May 21, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Local lawmakers last week gave a passing grade to the 2007 legislative session, giving particularly high marks to measures that will expand Internet/cellular phone coverage throughout the state and give Vermonters more assistance in making their homes energy efficient.
The Legislature adjourned on May 12 after a four-month marathon that saw lawmakers endorse, among other things, an education cost-containment bill and partial state subsidies for pre-kindergarten programs.
On the other hand, lawmakers took a pass on several controversial, high-profile measures, including an impeachment resolution and “right-to-die” legislation.
All in all, it was a good session, according to Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury.
“I think the Legislature was really productive this year,” said Maier, chairman of the House Health Care Committee. “There was a real sense that people worked very hard on behalf of Vermonters.”
Maier and Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, gave their loudest praise to H.520, the so-called “climate change energy bill,” that would expand opportunities for small-scale renewable energy projects. The measure also includes funding for Efficiency Vermont to supply homes with energy efficiency information and solutions in order to conserve heating fuels. Efficiency Vermont has historically been limited to providing conservation tips and assistance for electricity only.
“It creates a way for individual businesses and residences to invest in a broader scope of energy efficiency measures,” Maier said.
“It’s significant, it’s dramatic and it’s bold,” Sharpe said.
Sharpe and Maier aren’t celebrating quite yet, however. That’s because a significant chunk of funding for H.520 would come through a tax on Vermont Yankee that would generate an estimated $25 million between 2009 and 2012. Gov. James Douglas of Middlebury has already stated his displeasure with the proposed Vermont Yankee tax, and the General Assembly probably would not have enough votes to override his veto.
“I would be very disappointed if the funding were ripped out of it,” said Sharpe.
CELL PHONES, BROADBAND
Lawmakers were pleased with the passage of H.248, which establishes a Vermont Telecommunications Authority that will bond for up to $40 million to help spread cell phone and high-speed Internet access throughout the state by 2010.
While some local officials are concerned about the extent to which the new law will supercede local zoning rules governing telecommunications towers, legislators said H.248 will greatly enhance Vermont’s ability to attract businesses that require upgraded phone/computer services.
“It was a good compromise,” Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, said of the bill.
Area legislators had mixed feelings about the education cost-containment bill that was negotiated in the waning hours of the 2007 session. It would require towns to vote once on proposed budgets with increases that come in under a statewide formula, and a second time for budgets that come in larger than the formula would allow.
Here’s how the formula for allowable school spending increases works: The average of per-pupil spending statewide, multiplied by a factor of the consumer price index (CPI), plus 1 percent.
Here’s how that formula would’ve worked for this year, according to Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee: Current average per-pupil spending ($10,071), multiplied by the CPI (3.3 percent) plus 1 percent, would produce an allowable budget increase of $434 per student.
Every school district will warn a proposed annual spending plan as usual. A district that wants to spend above the allowable increase would have to warn that request as a separate item on their annual school meeting warning. Plans call for the bill to be fully implemented by 2009, according to Ayer.
While she said the education cost-containment bill did not please everyone, Ayer noted the measure does not financially penalize districts that need to spend more than the state threshold; it merely forces them to get an additional vote.
Sharpe said the bill was the “best of three choices” the Legislature could’ve made on school funding. The others included a proposed inflationary spending cap that could only have been overruled by a super-majority vote of the community (60 percent of voters, for instance), and a plan that would’ve ratcheted down the state’s per-pupil spending penalty from the current 125 percent of the statewide average, to 120 percent, by the year 2012.
“The bill we passed has neither one of those particular flaws,” Sharpe said, of the super-majority vote requirement and a per-pupil spending penalty.
Rep. Kitty Oxholm, R-Vergennes, added there is more to the school cost-containment bill than money. She said the measure also funds a variety of studies aimed at tracking how education dollars are spent (including special education dollars) and how school boards can be given better tools to manage services for students.
“We will try to make changes in how we support school boards,” said Oxholm, a member of the House Education Committee.
Oxholm, rounding out her first year in Montpelier, said one of her highlights of the session was passage of a bill calling for the state to develop a plan to provide better care for citizens with autism and their families.
She was pleased with her freshman year in the Legislature.
“I found the process fascinating, and I loved it,” Oxholm said. “It was certainly an interesting experience to spend time daily with 150 people who are focused on state government and who are trying to do what they think is best for the state,” Oxholm said.
IN OTHER BUSINESS
Other 2007 successes and defeats cited by lawmakers included:
• Bus idling legislation. The House and Senate passed a bill that puts the brakes on bus idling in front of schools.
“I was very pleased about that,” said Ayer, a sponsor of the legislation.
• Septic system reform. The House and Senate passed legislation designed streamline permitting for alternative septic systems for property owners wanting to put in new or replacement septic systems in difficult soils.
“It looks like we have the septic system business settled after five years,” said Ayer, rounding out her first year as senate majority whip.
• Primary enforcement of the seat belt law. The measure passed the House, but didn’t make it out of the Senate.
“I’m disappointed,” Ayer said. “I just don’t understand the reluctance to invest in (primary enforcement).”
Ayer said that Vermont could’ve tapped $3.7 million in one-time federal aid if it had adopted the new law.
• A bill that makes it harder for drug companies to get access to doctors’ prescribing information. Some lawmakers, including Maier, said companies were using the information to promote sales of more expensive drugs.