January 3, 2008
By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — While the state has turned the page on 2007, the Vermont Legislature’s 2008 agenda will have a decidedly familiar look when legislators return to the Statehouse next week.
Local lawmakers said energy conservation, expanding health insurance, education finance reform and campaign finance reform are shaping up to be the major issues to be debated during the upcoming legislative session. Lawmakers made some — but not enough — progress in tackling those issues last year, according to House and Senate Democrats, who hope to use their solid majorities in both chambers to force votes on a climate change bill, an all-fuels energy utility and new campaign spending regulations.
Top Democrats acknowledged that as they take a second stab at their priority issues, they will have to be mindful of Gov. James Douglas’s veto pen, which the state’s chief executive was not afraid to use last year.
“I’m calling this the ‘Session of Hope’ — hope that we will pass great legislation and hope that the governor will sign it,” state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, said during a phone interview on Wednesday.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge and Senate majority whip, said she fully expects the General Assembly to field campaign finance reform and climate change bills early on during the session.
Vermont has made previous stabs at campaign finance laws, but those efforts have either been vetoed or have been struck down in the courts. But Ayer believes that chances are good this year for the Legislature to pass a bill “that puts reasonable limits on what candidates for statewide and legislative offices can spend.”
Ayer said the proposed bill will use numbers that will “pass the (United States) Supreme Court test” in limiting donations and the power of political action committees.
Lawmakers will also soon be asked to support a climate change bill that will look very similar to the one (H.520) passed by the general assembly last year. Douglas vetoed bill H.520, voicing concern about how the state would pay for the massive initiative, which included a substantial expansion of the Efficiency Vermont energy conservation utility. Lawmakers had proposed to fund the effort with a five-year tax on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant that would’ve raised up to $35 million.
Legislators will re-examine funding scenarios, but served notice that some taxes may be necessary to at least initially bankroll a bill they believe will eventually create jobs in Vermont in the fields of energy conservation and alternative fuels.
“I think we may have to look at fuel taxes,” Ayer said.
While some in the state’s capital are wondering whether Vermont can afford a sweeping climate control bill, Shumlin believes the state can’t afford not to have one.
“We want to decrease the amount of oil Vermonters are burning and therefore put more money into their pockets and create more jobs,” Shumlin said.
Lawmakers said they also want to spend 2008 looking for ways to extend health care coverage to more Vermonters. It was this past October that Vermont launched Catamount Health, which provides basic health care services to uninsured Vermonters who may not qualify for Medicaid and other federal/state programs. Legislators this session will consider extending Catamount Health to small businesses and “under-insured” Vermonters.
“I’d like to see us pass a bill would allow small businesses and the under-insured to buy into Catamount Health at a cost that is 20-percent less than what you can purchase on the commercial market,” Shumlin said.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, agreed that health care will be a big issue this year. But he warned the state must be mindful of the cost of expanding coverage.
“We’re still struggling with how to finance it,” Clark said.
That said, Clark believes Vermont could someday be perceived as a model in how a state can provide health care to its most needy citizens.
Clark and his district colleague, Rep. Kitty Oxholm, R-Vergennes, both sit on the House Education Committee. They agreed their panel may be asked to make some minor changes to Act 82, the so-called “Education Quality and Cost Control” law passed last year.
Central to the law is a provision for two votes on public school budgets — the first vote would be on a proposed budget that matches the average per-pupil spending statewide, plus inflation, plus 1 percent. The second be on any additional education spending called for in a spending plan.
Oxholm, an Addison Northwest Supervisory Union administrator, has been brainstorming with fellow legislators on various cost-saving moves the state could make within its educational system short of consolidating its many school districts. Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate has proposed consolidating the state’s 284 school districts into 63 larger unions to promote efficiency. Cate’s proposal garnered a tepid response at public hearings held throughout Vermont last year.
Oxholm believes the state could look at other efficiencies — such as grouping students from different districts to jointly take advanced placement courses.
“These are very expensive (courses) and sometimes having more students grouped together can be beneficial,” Oxholm said.
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, predicted that money-related issues and repairs to the state’s transportation system will also get a lot of attention from the 2008 Legislature.
“The issue of money is going to be all over the place,” Jewett said. “Money will be tighter than it has been in previous years.”
With money in even shorter supply, the state needs to do a better and more timely job in tending to its roads and bridges, according to Jewett.
“If our (transportation) revenues are flat but costs are going up 20 percent per year, we know we will be doing 20-percent fewer project,” Jewett said. “Are the people of Vermont OK with that?”
Jewett, a longtime member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the panel’s agenda will likely include such topics as juvenile justice; guardianships; the “involuntary medication” debate; and strains on the state’s corrections system.
Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, promised to again focus on legislation aimed at helping farmers. He specifically cited a bill requesting an accounting of how the current 15-cent-per-hundredweight promotions tax is being used to the benefit of farmers. That tax now yields around $2.4 million annually to advertise milk. Giard, a former farmer, wants to make sure farmers are getting value for that money, particularly when times are tight in the agricultural industry.
Giard also wants to begin the discussion of whether any changes should be made in how Vermont’s public education system is run at the statewide level.
“We have a $1.2 billion industry in K-12 education in Vermont, and I see no leadership,” said Giard.
Other topics likely to be on the 2008 Legislature’s radar screen, according to Shumlin, include:
• Passing a plan to replace the Vermont State Hospital.
• Developing legislation for a more aggressive cleanup of Lake Champlain.
• Creating initiatives to further crack down on domestic violence.
• Developing a firm game plan for the impending decommissioning or re-licensing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.