Editorial: A salute to steps forward in the legislature

The Shumlin Administration and the Vermont Legislature certainly have had their low points this session, starting with the governor abandoning his health care reform initiative and now being on the verge of scuttling the Vermont Health Exchange, as well as struggling to find ways to bridge a $130-plus million budget gap, but we’d be remiss not to note the few high points of the session, and to recognize the positive steps taken that move us forward.
Here are a few bills passed recently that will serve Vermont well.
 On Tuesday, the Senate voted 27-2 in favor of a bill that will set standards to improve the long-term water quality of Vermont’s lakes and streams.
After much discussion and threats to change the funding mechanism passed in the House (H.35), the Senate came to its better senses and pretty much endorsed the House bill, including upping the property transfer tax by 0.2 percent to help pay for the $7.5 million initiative. The increase in the transfer tax will be sunset in 2018, after which lawmakers are expected to replace it with other options that reflect the amount of pollution created by certain properties.
The bill allocates $2.6 million next year to hire eight new positions at the Agency of Agriculture and 13 at the Department of Environmental Conservation to help monitor pollution efforts, as well as for education and public outreach. Still to come are the regulations, including pollution control measures for farms, that state agencies have to create, implement and endorce.
Gov. Peter Shumlin has hailed it as a “strong bill” to clean up the state’s waterways and Lake Champlain, adding that it was “integral to the state’s environmental and economic health.” Hopefully, the Environmental Protection Agency will agree and will not impose more onerous requirements that would put greater financial burdens on the state and municipalities.
At the end of the day, it may be the most significant piece of legislation the governor signs this year.
Also on Tuesday, the House agreed to eliminate a philosophical exemption that allows parents the right to opt out of immunizations required by schools. About 3.8 percent of the state’s school children, or 3,479, are covered by such exemptions. Vermont requires just five vaccines for school entry: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis B; chickenpox; and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).
The Senate had passed the bill earlier in the session, but a large lobbying effort and strong opposition by a very small minority of Vermonters put pressure on the House to keep the exemption. The House rejected that pressure and adopted an amendment to end the exemption, 85-57.
The medical community played a big role in pushing to eliminate the exemption, explaining that all scientific evidence favored that perspective. Gov. Shumlin has changed his previous opposition to the measure and said he would sign the bill.
It’s a victory for common sense and public health.
The House and Senate are close to agreement on S.138, which is widely touted as a bill supporting economic development. The House expanded on the Senate measure and approved that version of the legislation on Tuesday. While some language is still in question and the governor has signaled opposition to one component of the bill, bets are that the Legislature will come to agreement and send the governor a bill he can sign.
The House and Senate have also supported S.29, a bill that would allow Vermonters to register to vote at a polling place on Election Day starting in 2017. The controversy is that voters registering to vote on Election Day do not have to provide a formal proof of residency (such as a utility bill), which some town clerks and legislators were supporting.
The bill essentially removes a minor barrier to voting rights and should enhance voter participation. Gov. Shumlin, House Speaker Shap Smith and Secretary of State Jim Condos all support the legislation.
The House on Tuesday also unanimously passed a joint resolution that area high schools should give serious consideration to incorporating. The resolution simply encourages Vermont’s public high schools to recruit international students.
The idea is that foreign tuition dollars would make up for the decline in domestic student populations and the consequent loss of state money, as well as broaden cultural exchange experiences for students.
With its clean environment, abundant recreational opportunities, natural beauty, safe communities and some of the better public school systems in the country, Vermont schools would be ideal for international students to study at that level. Middlebury schools, in particular, not only have chairs to fill before they reach capacity, but have a heritage of teaching foreign languages and have the vast resources and opportunities for language assistance available at Middlebury College.
The idea came from testimony to the Senate Education Committee this winter after hearing from Montpelier High School Principal Adam Bunting and teacher and city councilwoman Anne Watson, who is spearheading the start of hosting a program at Montpelier High School. By getting tuition money from students who qualify for F-1 visas, they hope to supplement the school’s bottom line.
It’s an excellent idea that area school boards should consider at their next board meetings, and establish committees to run the numbers and consider the economic, as well as cultural, benefits.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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