committee, researching issues and developing legislation. There appears to be growing consensus that we have to look at structural changes in how we govern ourselves and provide for our people as the budget challenges we are facing in this and the coming few years are serious, and so is the mood in Montpelier.

Thank you to all who have reached out to me with suggestions, concerns and encouragement. There are so many issues and opportunities being considered by the Legislature that it can be difficult for me to understand how every one might impact you, your family, town, school or business. When you contact me about specific policy concerns, it helps me understand what the policy implementation is looking like. Even if I do not share your opinion on an issue, I do want to understand your concern or hope and perhaps assist in finding alternative solutions.

COMMERCE:
Working with all of our colleagues in Southern Vermont’s Windham and Bennington region, as well as a number from the Northeast Kingdom, Rep. Kiah Morris (D) of Bennington and I introduced legislation last week that would require the Administration and Legislature to give significant deference to regional planning and Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS) when dealing with the impacts of a significant loss of jobs. The bill is intended to ensure that our local and regional voice and work is honored, and it’s was inspired by the years of work residents, towns, non-profits and business invest in regional land use and economic development planning.

EDUCATION:
The section by section summary of H.361 (the education bill that passed out of the education committee last week) is linked at http://legislature.vermont.gov/committee/document/2016/10/Date/2-27-2015.  There are significant implications for small communities and schools, school choice, governance and a 2% spending cap that could possibly work more like a club then a scalpel the smaller your district is. This is NOT a major overhaul of our education system or a sustainable mechanism to fix property taxes AND provide equitable opportunity. However, there are some elements here to help districts that are struggling to provide opportunities for their students. I will be working closely with a number of colleagues to ensure communities have all of the resources and assistance needed to seriously consider and implement these and any other mandates that are eventually enacted.

To that end, I have introduced legislation that would require the Agency of Education to project both the 5 year savings and 5 year improvement in educational opportunities for all districts that currently receive a small schools grant, if those communities consolidated there school district. I have also introduced legislation that establishes a joint education and commerce working group to work with towns and their school districts to plan steps that can mitigate the impacts of a proposed or induced small school closure. Similar work is already required in New York State.

This year, half the cost of Dual Enrollment programs, part of the Flexible Pathways initiative, are required to be paid for by individual districts. There is discussion about having these funds come out of the Education Fund instead to share the costs throughout the state instead of just on districts. There is data about current usage of this important program which can be found at http://education.vermont.gov/laws/legislative-reports .

WATER QUALITY:
The governor identified water quality, particularly that of Lake Champlain, as an area of major focus in his Inaugural address. A Water Quality Bill (H.35), was passed by the House Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee 7-2 late on the afternoon of February 20th and is now in House Agriculture.  The bill establishes standards for the agricultural and forest industry; for development and for impervious surfaces; and for the state and town highway system. It looks to provide additional staffing to the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Agriculture, along with funds for municipalities and local nonprofits to address the requirements of Lake Champlain’s pollution as required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  The financing of the bill calls for a .5 cent increase to the rooms, meals, and liquor taxes (sunset after 3 years), a 2 cent gas tax, and new fees on agriculture.

TAXES:
The Ways and Means Committee is responsible for all revenues coming to the state. Currently the committee has recommended considering changes to the state’s Current Use program.  This is the program that taxes property on its use right now, not its potential use.   Nearly half the land in the state is enrolled in Current Use, and these properties are assessed an average reduction in property tax of 88%.  This is a total cost to the education fund of $45 million and cost to the municipal taxpayers of $15 million. There is legislation underway to change Current Use by assessing land pulled out of current use at its actual value instead of a diffused value.

Ways and Means has moved a bill to the House floor already, the Fee Bill. The fee bill is an annual event for the Administration and the Legislature.  Every year, up to one third of all fees that Vermont assesses for a host of different licenses and inspections are reviewed. This year’s proposal was to increase fees by over 2.8 million.  The biggest percentage increases were on small restaurants which were looking at increases in the 70% range.  I originally told House Leadership I would not support the bill because of the impacts to our districts business community, but was encouraged by Rep. Oliver Olsen (I) Londonderry to try and do more than just vote no.

Working with Legislative Council, and with the assistance of Rep. Jim Condon (D) from Colchester and Rep. Patty Komline (R) of Dorset, I drafted an amendment that reduced the proposed fee increases on small restaurants by 100K.   The Ways and Means Committee agreed to the amendment and the House passed it.  I’m glad to have been able to work with others to do something for small businesses other than just vote no.

BROADBAND
H.117 expands the Department of Public Service’s telecommunications division into a Division of Telecommunications and Connectivity and assigns the functions and assets of the former Vermont Telecommunications Authority to that division. A new advisory board has been established to work with the Commissioner and telecom providers to improve broadband speeds and incent build out in higher cost areas. We are going to need significantly more public investment than we are currently budgeting for if we want to be able to leverage high speed connections for economic growth in our rural state.
UNIVERSAL BACKGROUND CHECKS
S.31, an act relating to possession and transfer of firearms, appears to have stalled in Senate Judiciary where it had the support of the President Pro Tem John Campbell. A similar bill, H.250, was introduced into House Judiciary on February 20.
SUPPORTING THE GILFEATHER TURNIP
In addition to our efforts on a number of other issues, Rep. Barbara Murphy of Fairfax (another freshman Independent) and I were asked by constituents to introduce support H.65 by folks interested in the history of this uniquely Vermont vegetable.  We are pleased that the Wardsboro 5th and 6th grade classes will be able to testify to the House Agriculture Committee and learn about both the Legislative process and the Vermont heritage of this native vegetable.

Stay in touch!

Rep. Laura Sibilia
Representing the towns of  Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

PO Box 2052
West Dover, VT 05356
802-348-7131

Taylor Endorsement

Though I am not a voting member in the Dover-Readsboro-Stamford-Halifax-Wardsboro district I have the privilege of expressing my support for Laura Sibilia as the next state representative for these Vermonters.

I have been fortunate to know Laura as a friend and as an associate as we continue to work in the state legislature to protect the interests of small schools and rural communities. What has impressed me most about Laura is her natural talent to be a strong, outspoken advocate for all Valley towns and schools. I have spent numerous occasions walking the halls of the capital building with her while the legislature was in session. She has a remarkable ability to connect with our legislators and clearly present the issues facing our residents.

I recall one occasion when a powerful senate leader passed by and squawked at her with amusement about a legislative proposal on economic development which she was lobbying for. He commented that it didn’t have much of a chance. She smiled, and joked back with the Senator, inviting him to look at how the proposal was a benefit to all towns in the area and this was a vital issue that effected all of Southern Vermont. With some back and forth points on the matter, he left amused and with appreciation for the proposal. I just looked at her and said, “so, when are you running for state representative.” She was just a natural for this type of work. Having been exposed to the legislative world, I have really begun to understand what it takes to be an effective legislator–a far more difficult job than most people would think.

It takes incredible energy, persistence and an innate drive to do not what seems good, but what is right. Laura Sibilia has these qualities including a sensible pragmatism that knows the limits and place of state regulations–where they are effective and where they are not.

To those of you who have the choice to vote for Laura Sibilia, I can honestly say that she is one of the best representatives to have fighting for the interests of your district and of Southern Vermont.

Philip Taylor

Wilmington, VT

A suprise win

One of the most astonishing facts about the State of Vermont’s 1.6 billion dollars investment in statewide education is that nowhere at the state level are we collecting information on what opportunities that buys for Vermont’s students.

We have a governance system that values local control, and budgets that are voted on locally, but the actual bills are paid for by all of us – businesses, second homeowners and residents – across the state.

We have no evidence that educational opportunity has been  substantially equalized, as required by the Brigham decision, and that is because we do not collect data on what we are buying with the 1.6 billion dollars.

Every year there is legislative action to attempt cut education spending.  This is a laudable goal.  But if policy makers don’t collect information on what educational opportunity we are buying, how  can they expect to make thoughtful decisions about what to cut?

I’ve worked with many other town and school officials, met with many legislators, testified at many public and committee hearings asking over and over – where is the data on what we are buying?  I’ve worked with the public bodies and the voters in my town to hire a lobbyist to ask that question every day at the statehouse.

And then surprise! The House Appropriations Committee passes this

Sec. E.500.1 UNIFORM CHART OF ACCOUNTS COMPLETION, TRANSITION, TRAINING AND SUPPORT

http://www.leg.state.vt.us/docs/2014/bills/Passed/H-885C.pdf