MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers and Gov. Peter Shumlin this week were tying a bow on what they said was a very productive 2014 session of the Vermont Legislature, one they said has paved the way for new jobs, fewer drug addicts, a higher minimum wage and a record investment in the state’s roads, bridges and culverts.
Lawmakers wrapped up their work at the Vermont Statehouse on Saturday, May 10, capping more than four months of work on a litany of issues ranging from boilerplate municipal charter changes to a $5.5 billion state budget.
“I think we worked very well together,” House Majority Leader Willem Jewett, a Ripton Democrat, said of the 2014 session. “If you look at the list … it’s big stuff.”
That “big stuff,” according to Jewett, included limiting the increase in the fiscal year 2015 statewide education property rate to 4 cents, instead of the 7 cents that had originally been forecast by the Vermont Agency of Education. Jewett also applauded the General Assembly for voting to ramp up the state’s hourly minimum wage from $8.73 to $10.50 over the next four years. Shumlin had proposed an increase to $10.10 over three years, but he promised on Tuesday to sign the Legislature’s proposal.
While the Democrats own a 96-45 edge over Republicans in the House, Jewett was pleased that a lot of major bills passed with ample support from both parties. For example, the minimum wage bill passed 132-3.
“We did so much of the work by consensus,” Jewett said.
The Legislature also passed a “toxics bill,” S.239, which allows the Vermont Department of Health to police toxins used in products sold in the state that are geared toward children up to age 12.
“(The bill) holds out hope for regulation, which could be labeling and to the extreme, banning for dangerous chemicals,” Jewett said. “If companies are using any of the (66) chemicals, they have to notify, and there’s a fee.”
SHUMLIN SEES PROGRESS
Like Shumlin, Jewett was pleased the Legislature passed several initiatives to stimulate economic development. Among them: Creation, with a $5 million appropriation, of the Vermont Enterprise Incentive Fund to act more quickly (than offering tax credits) to attract and retain jobs and compete with other states, according to Shumlin. Lawmakers also boosted, by $500,000, the Vermont Economic Development Authority’s Entrepreneurial Lending Program, and doubled the capacity of the Small Business Offering Exemption to support small business investment.
“(The session) really focused on middle class, working families by delivering the biggest reforms that I can remember on education, jobs and quality of life — the opiate issues that we dealt with,” Shumlin said during a phone interview with the Addison Independent on Tuesday. “We have the second-lowest unemployment rate in America right now, and many Vermonters are doing better, but there are still too many working Vermonters who aren’t feeling (the improving conditions). Their paychecks aren’t any better than they were.”
Shumlin also believes families will be helped by a series of education improvement initiatives passed during the 2013-14 biennium. They include expanded access to universal pre-kindergarten education to all 3- and 4-year-olds “so every child in Vermont will have an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn,” Shumlin said through a press release issued by his office this past weekend. “Combined with a $37 million federal grant to support early childhood education programs, Vermonters born today will have a brighter future ahead than at any time in the history of our state.”
And lawmakers also extended an assist to older students, according to Shumlin.
“Thanks to expanded dual enrollment, early college programs and the Vermont Strong Scholars Program passed this session, Vermont students who go to college in Vermont and agree to work in the state after they graduate can now receive up to two years of free college education,” he said. “As students and parents nationwide struggle with ever-rising student loan debt, we in Vermont are figuring out innovative ways to make college more affordable for middle class families.”
Vermont also this year became the first state in the nation to provide free lunch for all low-income students, Shumlin noted.
The governor also emphasized, in his State-of-the-State speech this year, the need for Vermont to more forcefully battle opiate addiction. He believes the Legislature followed through with his request.
“We’re implementing statewide evidence-based assessments and pre-trial services to move addicted Vermonters who have committed certain crimes to support their habits into treatment, when appropriate,” Shumlin said. “Judges will now also have the option of tougher sentencing of individuals transporting drugs into Vermont and for those who use dangerous weapons to break into homes and steal property to support a drug habit.”
Northern Addison County saw an increase in burglaries in 2013, many perpetrated by individuals seeking to sell stolen items, such as gold jewelry and scrap metal, for cash to support drug habits. The Legislature passed a bill that would create a certification process and regulatory framework for precious metals dealers, designed to short-circuit these type of sales. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, was a major sponsor of that effort in the House.
ROADS AND BRIDGES
Lanpher, a member of the House Transportation Committee, touted the Legislature’s record $665 million commitment to maintaining and rebuilding its roads, bridges and culverts next year. That budget will help round out funding for the bridges being replaced on Route 116 (the “stop light bridge”) and South Street in Bristol. Funds will also be directed to the ongoing replacement of the Sand Hill Bridge on Route 125 in East Middlebury.
She noted that closing Route 125 at the Sand Hill Bridge location is proving a short-term hardship for travelers, but it will result in an expedited project that should save taxpayers a lot of money.
Lanpher is disappointed the transportation spending plan does not include funds for the much-needed repaving of Route 125 from Route 22A to Middlebury.
“That section is in dire need and has a lot of traffic contact,” she said. “But we cannot over-promise … when we don’t have the money.”
Vermont’s backlog of bridges with a “structurally deficient” rating has dropped from more than 400 to under 200 during the past six years, according to Lanpher. That’s happened thanks to an infusion of federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants and project streamlining efforts within the Vermont Agency of Transportation, according to Lanpher.
The six-year incumbent lawmaker mentioned a few other, local things she was able to help bring about this year:
• Secured state funding for a master plan for a combined total of 330 acres of state-owned land in Ferrisburgh and Vergennes. Around 66 acres of that land currently is home to the Northlands Job Corps. City Manager Mel Hawley told the Legislature during deliberations on this bill that the state should make a plan for what to do with the land in the event that Northlands leaves and the federal government ceases paying to maintain the campus.
• Landed state financial support for a Lake Champlain Maritime Museum boat trip to New York City to further commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
• Lobbied successfully for a passenger railroad stop at the park-and-ride property at the intersection of Routes 7 and 22A in Ferrisburgh.
WORK IN THE SENATE
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, kept close track of her party’s priorities in the state’s highest chamber. Ayer is Senate majority whip and chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. As such, Ayer was particularly involved in health care matters, including Vermont’s ongoing transition to a universal access health care system.
Ayer’s committee also worked on (and passed) S.287, the so-called “involuntary medication” bill. It’s a measure that would make it more expeditious for hospitals to give medications to mental health patients.
“This was a time of strengthening the base in our health care system, speaking of involuntary medication and substance abuse,” Ayer said.
She said this was a session in which lawmakers continued to assemble the various ingredients for a state health care system that will undergo considerable transformation during the next three years. It’s a transformation that supporters believe will make health care in Vermont more efficient, accessible and affordable.
“From a health care point of view, I think things are coming together,” Ayer said. “I’m looking forward to good news that everything is coming together and meshing into one health care system.”
Ayer is disappointed that the Legislature did not do anything to revise the Current Use program to make it more sustainable. The Current Use program allows landowners who practice long-term forest management to have their enrolled land appraised for property taxes based on its value for forestry, rather than its fair market value.
CRITICS CITE HIGH SPENDING
Not everyone considered the 2014 session to have been a big success. Veteran Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, was among many Republican lawmakers who believe the Democrat majority in both chambers was able to pass too many bills that will increase taxes and fees on Vermonters during the coming fiscal year.
While Smith said the House and Senate passed an “overall not bad” fiscal year 2015 budget, he could not bring himself to support it because the Legislature has been in a pattern of passing state spending plans that call for increases of 5 percent or more. Such 5-percent hikes, Smith said, are considerably greater than pay raises most Vermonters have been seeing annually.
Smith vowed at the outset of the session that he would view all budget items through a prism of fiscal responsibility and based on what he believed the average taxpayer could afford.
“It’s not sustainable,” he said of current state spending. “At some point we will need to bite the bullet and come up with a budget people can afford.”
Also frustrating for Smith was the fact that the Shumlin administration has yet to disclose a financing structure for the single-payer health care system that Vermont is scheduled to adopt in 2017. It’s information that Smith said was due more than a year and a half ago.
“That’s a long time for Vermonters and the business community to be uncertain about their futures,” he said.
Smith added the Legislature failed to “bend the curve” on education spending. A bill aimed at consolidating school districts and eliminating administrative overhead within the public school system failed to make it to the Senate in time for action. Instead, he said, residential and seasonal homeowners, as well as businesses, saw their education property taxes rise again.
Smith did not share some of his colleagues’ exuberance over the GMO labeling bill that is likely to face a court challenge. The bill would require food manufacturers to list any GMO-related content in the products they sell in Vermont. It’s a regulation that Smith believes is unnecessary and will raise food costs in the state.
On the positive side, Smith is pleased lawmakers committed more resources to Vermont’s roads and bridges, and believes the state made good strides this session in fighting opiate addiction.
He also believes a collegial atmosphere existed in the Statehouse this past session.
“We all worked together pretty well,” Smith said. “We were able to find some areas of agreement. I’m not sure we can say the same thing about what’s coming out of Washington.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]