Dear Friends and Neighbors,
The following is a highlighted some of this year’s work. As always, we strive to balance what is best for Vermonters, for Shelburne, what we can afford, and the consequences of action or inaction. I will continue to be available over the summer and fall. Best, Kate
EDUCATION UPDATE: As we face the three variables of declining enrollment, escalating costs and changing requirements for 21st century learning, expect to see education receive a significant focus in 2015-16. The following is a partial summary or work completed this year:
Investments in Early Learners: While most school districts, including CSSU, provide 10 hours of pre-K during the school year, 13% do not. Starting in July 2015, all districts will be required to offer this resource. Parents may choose public or district-approved private programs, providing high quality programs and the flexibility parents requested. Research shows that investments in high-quality early learning opportunities during rapid brain growth provides a foundation for learning that can’t be replicated later in life.
Connecting College Students with Vermont Employers: How can Vermont attract and keep a talented workforce? The new Vermont Scholars and Internship Initiative is designed to encourage Vermont post-secondary students to consider jobs in economic sectors considered critical to Vermont. Starting in July 2015, students enrolled in Vermont post-secondary institutions and live in Vermont upon graduation may be eligible for partial loan forgiveness for education in targeted fields. It also provides learning experience through internship opportunities with Vermont employers. A report due this fall will identify selected economic sectors and the feasibility of extending this to Vermonters attending schools outside of Vermont and out-of-state students attending Vermont institutions.
Funding Education: We heard loud and clear that escalating property tax rates are not sustainable. Of the $1.8 billion dollars appropriated for education, 68% comes from property taxes, 22% from the General Fund and 8% from Federal funds. The tobacco fund and pension fund transfers make up the rest. Balancing the competing interests of high quality education with the desire not to increase taxes to pay for it will require fresh thinking.
To help curb costs going forward, the Legislature anchored the excess spending penalty to the current fiscal year and increased it by an inflation index rather than average statewide spending. We required a fiscal note for any new legislation that creates an unfunded mandate on our school districts. The House voted twice to double the General Fund transfer, to tax e-cigarettes at tobacco rates and phase out the small schools grants to reduce the property tax. None of these survived in the final version.
ENVIRONMENT AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Capital Investments in our State: The capital bill includes the culmination of a six- year effort to provide a strategy and tools for the State to reduce its annual energy consumption by 5%. Working with the State Treasurer, the Legislature created a “credit facility” that uses cash on hand to finance energy conservation and renewable energy projects. These projects are financed through the savings they achieve, it is expected that over time $8 million of projects will be financed this way. Following the payback period, the current $14 million of energy costs in state government could be reduced by 15 to 20%.
Lake Champlain Clean Up: Although three House committees developed policy and funding strategies in preparation for the new EPA clean up plan for Lake Champlain, none of these made it into law. Expect to see renewed energy on this over the summer and next year.
Shoreland Protection: After a lengthy process, an act protecting the shorelands of Vermont’s lakes and ponds will become law. We are awaiting final confirmation from the Department of Environmental Conservation to present at the June 26th Shelburne Planning Commission at 7 pm. Please come and hear about the new standards first hand.
Green Up Day: To support a steady revenue source for this important effort, we created a new income tax return check-off that allows Vermonters to donate directly to this effort.
Recycling: Vermont became a leader in recycling with the passage of Act 148, the Universal Recycling Law. This year we remove two additional waste streams from landfills. In 2015, contractors will be required to haul certain discarded construction materials to recycling centers. In 2016, consumers will be able to drop off alkaline batteries at solid waste facilities, municipal buildings and participating retailers. This is a win for the environment and solid waste districts and is promoted by the industry.
Protecting our forests: Firewood is a known vector for carrying invasive species deadly to forests such as the Emerald Ash Borer. Now present in our neighboring states & Canada, Act 112 passed this year sets the stage for regulation of imported firewood.
Unprecedented Transportation Investment: This year we passed the largest transportation investment in Vermont history-- $665 million for our roads, rail, airports, bike/ped facilities and bridges. Although this is still hundreds of millions short of our need to adequately maintain our transportation infrastructure, the investments we have made over the past few years are paying off. In 2008 we were 45th in the nation with 19.7% of our bridges structurally deficient. We are now 28th with only 8% structurally deficient. Our road surfaces have gone from 34% in very poor condition to 21%. Thanks to our changes in gas and diesel taxes last year, as well as aggressive pursuit of federal grants, we have a much-needed record investment in our infrastructure.
Post-Irene Investment: The pouring of footings for the new state office building in Waterbury marks the final stage of commitments made to remain and invest in Waterbury post Irene. The $125 million building project is paid for with FEMA and insurance dollars as well as multiple years of capital dollar allocations. The project preserves the historic character of the state office complex while creating workspaces that break down silos. This allows state workers to serve Vermonters in a more productive and cost-effective manner. In an effort to prevent expensive flood recovery in the future, Act 107 lays a clearer foundation for development in flood hazard areas and river corridors.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Vermont Health Connect: In response to the difficult rollout of our health care exchange, legislative committees spent significant time reviewing system challenges and the ongoing work to improve access to health plans in VHC. Although the system is still not fully functional for small businesses and is frustrating for people who have needed to make application changes, there are some signs of improvement. The Legislature passed a provision so that small businesses will continue to be able to enroll in
VHC plans directly through insurers. This will be extended to individuals as well.
Green Mountain Care: As we continue to work our way toward the next stage of health care reform, many have expressed frustrations with the Governor due to a desire for more details on how he will propose to replace our current health care financing system. In 2012, Vermonters spent over $715 million in deductibles and copays and spent over $1.88 billion in premiums. The question is not whether we will raise the money to fund our access to health care, the question is can we find a way to do it that is fairer, more predictable, provides for better care, and gives people more confidence that they won’t have higher costs or loss of coverage if they change jobs. Remember that GMC will require an approved financing plan before the Legislature can vote to move forward.
Lyme disease: Lyme disease is increasingly widespread in Vermont and has become endemic to the State. If identified early, Lyme disease may be successfully treated with a short-term course of antibiotics. If not, complex and ongoing symptoms may require more aggressive treatment. Historically, physicians have been held to a limited number of treatment options recommended by the Center for Disease Control. Many Vermonters did not find these adequate. Starting in July, long-term sufferers may seek expanded treatment options recognized by the International Lyme and Associated Disease Society without putting their health care providers at risk for discipline.
Changes to tobacco laws: Vermonters came forward this year asking for additional relief from second-hand smoke and other tobacco related concerns. Starting in July, tobacco products and tobacco substitutes will be prohibited in or around childcare centers and smoking in a motor vehicle occupied by a child may result in a $100 fine. Manufacturers of e-cigarettes will be required to use child-resistant packaging to sell liquid nicotine in Vermont. Smoking within a 25’ zone around state buildings will be prohibited.
Protecting Children from Toxics: The Children Safety Act of 2014 takes a major step forward in protecting children from toxic substances. Manufacturers of children’s products, such as toys, jewelry and cosmetics sold in Vermont will be required to notify the Department of Health if their product contains chemicals that are known to be harmful to children. Due to continued inaction at the federal level, Vermont joins Washington, California and Maine to protect our children from toxic substances. If it is bad for children, it is bad for business. Sometimes, we do have to legislate common sense.
Cellphone Ban: On October 1st, drivers will have to be hands-free or face fines, starting at $100. The final version of the bill removed point penalties that could have resulted in hiked insurance rates.