Legislators tell aldermen ‘big budget issues’ will test state

VERGENNES — The legislators who represent Vergennes in Montpelier — sadly at this point only a trio — sat down with Vergennes aldermen last week to talk about the budgetary and other challenges they will face during the upcoming legislative session.
Before Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, Sen.-elect Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, and Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, spoke about their legislative priorities, they joined aldermen in observing a moment of silence for their late colleague, Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, who recently lost his life in a Route 7 traffic accident.
When it was time for the trio to speak, Ayer led off by discussing what again could be the Vermont Senate, House and governor’s greatest challenge, which she described as tackling “big budget issues.” State departments and agencies will be “asked to make do with less,” she said, as tax revenues cannot be expected to rise in what are still tough economic times.
Ayer said she would continue to focus on health care, and was particularly concerned about mental health issues after the loss of the state’s mental health facility a year ago during Tropical Storm Irene. She said she remains concerned the state is “not meeting those (mental health) needs” despite an ongoing effort to transition to community-based care.
Ayer also said debates would probably surround the expected introductions of “Death With Dignity” and marijuana decriminalization bills, that an effort to improve Lake Champlain water quality was also expected, and that she, like many legislators, had recently received “several hundred emails about gun control.”
On that topic, Ayer said she wanted to “mention again there are a number of steps that can be taken that would not affect responsible, law-abiding gun owners,” but that gun control was not the only answer.
“There are mental health issues and other issues that need to be worked on at the same time,” she said.
Alderman Randy Ouellette asked Ayer about the yet-to-be revealed cost of the state-run health exchange that is now being implemented. Ayer said the total costs are not yet known, but offered a partial answer. 
“We know what it is not going to cost. It (statewide health care) costs us $5 billion now,” Ayer said. “We wouldn’t move forward with anything that would cost more than it costs us now.”
Bray said Ayer had covered many of the central issues that he expected to arise, and that as a first-term senator he was awaiting his committee assignment. Bray said he hoped for an agriculture committee slot, but that regardless he would focus on “sustainable economic development,” particular in the forestry and farm sector.
“Eighty-eight percent of Vermont is covered by forest and farmland,” Bray said.
Lanpher said she hoped and expected to be reappointed to the House Transportation Committee. There, she said she would continue to help the state’s long-term infrastructure needs, which she said are badly underfunded.
Lanpher cited a study that showed Vermont would have to spend an additional $250 million a year for decades to catch up on maintenance of its existing infrastructure, more than double its current rate.
“We have to educate the public on the truth of the situation,” she said. 
Lanpher said she had also recently spoken with Vermont Department of Buildings and Services personnel about the recently moved Vergennes rail depot, which now rests awaiting renovation next to the VTrans commuter lot in Ferrisburgh. She said state officials will be seeking tenants.
Before the legislators left, they fielded one request, from Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley. He asked that they not solve state budget problems by “passing along” the costs to local towns and cities.
“That’s not solving the problem,” Hawley said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@a

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