Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

An Official Challenge

A major focus of all committees is addressing “Challenges for Change: Results for Vermonters.” This is the report from the Joint Legislative Government Accountability Committee, which was endorsed with great fanfare by Governor Douglas, together with leaders of the House and Senate. Working with paid consultants, the study committee identified $38 million that can be saved by state government in the next fiscal year by focusing on results rather than programs. In fiscal 2012, the savings are projected to increase to $72 million. For the legislature, this means we are to assume a lower appropriation, then redesign functions within the lower budget.

In the Human Services area, we are told that services should be “client centric” and “results-based.” Certainly no one disputes the notion of client centered services. In fact we believed (or hoped) that departments were already doing that. Our charge is to develop specific results that can be easily and quickly measured so that the redesign can begin immediately. The Agency of Human Services is slated to absorb $24 million of the savings this year from the Challenge. We won’t know until the Governor’s budget address on Jan. 19th what additional cuts he expects.

Electronic Waste

This past week the House Natural Resources and Energy committee voted out an Electronic Waste bill (S.77)

Electronic waste is the fasting growing portion of the waste stream in Vermont. Many Vermonters have basements or storage sheds that contain out of date or broken computers, televisions, computer monitors and printers that contain lead, mercury, and other hazardous substances that are detrimental to human health and the environment. Getting rid of them is expensive and many do not know how or where to dispose of these products. Most solid waste districts will take them for a fee and there are occasional disposal events. But this is not a long-term solution.

When considering electronic waste, product stewardship is a critical principle. Product stewardship is an environmental management strategy that means whoever designs, produces, sells, or uses a product takes responsibility for minimizing the product's environmental impact throughout all stages of the product's life cycle, including end of life management. All within the product chain of commerce have roles, though the manufacturer is often viewed to hold the most responsibility.

The E-waste bill seeks to capture about 90% of the electronic waste that is generated in Vermont and for the first year of the program sets a statewide goal based upon the US Census Bureau’s 2010 population estimate for the state multiplied by 5.5 pounds.

For the second year the goal will be set by the 2010 population estimate multiplied by 6.0 pounds and by an adjusted goal thereafter. This is in alignment with the strategies of 20 other states.

To date the cost of disposal has been covered by municipalities, solid waste districts and consumers. Under the new plan, as has been the case in all other states with a plan, manufacturers will be financially responsible for the program with a registration fee and implementation cost based on market share. Electronic waste disposal must be made convenient and cost-free to the consumer if the program is to be successful.

Manufacturers, retailers, collectors, recyclers and the Agency of Natural Resources all worked together to come up with a plan that is satisfactory to all and will lead to a significant reduction in electronic waste in Vermont.

Legislative Update: State of the Budget

On Thursday, Governor Douglas gave his final State of the State address. It was long on memories (even though the accomplishments were not particularly noteworthy) and short on specifics. It did outline that we are in challenging times (not a surprise). But what surprised many, even in the media and talk circles was that he proposed tax cuts for the wealthy even though we face a $150 million shortfall for the upcoming budget and an additional $100 in the following budget (almost 20% of our total general fund budget).

The Rutland Herald editorial summed it up well.

What we really need to do is assess the needs of Vermonters in these challenging times and then figure out how to meet those needs. It about far more than $$. If we are penny wise pound foolish with this budget it will cost us far more in the long run.

We also need to address the biggest issue driving the budget (of the state, municipalities, school systems, businesses and individuals): healthcare!

Last year premiums for plans across the state rose by $350 million. Where is the outcry? Our budget last year included a mere $26 million in new revenues (primarily from the wealthy) and there is outrage by the Governor. Yet...when it comes to where the real problem is and where the solutions can be found, he is nearly silent.

It is time for all of us to push for real universal healthcare for the long term solution to our healthcare crisis as well as our budget crisis and our jobs crisis. With universal healthcare we can contain costs and free up workers to start new businesses and create new jobs.

Labor and Vermont Yankee

Highlighted this week in the press was the issue of jobs, labor unions and Vermont Yankee. Thirty-eight years ago a decision was made in the Vermont Legislature to allow a boiling water nuclear reactor to be constructed in Vernon, VT. When the vote was taken, success for the decision was by a margin of one vote. The slim agreement was made with the provisions that the high level nuclear waste would be removed from the site and that the plant would close on March 23, 2012.

Now it is 2010, two years before the agreed upon closure date. Even with Entergy’s relicensing application into the NRC, it should come as no surprise that the plant may close by a vote from the legislature. Employees were hired with the knowledge that March 22, 2012 could be the final day of the hum of the turbines and as well as further production of high level nuclear waste. Knowing a closure date so far into the future for a business is unusual.

Arnie Gundersen, a member of the VY Oversight Team appointed by the legislature, offered a recent back of the envelope analysis done on what the employment picture would look like upon closure. Right now, there are approximately 650 jobs at VY. In addition to the actual plant workers, that number includes managers, directors, and many contract workers.

When the plant closes, it is misleading to say that 650 jobs will be lost. About 350 of those jobs will continue at least until 2017. It takes a minimum of five years before the spent fuel is cool enough to remove from the reactor. Then, pipes will have to be drained to prevent further leaks of dangerous substances like tritium, health physics personnel will have to maintain and monitor the spent fuel, and many other jobs will be necessary. All in all, about 200 jobs will be lost at close down. It is estimated that two thirds (it is difficult to get this information from ENVY) of VY’s employees live in NH and MA, which means there are approximately 70 Vermont jobs that will be lost. It is not clear which of these are union jobs.

While we do not want to hear of any Vermont jobs lost, Entergy (or perhaps Enexus) and unions should be planning now to help those workers get what they need when the aging, leaky nuclear power plant is closed. ENVY should set up a blind trust fund now to help its employees transition. Also, the state should be seeking a project labor agreement. While the state can’t insist that the jobs be union, they can specify an agreement that assumes certain standards. Given the uncertain nature of continued operation, it would be wise for unions to be working to guarantee quality standards for jobs going forward past 2012 and beyond.

Single Payer Healthcare

Private insurance is bankrupting our economy. Healthcare costs continue to bankrupt individuals and families and puts major stress on Vermont businesses and our state’s economy. As long as we rely on private health insurers, universal coverage will be unaffordable. Private insurance companies generate huge overhead costs and force our Vermont doctors and hospitals to spend dollars that could be applied to healthcare services on billing and mounds of paperwork. We won't be able to drive and sustain healthcare reform if we continue to keep the same structures in place. Even though we have all this talk about reform, we need a player that has a public mission to force other players to make reforms or fail.

We need politicians with the political will to make reforms because its the right thing to do.

As the legislature takes up (yet again!) the health care debate, I introduced a single payer health care system bill that will help shape the debate into more than just explore the single payer approach. The bill proposes to create a health care system called "Ethan Allen Health" that would provide every Vermonter, regardless of income, with the health care they need and prohibits private insurance companies from selling health insurance policies in Vermont that cover services already covered by Ethan Allen Health, after October 1, 2011.

Ethan Allen Health meets the Progressives outline criteria for healthcare reform. It:
1) includes everyone,
2) is fiscally responsible,
3) eliminates waste and excessive profit taking at the expense of our health,
4) includes no mandates or subsidies, and
5) supports health care providers.

This bill is available online here.

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