The 2017 legislative session has been one of great uncertainty so far. We have new administrations in Montpelier and Washington DC, both of which are making some sharp policy distinctions from the previous administrations. While we are forging ahead here in Vermont working on our own budget issues, there is a sense of waiting for the axe to fall in Washington, wondering what challenges in both budget and policy will be handed down to us. It is hard to plan out a ten-year health policy when we don’t know what the next three months will bring.
Budget – While we monitor closely what is happening in Washington, we face our own financial challenges. The budget proposals sent over by the governor were defeated because they didn’t make economic sense and didn’t balance the budget. Despite the difficulty of wrestling with budget gaps, we do not deficit-spend, and we do not pass an unbalanced budget. The governor’s proposal to shift $112 million in costs to the Education Fund while providing $62 million to pay for it was an unbalanced proposal that shifted additional cost onto the K-12 school budget, while insisting that schools level fund their budgets from last year.
The House is working hard to craft a very tight budget that doesn’t raise taxes or fees, yet funds the vital programs Vermonters depend on. Every committee has been tasked with scrutinizing their jurisdictions for savings.
Technology – I serve on the newly reconfigured Energy and Technology Committee which oversees energy, telecommunications, and IT systems. At the same time that we are tightening belts, we also need to make substantial investments in computer technology to create a 21st-century statewide system. Last year the legislature commissioned an independent evaluation of Vermont Health Connect. It determined that the basic system is sound, identified the problems, and laid out a multi-year plan to fix them. The evaluators were very clear that the best option is to move ahead with fixing Health Connect rather than pursue any of the other options available. It turns out that health care is extremely complicated.
Act 46 – Wells and Middletown Springs will vote March 7th on merging into a single district, while Pawlet and Rupert plan to form a new study committee to look at merger options for the second time. Districts all over the state are struggling to meet the terms of Act 46. There have been close to 100 bills introduced to reform portions of the law, and I am supporting bills extending deadlines, lowering population requirements, and making “alternative structures” easier. What the legislature as a whole will do remains to be seen.
Water Quality – Following the State Treasurer’s report in January, the House continues to pursue an all-in approach to funding clean-water programs, not just in Lake Champlain but across the state. Clean water is both an environmental and economic imperative and the contamination has many sources and requires a broad array of responses. Work continues on both short term and long range planning; how to come up with the needed money is causing a lot of head scratching and creative thinking.
Ethics – Vermonters like to believe that our state is a small and trustworthy community. While that is true for the vast majority, the unfortunate actions of a few demonstrate the need for a statewide Ethics Commission. Senator Pollina and I introduced similar bills in the House and Senate to create one. The Senate is about to pass their version, so I have real hope to see this enacted into law this year. Vermont is one of only six states without such a commission.
Perhaps my proudest moment in the legislature was last month when I stood with the Republican Governor, the Progressive Lt. Governor, the Democratic Speaker, and Democratic/Progressive President Pro Tem, to pledge to fight for the human rights of all Vermonters. I am a sponsor of the House bill (with an identical one in the Senate) which declares that we will not participate in any kind of registry based on race or religion. The times when we have done that – institutionalizing slavery, creating Indian reservations and Japanese-American internment camps – are the absolute low points of our history. It must not happen again.
Quick Facts About Vermont:
Unemployment rate: 3.1% – 5th lowest in the country.
Uninsured rate: 3.7% – 2nd lowest in the country.
2,300 jobs added in 2016
High school graduation rate: 88%
Free or reduced school lunch rate: 44.2%
Maine and Vermont are the most rural states at about 61%