End of 2011 Session Wrap Up
While health care and closing the $176 million budget gap dominated the news this session, many other activities were in action in the State House. A few of these are identified here.
Growing Our Economy
We are entering a hopeful time. Our state and national economies are showing signs of a sustainable recovery. Economic growth and expansion are real possibilities for the first time in years. And, we are already seeing results in increased tax revenues and forecasts. It is still a delicate time, so we must be careful to encourage and support continued growth.
The House worked this year with the new administration, our industries and advocates to lay plans to support our economic future. Working on a broad range of initiatives, we were able to form a strong tripartisan consensus on sustainable ways to help our economy grow.
We want to grow more food and more cell towers. We want to grow more business capital and grow more jobs and job skills. We want to grow new opportunities for our veterans and the unemployed. And, along the way, we want to grow consumer protection – for both individuals and businesses.
The keystone of our work this year was returning agriculture to its rightful place as an economic development priority of our state. Significant provisions of the jobs bill will grow the farm-to-plate movement, community-supported agriculture, and value-added enterprises that transform farm products into consumer products.
We also recognized that our future economy will rely heavily on broadband internet access and cell phone coverage and stability. The telecom bill focuses on our agreed goal of reaching universal broadband access and cell phone coverage by the end of 2013. This is a challenging goal, and
accommodations were made to expedite the permitting of cell towers and coordinating the significant federal telecom resources that are now flowing into Vermont.
This was a good year for Vermont’s consumers. We adopted several important bills that extend and enhance consumer and business protection for Vermonters. Most notable was the propane bill that improves competition in the industry and prohibits many practices that were unfair and expensive to consumers. We fully expect this bill will lead to better service and pricing for propane customers.
Other areas included workforce training to support our changing economy; means to improve access to capital for job creation and support of specific industries and more careful and coordinated planning for our economic future.
Three years ago Aetna, a health insurance company, conducted a pilot project that provided expanded hospice care to a subset of their subscribers. Two groups of patients with a terminal illness, i.e. with six months or less to live, received two different amounts of hospice care. Both groups had trained nurse care managers providing care management services to meet the comprehensive needs of the patients at the end of their lives. One group met the Medicare life expectancy requirements for hospice, with six months or less to live, and had to give up curative care. The second group was allowed access to hospice earlier, with a life expectancy of 12 months, and, if needed, continuation of curative therapy while on hospice.
Hospice utilization increased in both groups with high patient and family satisfaction. There was a decrease in the use of acute care, intensive care, and ER services, particularly in the Medicare group. In the enhanced hospice group the increase in hospice utilization and decrease in acute care represented a net cost decrease of 22%. Overall, not only were the outcomes better, but they cost less.
The Vermont legislature passed a bill that encourages all health insurers operating in Vermont to provide this type of service and asks the state to apply for a Medicaid waiver so expanded hospice services can be a part of the state insurance plan. As health care cost continues to increase at $1 million a day, with end-of-life care a substantial portion of this cost, providing expanded hospice care makes sense.
Investing in Our Technology Infrastructure
Whether it allows students to use state-of-the-art learning tools, seniors to make purchases from the comfort of their own home, or companies to communicate halfway across the world, the legislature and Gov. Shumlin recognize broadband coverage as a vital need for all Vermont residents, businesses, and schools. In 2010, Vermont received $174 million in federal grants and loans to fund major broadband initiatives.
The 2011 Telecom Bill streamlines the permitting process for developing communication technology infrastructure like cell towers and fiber optic lines, which ensures that this stimulus money is utilized effectively over the next two years. The bill also allows for wireless Internet and cellular providers to apply for permits for multiple towers at once rather than permitting them individually. This helps get more Vermonters connected faster. The Telecom Bill also includes a reorganization of the Vermont
Telecommunications Authority Board, allowing the oversight body to better coordinate state efforts to bring broadband to the last mile and bring cell phone service to targeted highway corridors. The state has committed $10 million in capital construction funds to further the goal of providing accessible, affordable cell phone and broadband Internet service to all Vermonters by the end of 2013.
Vermont’s Transportation Program
Vermont’s road conditions rank close to the bottom in the nation. Commuters and tourist alike experience this fact each day. Our state roads and bridges managed to make significant progress with the assistance of the federal stimulus funds. Results moved our national rating from 46th to 42nd on the national picture. Our infrastructure condition requires us to make the correct investments.
Vermont’s $554 million infrastructure budget makes a strong investment in a safe, efficient and fully integrated system. Transportation investments work to expand economic opportunities and improve quality of life. They create many local jobs and improve our roads and bridges for residents and visitors. Town programs: Class 2 paving ($7.2 million) and Town Structures ($5.8 million) continue to be strongly funded in this budget, regardless of the evaporating stimulus funds. These record-high funding levels were established as policy and will become the permanent base level amounts going forward. An exciting new municipal sidewalk program struggled to be created, and in the end needed more time for review of funding sources, but it will be a good starting point for next year’s discussions.
Government Transparency – It is your right to know!
Under the Vermont constitution, all government officers are accountable to the citizens of Vermont. One way Vermont attempts to achieve this constitutional requirement for accountability is by providing open access to public records. This bill tries to address the balance between the public’s right to know and the boundaries of personal privacy.
Its central piece orders judges to grant attorney fees to those who are wrongly denied access to records. This should send a signal to local and state officials to keep good records and respond in good faith to requests for Information.
It also establishes a study committee to review the 215 exemptions to the Public Records Act. Some of the exemptions are difficult to understand or interpret, thereby creating confusion. The intent is to clarify whether a document is public or not.
Funding Home Renewable Energy Projects
Many Vermont towns have eagerly awaited the “Property Assessed Clean Energy Program.” This is a law that enables voters of a municipality to establish a special “Property Assessed Clean Energy” district, in which residents can make energy-saving improvements to their properties with funds borrowed through the town. Participating property owners then repay those loans over a period of up to twenty years through a regular payment as with their property tax bill, which allows them to spread out their payments and reap net annual savings at the same time. When the property is sold, the payments, like the annual energy savings, stay with the property until paid off. The bill provides strong safeguards to this program, including a system of loan loss reserve funds, underwriting criteria, project guidelines, and vital technical assistance for participating towns through Efficiency Vermont. This program is the first meaningful way for homeowners to afford important energy improvements, both electrical and thermal, in a time of sky-rocketing fuel prices. Twelve Vermont towns have already voted to become PACE districts, and we expect many more to sign up, especially with Efficiency Vermont now acting as an important facilitator.
Keeping our roads safe from drunk drivers
The challenge presented to the legislature to prevent harm to Vermonters and their families and friends by chronic DUI offenders was taken on in H.264. It is helpful to understand that it is a small but hardcore population that challenges us. While 50% of first offenders don’t offend again, larger percentages of second time offenders, and even larger percentages of third and subsequent offenders re-offend. These folks are the focus of this legislation.
An escalating scale of penalties has been set in place for these offenders. A third DUI conviction carries with it a term of imprisonment up to five years of which at least 96 consecutive hours of imprisonment must be served. For the conviction of a third or subsequent DUI offense with death or serious bodily injury resulting, a term of at least five years will be imposed and probation, parole, furlough, or any other type of early release will not be allowed.
Additionally, this legislation holds accountable anyone who allows someone who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol to drive his/her car. Anyone who violates this will be subject to a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than six months or both. Should death or bodily injury result, a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment of not more than two years would be imposed.
It is important to understand that efforts are made at each junction to avoid arriving at the second or third conviction by providing the CRASH program, alcohol and substance abuse treatment programs as well as new programs such as the ignition interlock device. In some very few cases, these initiatives are ineffective and result in the devastating accidents that prompted this bill.