STATE BUDGET: We have few choices in the state budget other than decreasing our expenses or increasing our revenues. I’ll look at both. We’ve begun the process of consolidating some agencies for cost savings and efficiency and will continue with that strategy. Our focus will be on the products and services they deliver, how we adapt to make them less expensive, or how we do without them.
In some cases, we may add to budgets to meet new demands. To increase revenues, for example, we’ve talked about a “junk food” tax for several years. Due to the complexity of “junk food” definitions, no states have adopted such a tax yet, but two states have adopted a tax on soda. At a penny an ounce, as much as $50 million could be raised. While it’s highly contentious, we ought to give junk food taxes a full hearing.
EDUCATION FUNDING: Acts 60 and 68 guarantee that towns with the same tax rates can afford the same educational opportunities for their children. It’s the right thing to do.
To decrease education property taxes, we must decrease spending and increase revenues. School boards decreased spending by more than $22 million. Teachers negotiated with us to save $15 million (from the general fund) in retirement costs. Schools across Vermont will consider consolidation this fall and the state will support their efforts. School boards, local voters and teachers remain committed to this effort.
Many properties are exempt from education property taxes. Excluding current use and income sensitivity, they would have paid at least $70 million to the education fund in FY 2008. A number of them, hospitals and schools for example, should remain tax exempt. I have proposed that all exempt properties be examined to ensure that their status serves a public purpose.
ENERGY: The reliability and safety of the plant, and the price of electricity are the two primary considerations. Entergy Vermont Yankee, EnVY, fails both. EnVY offered Vermont companies just over half of the power it supplies now at a price higher than the market rate. The price of power from EnVY is no bargain even before we consider the plant maintenance history, radioactive substance leaks, and decommissioning. EnVY produces about 2 percent of the power in the Northeast market, where there is currently a power surplus. With the recent disclosure of new tritium contamination, it is hard to imagine new information that would lead me to approve extension of the plant’s 40-year license.
Vermont will continue efforts to promote in-state electricity production and, perhaps more importantly, decrease our use of power. We’ve made tremendous strides in electricity conservation, especially in business enterprises, and there is plenty more to be done.
AGRICULTURE: As long as milk supply exceeds demand, milk prices will be too low to sustain our dairy farmers. If our milk were marketed as a Vermont product, we would add at least 10-15 percent to its shelf price. The question is how much of an investment Vermont would need to make that happen. I will pursue that idea.
Vermont supports over $35 million in tax preferences to farms and forestland (including current use) and spends over $48 million (excluding federal funds) on Ag and Ag related programs. I will ask that this spending be examined to be sure that we focus our resources in the right places to promote sustainability for farms and forests.
HEALTH CARE: Doing nothing will escalate health care costs in Vermont by about $1 billion by 2012. Almost every industrialized country in the world guarantees health care to its citizens. Some countries rely on insurance companies, some use private doctors and facilities, and some use a nationalized system of providers and facilities. All countries pay less for their care and all have better health care results. Many of us worry about long waits for service under a new system, but in some of the countries, the wait is far less than it is here.
While our taxes will go up to pay for health care reform, families and businesses will balance that by recouping the expense of insurance — over $10,000 for a family of four. I will consider seriously the plans to be presented to us at the beginning of the next session and move forward toward health care for all.
JOBS: People choose to stay or relocate in Vermont because of our environment, our top-notch public education, and personal safety. Our environmental laws have served us well but we need to have more permitting work take place online and adequate staff to guide the process and do necessary background work. The jobs we recruit should have low environmental impact, fit local growth patterns, and employ or train Vermonters. Universal broadband coverage is a must, as well as continued state spending on job training and retraining, as well as improved access to capital for new and growing businesses.