Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

Bill Peels Back Another Layer of Discrimination

Sometimes change takes centuries; sometimes it's quicker.  Certainly the fast-track was on display last week as the House voted on a bill related to the rights of same-sex couples.  Only five Republicans voted against a bill that pushes out-of-state employers to extend health benefits to partners in a same-sex marriage or civil union.

That's right, a bill that has to do with gay marriage garnered just five votes against it on the House floor.  Even Republicans are no longer afraid of this issue.  They know their constituents are now mostly supportive of marriage equality.  The world hasn't ended.  Straight marriages haven't eroded.  The hysteria appears to have come to an end.

The same could be said for our corporate culture.  The subject of this bill is Walmart and other large employers that are based outside of Vermont.  Because of Federal pre-emption the state can't force them to provide partners of same-sex marriages the same health benefits they extend to straight spouses.  But we can try.  California and New York have recently passed laws that basically dare these guys to sue them.  And on Friday the Vermont House decided to follow suit.

Walmart and company have stated they will abide by Vermont law.  They know their chances in court but they also know the ramifications of the front-page story explaining why they want to continue discriminating.

I am proud to be a lead co-sponsor on this bill, but the real work was carried out by Rep. Paul Poirier (I-Barre City) and Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset).  Commissioner Donegan from the Department of Financial Regulation also got her teeth into it and helped create the path forward.

You can read more about this bill in a recent VTDigger article here.

Prohibiton Has Failed

It's been nearly a century since Vermont first prohibited marijuana in 1915.  It hasn't worked and it's time for a new approach.

Just like alcohol prohibition, marijuana prohibition does not eliminate the use of the product and simply steers all of the profits to the underground market.  Given the fact that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, it is time we have it produced and sold in a legitimate, regulated market.

Regulating marijuana like alcohol and allowing the production of industrial hemp would create hundreds of new, legal jobs and generate business for a variety of other Vermont industries.

That’s why I just introduced H.499 in the Vermont Legislature along with several cosponsors (Deen of Westminster,  Masland of Thetford, Stevens of Shoreham, and Zagar of  Barnard).  The bill is now making its way through the legislative process.

This bill proposes:

1. To create a regulatory structure for the wholesale and retail sale of marijuana that includes licensing and oversight by the Department of Liquor Control.

2. To establish an excise tax on every wholesale seller of $50.00 per ounce upon marijuana sold in Vermont.

3. To permit regulation and licensing for growing industrial hemp in accordance with 6 V.S.A. chapter 34 to proceed regardless of whether federal regulations have been adopted.

4. To permit an individual who is 21 years of age or older to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and three marijuana plants while maintaining criminal penalties for possession of larger amounts of marijuana and for sale of marijuana outside the regulatory structure established in this act.

5. To provide the same penalties for underage possession of marijuana as the current penalties for underage possession of alcohol.

Read the full text of the bill here >>

Other reasons why I feel it’s time for a new approach and to have a debate about creating a regulatory structure:

 > Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol for the consumer and the community.  It is far less toxic, less addictive, and less harmful to the body.  And, unlike alcohol, it does not contribute to violent and reckless behavior.

 > It is irrational to punish adults and make them criminals simply for using a substance that is far safer than alcohol.

 > Marijuana prohibition is just as ineffective, wasteful, and harmful as alcohol prohibition was in the 1920s.

 > Prohibiting marijuana steers consumers into the underground market, where they can be exposed to other more dangerous drugs.  In addition, illegal marijuana dealers are not subject to quality standards, and they are not testing or labeling their products.

 > Regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol would create MORE barriers to teens’ access to marijuana than prohibition does.

 > Marijuana prohibition IS NOT keeping marijuana out of the hands of youth.  Year after year, more than 80% of high school seniors nationwide report that marijuana is “very easy” or “fairly easy” to get.  According to CDC data, more Vermont high schoolers report using marijuana than report using tobacco.

 > Strict enforcement of regulations, along with public education, has been effective in reducing teen tobacco use.  We can do the same thing with marijuana.

 > Drug dealers don't ask for ID.  We need to have marijuana sold in regulated stores where employees ask for proof of age and are legally required to only sell to adults.

 > Regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol would bolster Vermont’s economy with significant new tax revenue and job creation.

 > In addition to sales tax, H.499 imposes a $50 per ounce excise tax on wholesale sales, which would generate millions of dollars in tax revenue each year.

Weekly Update

Town meeting week signifies the traditional halfway mark of the legislative session in Montpelier.  Typically, the first year of the biennium starts off slowly, as committees get used to new members and each other, and begin the work of taking testimony on and passing a variety of bills out of committee.  Last week was the deadline to submit any and all bills.  In total, approximately 500 bills will be introduced in the House and half that amount in the Senate.  Naturally, with a part-time legislature, many will not get attention and literally die on the wall.  Next year we will start all over again creating and introducing new bills.

The Governor’s State budget will be a challenge again this year.  We need to raise additional revenue for the transportation fund in order to match and receive federal funds and many other programs need additional funds, too, such as human services and education.

Be reminded that this year all eligible property owners must declare their homesteads by April 15th in order to file for a property tax adjustment.  Based on income, qualified recipients can get a reduction on their town’s property tax bill by filling out the application.  In the event that your school credit exceeds your total school tax bill, the remaining amount will be used to pay down your town taxes.  Form HS-122 can be downloaded at www.tax.vermont.gov.

In addition, last week I received notice from the Unclaimed Property Division at the State’s Treasurer’s Office that there are over 1,100 people in the Franklin-7 District of Enosburgh and Montgomery that have money owed to them.  You can see the list at www.MissingMoney.Vermont.gov or email unclaimed.property@state.vt.us or call 800-642-3191.

Please contact me with your questions and concerns at cweed@leg.state.vt.us.  Thank you.

The Capital Bill

In the wake of unprecedented capital construction due to Tropical Storm Irene, it may be time for a renewed risk management and project management approach (questions that must be addressed) to more effectively manage capital project risks.  The Corrections and Institutions Committee finds themselves confronted with even more complex strategic and financial decisions this session in making decisions to invest capital dollars (our taxpayer dollars) in facilities, programs and technology.

With economic conditions being what they are and have been in the past few years, along with Irene forcing our hands to replace the Vermont State Hospital, and with the Waterbury State Complex costs in the FY14 – FY 15 capital bill request, we are faced with the need to rethink our capital allocations, perhaps unlike any period in the past.  To add fuel to the fire, the administration’s plans may further challenge capital spending and our decisions for bonding.

In the news in the past couple of weeks is the report of increased overruns with the Montpelier Heat Plant project.  No matter how laudable the project is, the overruns put added pressure on the State's bonding position and the priority decisions of the Committee.  The projected cost overrun changed twice over the course of two week and is now at approximately $2.8 million.  With this added pressure, the committee may need to put on hold, delay or potentially abandon projects, depending on what decisions are made and what we do with the Waterbury Complex.

There are many other sections besides the Waterbury Complex and the Montpelier Heat Plant project, such as major maintenance, deferred maintenance, millions of dollars for National Life fit-ups (leased space), State Police barracks consolidation, paying back school construction owed to our towns, water and sewer projects important to our municipalities, the states historical sites, the Agriculture/ANR lab, the Health Lab in partnership with UVM, the fish hatcheries, our parks and recreational areas, community grants programs, agriculture programs, and capital money for our state colleges and UVM.  These sections and others will all be a part of the tough funding decisions that the Corrections and Institutions Committee is facing.

As a committee we need to ensure that we are appropriately focused on capital spending and the risks associated with it.  We need to make sure Buildings and General Services (BGS) is managing risks and we need to ask good questions like: How will the current capital market affect capital spending risks and bonding management?  What is the strategic plan for BGS capital projects over the next 6 years?  What risks should leadership address as part of their project oversight responsibilities?

Our committee obligation is to ask “are we spending tens of millions of dollars to build a new version of the present?  What do these projects mean for jobs, job continuation, our local economies, and Vermont’s economy overall? And what will be different about the way we are able to deliver services in this new facility?  If these questions cannot be answered satisfactorily, the business case for the new facility may not be as robust as it should be.  Further, should we mandate reducing operating costs to help offset increased debt service to achieve a projects return on investment?  These are all questions, issues and decisions that the committee is faced with.

Read the whole bill here >>

Tense Days for Health Care

The hope is that this year's main health care bill will pass out of the House Health Care Committee this week or next.  This bill puts the financing together as Vermont enters the new Federal "health exchanges" next year.

In the first week of the session, most of the committee identified holding the population who are transitioning into the exchange from VHAP and Catamount Health (CHC) harmless as a priority.  As of last week, however, only one Democrat indicated this remains a priority (thank you Rep. George Till!).

The problem is our current state programs are well constructed and actually come close to making healthcare affordable for lower-income families.  That is why we are the 2nd lowest uninsured state, behind only Massachusetts.  When our existing programs end (as required by the Federal changes), the new level of subsidy will leave people exposed to comparable deductibles (perhaps a touch higher than today) and a whopping increase in overall out-of-pocket expenses.  Instead of $1,000 maximums some people will face $5,000 limits.

Yes, it's a tight budget year and we can't keep pouring money endlessly into the system.  But here's the thing: uninsured people cost the health system money.  Vermont hospitals forgive up to $65 million in charity care or bad debt each year.  If we have more people insured, then this $65 million drops.  Also, the Federal government is giving decent tax credits to help make insurance more affordable to anyone under 400% of the Federal Poverty level.  Taking advantage of these credits is key to our successful implementation of a single-payer system because the tax credit money will keep coming to Vermont even after we're through with these exchanges.  That's the nature of the so-called "waiver."  The application says, "we're spending $X for health care in VT, keep sending us $X and we'll do a better job than we're doing now."  So you see why X is an important number.

If we skimp on the subsidies today we will have fewer people signing up for coverage.  If our number of uninsured doesn't go down, we will take fewer Federal tax credits and increase the costs hospitals face in charity care and bad debt.

The administration has agreed to spend $4.5 million to subsidize this transition from VHAP/CHC to the Exchange.  If we spent $10 million we could keep the out-of-pocket exposure where it is today (for that population).  We would, also, incidentally be putting these people into the basic framework they can expect once we get to single-payer.

I fear the administration is being penny-wise and pound foolish here.  Let's hope some of the other Democrats on the committee come around before we vote.

The Bottom Pays More than the Top

Last week at the Statehouse I attended a fascinating presentation about Vermont’s tax system by Paul Cillo of the Public Assets Institute.  Then I read an analysis of the report “Who Pays?” by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy in Washington D.C., written by Jack Hoffman, senior analyst for Public Assets.

The “Who Pays?” report noted that, although Vermont has a progressive income tax system, the overall tax system is not.  In fact, low-income Vermonters are paying more than those at the top!  That’s one of the reasons why the Public Assets Institute does not support the Governor's proposal to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit program, which serves low-income Vermonters.  The Public Assets group said that right now, even with the EITC in place, low income Vermonters pays 8.7% of their income in state and local taxes while the top 1% pays less, only 8 percent.  If the EITC is removed, low-income Vermonters would be paying a whopping 10% of their income towards state and local taxes!  Not surprisingly, many legislators in Montpelier agree that the EITC should not be removed and several legislators are drafting bills that raise new revenues for the state in more progressive ways.

In my committee -- General, Housing and Military Affairs -- we voted the equal pay bill (H.99) out of committee favorably.  We then voted unfavorably on the Governor’s proposal to tax and regulate break open tickets.  The Ways and Means committee followed suit, so it appears that the break open tickets tax scheme is over for now.  This coming week my committee is working on two omnibus veterans and housing bills as we approach the crossover deadline to vote bills out of the House of Representatives and over to the Senate.

And finally, next Thursday legislators will vote for the new Adjutant General by secret ballot.

Please contact me with your questions and concerns at cweed@leg.state.vt.us. Thank you.

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