Legislative Updates

Updates from the Vermont Statehouse

The Good & Bad of the Tax Bill

Last week the House passed this year's miscellaneous tax bill. Sadly the controversy wasn't wrapped up in any income tax equity questions, despite promises last year there was no move to increase taxes for those on top. This wasn't a surprise.

More impressive for progressives was the $6 million tax increase for Vermont Yankee. This is broken down between a property tax increase (putting money into the education fund) and a generating tax (sending money to the general fund). As it happened there wasn't much controversy over this proposal either, in fact it came out of committee on an 11-0 vote. Even Yankee supporters go soft when faced with the prospect of property tax relief.

More frustrating was the quiet re-authorization of the VT Economic Growth Incentive (VEGI) program. This is one of the State's economic development tools where we reward corporations for creating jobs. VEGI was created in 2007 as a dressed up version of VEPC. Last year we extended the program for six months and asked for a comprehensive study presumably so we could determine the wisdom of extending the program for several years.

I stood up on the floor to ask the Ways and Means chair, Rep. Janet Ancel (D-Calais), questions about the VEGI reauthorization. Imagine my surprise to  hear that the comprehensive study called for just last year was not reviewed by her committee. In fact, other than testimony from the tax commissioner and the director of the VEGI program (who wants to keep his job), the committee didn't hear from anyone about the program. How this qualifies as due diligence is beyond me. My amendment to strike the re-authorization was too late for the regular procedure so I asked leave of the House to permit the amendment. The vote just to permit the amendment to come forward failed 40-61.

Following my questions though, a number of other members stood up and echoed my comments. It is irritating to think of tax dollars going to companies that are already growing. We shouldn't pretend our money is vital to job growth, unless detailed analysis proves that to be the case. Before we can make that determination, of course, we would have to actually look at the study.

In the end all of the Progressives voted for the tax bill largely because of the Yankee tax. We will work with our friends in the Senate to see if VEGI can't be explored more fully before it's five-year re-authorization is written into law.

Vermont Energy Independence Day

I was proud to be lead sponsor on House Resoultion 310 Deisgnating March 21 as Vermont Energy Independence Day. Following are the comments I offered on the floor:

Mr Speaker,

You have just heard a resolution honoring Vermont Energy Independence Day. Right here and now, through streaming, we are honoring well over 100 hard working Town Energy committees as well as many, many other citizens from around the state.

As we hear over and over again, the debate about global climate change is no longer about if; it is about how fast we can adapt. Today our honorees are letting us know what they are doing to reduce energy consumption, cut their carbon footprint and transition to renewables. They will be sharing their stories by using their video cameras and smart phones to describe everyday and extraordinary actions that are helping to move our state toward energy independence.

Vermont Energy Independence Day, Vermont’s first crowd-sourced documentary film, is a media project designed to capture the voice of Vermont as we transition to a sustainable energy future. The project is facilitated and produced by Bright Blue EcoMedia, the nonprofit media company that produced the Emmy-award winning “Bloom” film series. The effort is being supported by many groups who understand how important it is share stories and celebrate what we all are doing to transition to a new energy future, including the Vermont Natural Resources Council, Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Renewable Energy Vermont, Vermont Energy Education Partnership, 350 Vermont, Vermont Green and the Vermont Energy and Climate Action Network.

This recognition of grassroots efforts on energy aligns well with our ongoing work here in the Legislature. For years now, and even today, we have been passing legislation that helps us on our way to reducing our carbon foot print and to spur sound local economic development. It is a great day.  Our planet thanks you.  Mr. Speaker, please offer a warm welcome to all those participating in Energy Independence Day from all around the state of Vermont.

Next Gen Transportation

The Transportation Bill, H. 770, just passed by the House last week contains a provision for a "Next Gen Transportation Funding Study Committee."  The committee is charged with looking at the gaps between gasoline and diesel tax revenues and the costs to maintain the transportation infrastructure. People are driving more miles (unfortunately), but greater fuel efficiency means that they are buying fewer gallons of fuel.

The bill's language specifically asks for a study of Vehicle Miles Traveled tax as a potential for raising revenue. Speaker Shap Smith requested that this concept be included. The committee also will look at alternative transportation financing mechanisms and I requested that language be added to coordinate this study with the transportation section of the state's comprehensive energy plan.

This committee could be the beginning of some new thinking about our transportation system. The challenge remains: money for infrastructure comes from fuel taxes  and motor vehicle fees. If you want people to use less carbon-emitting fuel, what money do you use to build an alternative system of rail and public transit? We shouldn't have to ask these questions in an enlightened society. Yet it's difficult to move away from our auto-centric way of thinking. However there are also some exciting technological developments in solar and electronic roadways that offer promise for the future.

A pledge is a pledge

I never envy the House Appropriations committee. They usually work on Mondays when the rest of the legislature is busy meeting with folks and working in their districts. Beyond the workload though, they generally face impossible choices: fund home health for seniors or programs for low-income youths. The painful options are nearly limited.

This year's budget that passed the House Friday did some decent things. It funded the beginning of our solution to the VT State Hospital. That has been a challenge facing Montpelier for at least a decade. The budget also restored the transfer to the Education Fund, making good on an old promise and hopefully offering a touch of property tax relief. Plus, the budget answers the many expensive challenges Irene and the spring floods sent our way.

There are a few key holes and I don't just mean that there was zero work to restore programs or personnel cut over the last four years. I have a big problem with the reduction in our weatherization budget. In 2007 the state set goals for ourselves around helping Vermonters better insulate our houses and with good reason. We tend to have old, leaky houses in Vermont. Money, carbon pollution and comfort of life escapes through the cracks. Insulating homes creates good-paying jobs and saves us money ($600-1,900 per year). So why are we stepping off the gas?

It's true federal funding for weatherization has ended but as recently as 2008 the program was fully funded by state dollars. These cuts with real implications. For the past several years Montpelier has signaled that this was a key program and so contractors and agencies that do the work have invested in training and hiring the required workforce. Some of these jobs will get cut and money spent on training wasted.

Meanwhile we're not coming close to meeting the goals we set for ourselves five years ago. We needed pro tem Shumlin's leadership to set the worthy goals and we need Gov. Shumlin's leadership to help us meet them.

Another area of the budget that is disappointing is our level funding of higher education. We are cheating our kids and ourselves out of a prosperous future. Higher ed is increasingly out-of-reach for Vermont families and everyone in Montpelier knows it. Apparently there just isn't the will to do anything about it.

In early February hundreds of students from VT State Colleges came to the statehouse wearing homemade t-shirts with their total anticipated student debt upon graduating. They are facing an unsteady job market ladened with tens of thousands in student loans. I pledged to them and the students I represent at UVM that no budget level funding higher ed would get my vote and so Friday I was one of only two non-Republicans to vote against the budget.

Renewable Portfolio Standard

This week the House Natural Resources and Energy committee voted out (10-1) a forward-looking energy bill (H.468) that will help Vermont reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, thereby reducing the state’s contribution to global climate change.

H.468 puts us further along the path of energy independence by increasing the number of standard offer projects from a 50MW total set in 2009 and adding 100MW over the next 10 years.  This encourages small-scale renewable electricity projects (up to 2.2MW) by providing long-term stable pricing.  Developers are able to get the predictability they need to get financing for their projects.

We also set a goal that Vermont reach 75% renewables by 2032.  A renewable portfolio standard (RPS) will require that 35% of renewables that have come on line since 2004 retain their renewable attributes.  Up until now, utilities could sell the attributes, known as renewable energy credits (REC), to out of state utilities with an RPS.  Now that Vermont has instituted an RPS, our utilities will be required to retain the REC’s for 35% of the renewable electric portfolio.

The bill now heads over to the Senate.

The Politics of Alternative Medicine

You may remember that last year the legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring private health insurance to cover home births delivered by midwives. Medicaid has been paying for home births for a decade now and we thought people paying premiums to private insurance ought to get the same service if they wanted it. The bill passed with an overwhelming voice vote in both chambers, indicating a lack of controversy.

Unfortunately the insurance companies found a loophole and despite our attempt, mothers seeking this choice were not covered. I don't like being duped so with a lot of help from VPIRG and midwives we set out to make the mandate stick.

The problem is insurance companies require providers to carry malpractice insurance and midwives can't realistically afford a $15,000/year policy. Keep in mind there are only about 100 home births a year in Vermont. Requiring this level of insurance is like asking your gardener to carry the same level of insurance as your roofer.

Our solution demands the Blues et al cover home births even if midwives don't have malpractice insurance for the next two years. The midwives want to work with their national association to find an affordable insurance option during that time.

Along the way though we had to hear doctors and other medical professionals sing the praises of the malpractice industry. And even though midwives are regulated by the office of professional regulations (OPR under the Secretary of State's office), there was a concerted push to have more oversight from the Department of Health. There is already a doctor advising the director of OPR about midwives but for some that was not enough. In the end we staved off the potential for a witch hunt from those that don't believe in home births. We will have to fight to keep these efforts at bay as H.777 moves to the House floor and then on to the Senate.

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