Last Thursday the legislature met in a special session to act on the governor’s veto of S.230, “an act relating to improving the siting of energy projects”. As someone who worked extensively on the bill in committee and sat in on the conference committee between Senate and House, I have a good understanding of both the bill and the legislative intent behind it.
The bill as voted in May did two main things – it provided more input for towns in energy siting including solar and wind, and it directed the Public Service Board to establish new, presumably lower, sound thresholds for wind projects.
Problems arose in the last hours of the last day of the session when carefully crafted and vetted language was jettisoned in search of conference committee compromise. Two of the modified provisions proved problematic, and in an unfortunate drafting error $300,000 of funding for the planning portion of the bill was left out. The governor’s veto was over these concerns, and had nothing to with opposition to the substance of the planning section of the bill. Details of these provisions have been in the news; while happy to talk further with people, I will not go into the details here.
We had three choices: 1) override the veto (requiring a 2/3 vote and would not happen), 2) sustain the veto (we all go home and didn’t need to bother coming in the first place), or 3) introduce a new bill, essentially the same but correcting the mistakes noted above. The Legislature chose the third option, but the route was not without drama, delays, roll call votes, shuttle diplomacy, and complaints about procedure.
I believe that we made the right choice to correct the bill to reflect the clear intent of the original provisions for wind and to fund the planning provisions right away rather than kick the can down the road until the legislature could take it up again next year.
As always, please contact me if you have questions or concerns.
Public attention was primarily focused on the failed marijuana bill last week, but out of that spotlight some things were actually accomplished.
The budget and revenue bills were approved with a number of small victories including slowing the rate of budget growth, using no “one time” money for ongoing obligations, and hiring more social workers to help families and particularly children wrecked by the opiate epidemic. The budget balanced heavy pressure on state agencies to both reduce overall staff and to run more efficiently, while providing modest and long overdue increases for state colleges, home weatherization, and Parent-Child centers. These are all areas that pay back the money invested many times over.
Other legislation passed gives towns more say in siting wind and solar energy projects, provides paid sick days for many Vermonters who previously did not have them, provides for automatic voter registration, and makes it less onerous for people whose drivers licenses have been suspended (for non-payment of fines and often for non-traffic related offenses) to regain them. These reforms aren’t splashy or sexy, but they represent the steady – if incremental – progress that government is supposed to do.
It’s crunch time in the Legislature. Both the House and Senate are finishing up their bills and sending them over to the other side (“crossover”). Many of these are minor updates and tweaks to existing law, like clarifying language on conservation easements, or defining who the members are of the Clean Water Fund Board.
Some bills are important but are under most people’s radar, like “consumer protections for accountable care organizations,” or updating the definition of stalking to recognize that stalking extends beyond fear of physical harm, and includes harassment in social media.
On a 138 – 5 roll call vote the House passed a “Ban the Box” bill. This is not about packaging, but about second chances. Specifically, it prevents employers from asking about criminal history on an initial written job application, with some exceptions. Employers can and should explore the question in subsequent job interviews, but the goal is to allow a foot in the door for otherwise qualified applicants who made a mistake at some point in the past. If it passes, Vermont would be the 9th state with such a law.
The “big bills” that address taxes, fees, transportation, and spending will come rolling in next week, along with several lesser known but potentially far-reaching bills. One requires pricing transparency on pharmaceutical drugs; another attempts to clarify the thorny and very complex question of who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. As with most legislation, the devil is in the details.
Many Senate bills are also crossing over to the House, including energy siting and child welfare protections. And no, the cannabis bill won’t be coming to a House vote any time soon. The Judiciary Committee is working on a thorough review, including a public hearing on March 31st from 5 – 7 PM in the House chamber.
Education Spending Caps and Act 46
In the coming week the legislature will be debating whether to remove, raise, or keep unchanged the school spending thresholds established in Act 46. The law is intended as a cost containment measure and gives schools a small but variable allowance for spending growth before severe tax penalties kick in. Spending caps are not the most controversial part of the law, but with school budgets due this month, they are the most pressing part.
Last year I voted against Act 46 on the House floor, partly because of the spending caps and partly because of the enforced governance consolidation. I don’t believe either of these will achieve their intended goals. This year I have submitted a number of recommendations to the Education Committee and I am co-sponsoring a House bill to repeal the spending caps.
Everyone wants education to be as cost effective as possible; that is not the issue. The question is whether the caps are a fair way to limit spending and impose penalties when so many costs are out of the hands of the local school boards struggling to create a workable budget. Some of these expenses are special education services including aides, health insurance cost increases (7.9% this year), multi-year contracts, offering Pre-K education (which I support, but we can’t then penalize schools for doing it), and emergency maintenance.
The schools in this legislative district, which includes parts of three different supervisory unions, are managing the budget cap situation well. Tinmouth’s spending increase is offset by their consolidation tax incentive, Mettowee School’s spending is just a hair over the limit (they would pay a 0.004% penalty), while Middletown Springs, Pawlet, and Rupert have all come in under the limit. However, as the caps stand now, about 125 towns across the state will be paying penalties.
While the legislature is debating spending caps towns, are actively engaged in intense conversations about consolidation into new, larger Supervisory Districts. Now is the time to get involved!
The 2015 Legislative session ended with a flurry of conference committee compromises and last minute action. Even the veterans said it was a grueling and unusual session. The unusual began on Day One with the Legislature required to elect the governor, confirming Governor Shumlin’s narrow election victory. The broader agenda was necessarily ambitious with budget reduction, education reform, water quality, and energy policy all on the front burner. Especially budget reduction.
In addition the Legislature waded deep into controversial social issues including vaccinations, gun ownership, end of life choice, child protection, and teachers right to strike. Looking at the number of bills passed and issues debated, this has by any standard been a productive session.
Many of the big bills are first steps in long range reform. The results of actions we are taking now to improve water quality, particularly eliminating toxic algae blooms in Lake Champlain, will not be visible for at least a decade. The education bill (which I opposed) outlines the first steps of a long process designed to consolidate our educational system with the aim of making it more efficient and effective. Despite the inclusion of spending caps for school districts, don’t look for any immediate effect on school budgets.
I am proud of the long range energy bill we passed which will increase output of renewable energy, decrease fossil fuel use, and which has already having a positive impact on our energy rates. This year Green Mountain Power requested a 2.9% rate reduction, as opposed to double digit increases in some other New England states. More work will need to be done next year on renewable energy siting policy.
Did I mention deficit reduction? We began the year needing to close a $113 million gap in the budget. I give high praise to the Appropriations Committee which brokered a bill incorporating $53 million in cuts, $35 million in new revenues, and $24 million in one time spending. To be clear though, “cuts” means slowing the rate of projected increase. In an overall state budget of $5.55 billion this reflects a growth rate of less than 2%. There were painful cuts and nobody is completely happy, which is probably the best that can be hoped for in this situation.The majority of new taxes comes from capping charitable deductions at $31,000 per married couple.
There will be another budget deficit next year to deal with. Many aspects of government, including personnel, operate on multi-year budgets; pay raises are contracted, bonds are contracted, and health care costs continue to soar. Reducing the rate of education cost increases (let alone reducing actual spending) will still require painful cuts that communities have been unwilling to face.
It was not a smooth session in the legislature. I advocated for our schools, for energy efficiency, for the viability of small family farms, small businesses, and workers. I advocated for progressive taxation, improved access to primary medical care, and for parental choice in vaccinations. We won some and we lost some, but there is a lot more work to do next year.
On Thursday and Friday the VT House debated and ultimately approved S.141, a bill related to firearm possession. I voted in support of it. In the various Committees legislators heard testimony from law enforcement, mental health experts, 2nd Amendment advocates, gun control advocates, and many other experts, and made some major revisions to it. As passed, the bill does three main things.
One section prohibits convicted felons from owning firearms and this is nothing new; it mirrors existing federal law. This means that if local police or state troopers respond to a situation or a traffic stop and find a felon in possession of a firearm, they can do something about it, rather than needing to call in federal marshals. Vermont is the 50th state to adopt a law mirroring this federal law. It doesn’t change anything except who can enforce the law.
A provision about mental illness prohibits gun possession by that very small portion of the mentally ill who have been determined by a court to be a danger to themselves or others. This is a very sensible precaution to prevent injury or death. And when and if they recover, they can petition the court to have their 2nd Amendment rights restored. It is not a life sentence.
The third portion of the bill implements a study on suicide prevention modeled on the New Hampshire Gun Shop Project. This portion was actually promoted and supported by The VT Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs. The bill recognizes that Vermont is NOT a safe place for depressed and suicidal people, averaging almost 60 suicides per year, about half of which are committed with firearms. While it is true that the homicide rate in Vermont is fairly low, let me ask you this: What is the acceptable death rate in your family? I suspect it is zero, as it is in mine. This law MAY prevent suicides, murders, and domestic abuse – which is the most you can say for any law, and it does so without infringing on the rights of Vermonters.
Second Amendment advocate Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has stated clearly that our fundamental right to bear arms in no way lessens the longstanding and valid prohibitions on criminals and the violently mentally ill owning guns. With the changes the House made to it, the VT Federation of Sportsman’s Clubs decided not to oppose it.
I see this bill as a logical and non-invasive response to pubic safety, and it reflects the view of the majority of Vermonters, including gun owners, who recognize that every right comes with responsibilities and conditions.
Of course there are those who disagree with my vote. To them I want to make clear that I did not receive any money or support from any group on either side of this issue, though I have heard plenty from both sides. I voted as I ran, representing the majority of my constituents and of Vermonters, and I’m not hiding behind anyone.
Here’s the result of the Committee work so far. There are a lot of helpful links and sidebar definitions to help understanding.
Albert Einstein famously said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While this is certainly true, political insanity is more often doing something different just for the sake of change. With that in mind, caution seems to be the operative word in Montpelier these days.
In the face of looming problems, lawmakers are proceeding cautiously, and rightly so, on the big bills: education, healthcare, water quality, and energy policy. They are taking the time to consider options, study the research, and hear from stakeholders. The committee rooms are hives of activity.
The House chamber itself seems quiet by comparison. Bills are flooding in – 158 in the House and 72 in the Senate so far – with many more to follow. A few have been passed in the House, mostly adjustments to existing laws or of relatively minor impact.
The Budget Adjustment Act also made its way through the House; 49 pages of financial tweaking to bring spending in line with revenues for the rest of this fiscal year ending June 30. The last page is an amendment, itself amended, which requires the Vermont Health Benefit Exchange to release figures for past, present, and future spending, and the sources of that revenue, including federal grants.
Jon Margolis writing in VT Digger gives a good perspective on the mood in Montpelier these days, and on the dynamics and challenges of a citizen legislature. http://vtdigger.org/2015/02/08/margolis-now-shumlin-big-guy-not-man-montpelier/
Despite all the press coverage of Legislature discussing the “beagle issue” it has taken me longer to write these words than we spent discussing dogs in the statehouse. I read in the paper that the State Legislature is debating whether to designate the beagle as the official State Dog. But the word “debate” is not quite accurate. It is true that a bill was proposed in the senate. It is also true that it was promptly referred to committee where people expect it to die quietly, pinned to the wall and ignored.
The senator who submitted it did so because his constituents submitted a petition with 200 signatures on it asking him to do so. So he did. This little excursion into triviality has been part of my learning curve in Montpelier. So yes, there is a bill. No, we are not debating it.
What we have been discussing are the very serious issues facing Vermont: the budget, the economy, education funding, where to go with healthcare, a renewable energy portfolio, and Lake Champlain clean-up. Committees are working hard, taking testimony, weighing options, and listening to different perspectives. My committee of Natural Resources and Energy has been working on a Renewable Portfolio Standard, basically an energy roadmap to guide us toward 2050. The roadmap lays out specific thresholds for utilities to meet and designates renewable energy, energy efficiency, and distributed generation practices. it has been a steep learning curve for many of us on the committee.
There are bills presented or in the works on a dizzying variety of topics, some critical like those mentioned above, some small but important, and some just minor. Earlier we passed a bill banning the manufacture and sale of healthcare products containing microbeads – tiny plastic beads that scrub your skin but because they are non-biodegradable they also contaminate wastewater and concentrate in fish, who mistake them for tiny eggs and eat them. That bill now goes to the senate for approval. Let’s just hope they don’t send us the beagle bill in exchange.