2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

2017 Windham-Bennington District Town Meeting Information

Times and locations for our districts Town Meeting and Australian Ballot items are belowAct 46 Australian ballot votes and other notable Town Meeting education articles are in green.   On Monday night March 6th, I’ll be traveling to all of the Bennington County Towns, starting with Searsburg, then Stamford, then ending in Readsboro. On Tuesday March 7th, town Meeting day, I’ll be accompanied by Windham County Senator Becca Balint as I travel to our Windham County Towns beginning with Wardsboro’s Town Meeting, then Dover and ending in Whitingham.

Additional INFORMATIONAL meetings:

  • Twin Valley Joint School District Informational Meetings will be held on Tuesday February 28th at 7 pm at Twin Valley Elementary in Wilmington and on Thursday March 2nd at 7 pm at Twin Valley Middle high School in Whitingham
  • Dover, Wardsboro and Marlboro Act 46 Study Committee final meeting on Monday March 27th at Dover Town Hall (next to the Dover Free Library) at 6:30 PM
  • Dover Candidates Forum Tuesday February 28th at 6:15 pm Dover Town Hall
  • Dover Pre-Town Meeting Tuesday February 28th at 7:00 pm Dover Town Hall

Stamford

Stamford Elementary School
Town Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7 p.m. Warning
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 7:30 pm Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Stamford town officers
  • Stamford school district officers

Readsboro

Readsboro School Auditorium
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m. Warning
Australian ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

  • Readsboro town officers
  • Readsboro school district officers

Searsburg

Searsburg Town Office
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 6th at 7:00 p.m.

Wardsboro

Wardsboro Town Hall
School District Meeting: Monday March 6th at 6:30 p.m.
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 9 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Wardsboro town officers
  • Wardsboro school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Dover

Dover Town Hall on Dover Common
Town and School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning
Australian ballot open 10:00 a.m. 7:00 p.m.

  • Act 46 merger
  • Dover town officers
  • Dover school district officers
  • Unified School District officers

Whitingham

Twin Valley Middle/High School
Town Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. Warning

  • Article 32: Shall the town raise and appropriate 100,000 to the litigation fund in the event we need to litigate with the state due to the inequality of the education tax

School District Meeting: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m Warning
Australian Ballot: Tuesday March 7th at 10 a.m. – 7:00 p.m.

State Board hearing on independent schools, updates on Act 46 and telecommunications

5988599The State Board of Education is holding a public meeting this Monday December 12th (tomorrow!)  at 6PM at the Riley Center at Burr & Burton Academy in Manchester. The purpose of the hearing is to give the public an opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to the approval of independent schools. I will be attending this hearing as will my fellow Deerfield Valley representative Rep. Ann Manwaring and her successor Rep-elect John Gannon.

If you are unable to attend and provide comment, it is possible to provide comment to the State Board of Education for review at: SBE.PublicComment@vermont.gov ;  specify “SBE Rule 2200 Series” in the subject line of the email.

State Board of Education Chair Stephan Morse issued a statement about the proposed rule changes in late November.

Bennington County Senators Dick Sears and Brian Campion recently addressed the controversy

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ACT 46 Update – Wardsboro, Dover, Marlboro

Click here to read the full 30-page Report & Articles of Agreement prepared by the Act 46 Elementary Study Committee for Dover, Marlboro and Wardsboro.  Instructions for HOW TO COMMENT.

Next Meeting:
January 5th, 2017, Marlboro Elementary School, 6:30pm. Open Public Meeting. Agenda to follow.
Time to decide! Over the next several weeks the Committee Members are scheduling six public information sessions to give voters many opportunities to discuss what will be on the ballot when they go to vote in March, 2017 at Town Meeting Day. Voters, parents of school children, and interested residents may go to any of these meetings in any of these towns. The meetings will help voters understand what happens if the articles are approved and what happens if they are not.  The schedule is as follows:
  • January 12  6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • January 19  6:30pm – 8pm  Dover Town Hall
  • January 23  6:30pm – 8pm  Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 2  6:30pm – 8pm Wardsboro Town Hall
  • February 13 6:30pm – 8pm Marlboro Elementary School
  • February 27 6:30pm – 8pm Dover Town Hall

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  Legislative Briefing  

All members of the Legislature were able to attend a one day pre-session briefing regarding the economic outlook, revenue projections, All-Payer model for health care, and implementation of the Clean Water Act.

The most serious issue continuing to plague our state are our demographics.  Vermont has the lowest birth rate in the country.  We have also seen a steady decrease in the prime child bearing age population.  The most significant effects of this can be seen in our declining student population and in the unfilled demand for professional and skilled workers our employers are experiencing. Look for private and public measures at the state level and in the Southern Vermont Zone to begin to directly address reversing population loss and employer recruitment. This is not a Vermont specific problem, but a rural America problem. For those who may be interested in the broader context of this challenge this is a great read with a lot of data. America: This Is Your Future

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Telecommunications:  There is a lot happening right now with phone and internet service across Vermont and our district.  As you may have read, Fairpoint is being sold to Consolidated Communications out of Illinois.  Fairpoint is down to about 1/3 of the landline phone customers it had when it first purchased Vermont’s landlines from Verizon.   The purchase will require the Public Service Board to issue a Certificate of Public Good which will take some time.  Important questions likely to be asked during that process include the new companies experience running 911 systems, what happens to Vermonters currently employed by Fairpoint, and what the new companies plans are with regard to broadband improvements/expansion.  In related news, the Public Service board has recently issued a decision in a nine year old open docket regarding Comcast and their VOIP (voice over IP) service.  Traditional telephone service is subject to quality regulation by the Department of Public Service.  VOIP has NOT been subjected to that same regulation, but appears that the Public Service Board believes they should be.  

In federal telecom grant related matters, reports from Whitingham indicate a number of new residents are able to access the VTel Wireless Internet service, funded by VTel’s $100M+ federal funded stimulus award in 2009.  Good news.  Unfortunately this is still not so in Readsboro, parts of Wardsboro, Dover and Searsburg.  Expect to hear more on this issue in the very near future.  Locally, I have also received complaints about another federally funded project, intended to provide cell service in towns isolated during T.S. Irene,  Obviously there is work to do, but I am encouraged by the organizing and planning happening on the ground here.  Recently we have seen those local efforts result in a planned wireless internet expansion in Readsboro. I look forward to continuing to work on these issues with our towns during the upcoming Legislative Session.

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Great southern Vermont resource developed and managed by locals:   Searsburg/Woodford Road Conditions  This is a Facebook page where eyewitness reports, videos and current conditions reporting are available for those who need to travel Route 9 between Wilmington and Bennington.  Highly recommended!

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

Town Meeting Report 2016

Town Meeting Legislative Update March 1, 2016

Dear Friends and Neighbors:

It’s an honor to represent you in our State Legislature and to communicate the activities of the General Assembly to you in this Town Meeting update.  I have been busy since the beginning of the session working in my committee and with constituents on a variety of issues.  Please feel free to contact me at any time with questions or suggestions. If you are able to visit the statehouse, please let me know and so I can help make your visit as productive as possible.

BUDGETING: The Governor has proposed a 5.768B budget.  There are proposals to increase the mutual funds fee as well as proposals for new provider taxes for physicians and dentists.  Despite repeated years of budget deficits, for the second year in a row I see reason to be cautiously optimistic that we are on a path to developing more rational budgets.  This year the Speaker of the House and the Appropriations Chair Mitzi Johnson asked all committees to review the programs under their jurisdiction to assess how well they are meeting our state policy goals and metrics.  Believe it or not, this systematic goal-oriented approach is not how the Governor’s proposed budgets have been evaluated in the past!  I appreciate the collaborative nature of this endeavor as the Legislature looks to develop more sustainable budgeting practices.  In depth information on the FY 17 budget can be found here: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/budget_fy2017.asp

EDUCATION:  The response to Act 46 throughout the state has been one of larger then anticipated compliance.  The school districts in our two supervisory unions, WSSU and WCSU, have been working on identifying best paths forward.  Contrary to recent news reports, school choice as our school districts enjoy it is NOT under threat.  However there is an effort to significantly EXPAND school choice, by allowing towns that have choice and towns that don’t have choice to merge school governance.   This was not allowed prior to Act 46.   Budget concerns: The Governor’s budget includes a 240K decrease in funding for the Agency of Education which is charged with assisting districts implementing Act 46 and a $1,000,000 increase to the Child Savings Account (529 plans). This new program was created last year as a privately funded program with the assumption that no public money would be dedicated to the fund.

HEALTH CARE: The functionality of Vermont’s federally mandated health insurance exchange continues to disappoint lawmakers, health care providers, business managers, insurers, and patients across the state.  Despite concerted efforts to improve technology and timely response rates, the Exchange remains a serious concern.  The House Health Care Committee has been looking at the function of the Vermont Health Connect (VHC) website in recent weeks. Many have called for an independent review of the website and an assessment of whether or not it can be salvaged. H.524, a bill introduced during the first week of the 2016 session, would seek a federal waiver from the requirement for the state to build the VHC website for small businesses. Instead, qualified employers would be allowed to continue to purchase qualified health benefit plans directly from a registered carrier. H.524 is widely supported and has passed both chambers.

INDEPENDENT CONTRACTOR CLASSIFICATION: My committee has spent significant time working on ensuring correct classification of employees and on the definition of an Independant Contractor. Advocates for Labor, Employers and Independent Contractors want more surety in the labor market and to ensure workplace injuries are covered appropriately.  We have spent weeks taking testimony and discussing language and plan to produce a bill when we come back from the Town Meeting break.

PAID SICK LEAVE: Employees over age 18, who work at least 18 hours a week, who do not work for the federal government, who work more than 20 weeks for an employer in a 12-month period,  will legally have access to paid sick leave beginning in 2017 and 2018.

Covered employees will accrue one hour of paid sick time for every 52 hours they work. An employer may require a one-year waiting period before an employee may take accrued sick time. The employer may restrict the amount of sick leave that may be taken to 24 hours between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2018, and to 40 hours in the ensuing year. The paid sick leave requirements will take effect on January 1, 2017, except for businesses with five or fewer employees for which it will take effect on January 1, 2018.

MARIJUANA: The Vermont Senate passed S.241 last week, a bill that legalizes the possession of small amounts of marijuana.   The bill will go to the House Judiciary Committee after Town Meeting Week.  I have pledged to work hard to make sure any bill that may pass is as comprehensive and thorough as possible, but I remain extremely skeptical about our ability to pass comprehensive, thoughtful and appropriate language by the beginning of May 2016.

BROADBAND: I have been working with the communities in our district to conduct connectivity meetings with the Department of Public Service. These meetings are helping communities understand broadband programs that are slated for their town as well as areas of opportunity for public funding assistance.  The next meeting is in Wardsboro on March 2nd at 7 PM at the town Hall and in Stamford on March 7th at 7:30 PM at the firehouse.

SOUTHERN VERMONT ZONE: The Southern Vermont Economic Development Zone Study Committee, appointed by the Governor and Legislature in the spring of 2015, presented its recommendations to a joint hearing of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee and the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee and to Speaker of the House Shap Smith  in February. The plan, which was originally submitted to the Legislature in December, outlines a number of next steps and addresses telecommunications, workforce development, arts, culture and access to capital. I am proud to have been a lead sponsor of this legislation along with Rep. Oliver Olson of Londonderry, Rep. Kiah Morris of Bennington and Senator Becca Balint.   More information on the legislation, committee and final report are available at: http://www.brattleborodevelopment.com/economic-development/projects/sovermont-economic-development-zone

MAKING THE GILFEATHER TURNIP THE VERMONT STATE VEGETABLE:  Wardsboro’s native Gilfeather Turnip has made a significant step towards being named the Vermont State Vegetable after passing the House in January.   Congratulations to the Wardsboro students who have testified in support of this significant piece of Wardsboro history and the Friends of the Wardsboro Library for their continued advocacy!  My fellow Windham County Legislator Rep. Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture and forest Products Committee brought in enough turnips for lunch in the the State House Cafeteria.  The bill, H.65 has been introduced in the Senate and will likely be taken up in the next two months.

FOUR YEAR TERMS FOR GOVERNOR: Senator Diane Snelling has introduced language to amend the Vermont Constitution and have our Governors serve four year terms.  One of the bigger challenges Vermont faces is the disincentive a two year term provides to creating and following long term strategies, and so I support this effort.  Amending the constitution requires an affirmative vote of the Legislature in two different bienniums.  So a vote this year, and a vote in 2017 or 2018, will allow for Vermonters to vote on the amendment in 2020.

Budgets, twister and turnips

Posted outside the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee room prior to the vote on the floor.

This gigantic turnip was grown on the Gilfeather Farm in Wardsboro. Pictured is John Gilfeather, Wardsboro State Representative for 1908. Both were posted outside the House Ag Committee room prior to the vote.

We are three weeks in to the session, and a number of items are seeing some legislative action.

GILFEATHER TURNIP

Of local importance, this week Wardsboro’s native Gilfeather Turnip made a significant step towards being named the Vermont State Vegetable after passing the House.   Congratulations to the Wardsboro students who have testified in support of this significant piece of Wardsboro history and the Friends of the Wardsboro Library for their continued advocacy!  My fellow Windham County Legislator Rep. Carolyn Partridge, Chair of the House Agriculture and forest Products Committee brought in enough turnips for lunch in the the State House Cafeteria.  This week the bill, H.65 will be introduced in the Senate.

BUDGET and HEALTHCARE

On Thursday Governor Shumlin delivered his last budget address.  The current year projections were for a 58 million dollar deficits, largely associated with having increased the number of Vermonters who are eligible for health care benefits through both the federal and state laws, but not increasing taxes to pay for the newly eligible recipients.

Last year the Governor proposed a .08 payroll tax to pay for the increased eligibility demands, but that tax was not supported by the Legislature.    In the budget address Thursday, he proposed raising roughly

image

Narcan, a critical drug used for treating opiate overdose, costs medics $46 a dose and is not reimbursable.  In depth VtDigger story here

30 million in new taxes and fees and making 38 million in cuts to close this year’s budget gap.  The taxes and fees are from a new provider tax on dentists and independent physicians as well as an increase in the registration fee for mutual funds.   Proposed cuts included raising the income threshold for pregnant woman to qualify for medicaid, closing a prison work camp and reducing the number of out of state prison beds.   By Friday the Governor’s office had changed it’s mind on removing the pregnant women from medicaid, so additional cuts will need to be proposed.

The healthcare situation is even more urgent due to inadequate medicaid reimbursement rates for healthcare providers, ambulance and other services.  In fact last Monday many members of the Windham County delegation met with representatives from Deerfield Valley Rescue and Rescue Inc. and learned that Rescue Inc has recently had to reduce services due to the medicaid reimbursement situation.  We were surprised to learn that medications given on ambulances are not reimbursable, nor are any responses that do not result in taking a patient to the hospital.

EDUCATION

The first three weeks of the session have been a pointed reminder of just how little consensus there is with regard to how our education finance system works and how to reform it.

Last year the Legislature passed Act 46 which provided incentives for school districts to consolidate their boards.   Consolidating school boards is intended to provide more equal opportunities for students.   There was no consensus that consolidating school boards would save money in the short term, and only a “hope” by some that it would save money in the long term.  And so there was general consensus that something additional had to be done last year to limit property tax increases.  Per pupil spending caps were considered, as was a dramatic

My notes from the floor when a compromise position on the controversial AGR was finally announced.  We will vote on this next week.

My notes from the floor Friday and an announcement that a compromise position on the controversial AGR had finally been approved by the House Education Committee. The whole House will vote on this next week.  An amendment to repeal the AGR is also possible.

lowering of an existing per pupil excess spending penalty threshold.  These measures would have almost exclusively impacted the 5% of students and spending attributed to small schools.

The final cost containment piece that was included last year was a 2% allowable growth rate (AGR) threshold that varied according to your existing per pupil spending, and impacted all schools including those large and extra large schools responsible for 60% percent of the students and the statewide spending.

It is little surprise that putting downward pressure on the spending of almost all school districts in Vermont resulted in calls for repeal of the AGR.  The Governor called for repeal of the AGR.  The Senate indicated early on that they would be looking to repeal.  However, the House leadership  indicated that repeal was not likely.   House Ed. Chairman Dave Sharpe floated the idea of a .09% increase in everyone’s AGR to account for uncontrollable costs like an 8% increase in health insurance premiums.  All sides concurred that if any changes were to be made, they would need to be made right away when the legislature reconvened.   School boards have to have budgets prepared in January and finalized for Town Meeting and Town Meeting Handbooks.

As expected, the Senate voted to repeal the AGR the second week of the session.  The House discovered that the Agency of Education had given school districts the wrong AGR percentage and troubled over how to correct that for a bit.  Watching my fellow lawmakers trying to find consensus on repealing, correcting or modifying the AGR reminded of the game twister.  While most school budgets at this point have already been finalized, the relevant committees were turning themselves inside out trying to find a way forward that could win the approval of the whole House.  While I genuinely admired the effort,  it truly seems like many don’t really understand the budget timeline process our school boards are in.   Next week we will vote on a bill that includes the .09% increase, holds the school districts harmless for the Agency of Education miscommunication, and reduces the overall penalty for going over the AGR from 100% to 25%.

NEWSWORTHY

A reminder that the Department of Public Service will be in Readsboro on Monday January 25th at 7 pm at the school to discuss broadband and cell in the town.

Senator Diane Snelling has introduced language to amend the Vermont Constitution and have our Governors serve four year terms.  One of the biggest challenges Vermont faces is the disincentive a two year term provides to creating and following long term strategies, and so I support this effort.  Amending the constitution requires an affirmative vote of the Legislature in two different bienniums.  So a vote this year, and a vote in 2017 or 2018, will allow for Vermonters to vote on the amendment in 2020.

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

District information and discussions on education governance reforms mandated in Act 46

The Windham Central Supervisory Union discussions on how to implement Act 46 from June 17th were taped and available for view by folks who want to track the discussions. This includes Wardsboro and Dover from our district, as well as Jamaica, Windham, Townshend, NewBrook, Leland and Gray, and Marlboro boards. I serve on this board as a member of the Dover School Board. 
http://www.brattleborotv.org/windham-central-supervisory-union/wcsu-executive-committee-mtg-61715

I was also invited to listen to Administrators in the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union discuss possible strategies their boards might be able to consider.  It’s clear that discussions are varied and ongoing in our district.

As Supervisory Union Boards across the state are beginning to try and grapple with the mandated governance changes required as part of Act 46, the Agency of Education has posted some resources. http://education.vermont.gov/laws/2015/act-46

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