Legislators mark some milestones: education, budget, other bills wrap up

MONTPELIER — Lawmakers expected to take on a lot of important issues when they arrived in Montpelier for the legislative session in January. Education finance reform, economic development, energy, water quality, child protection and health care reform were all on the docket.
Over it all hung a fiscal year 2016 budget that showed signs of a big deficit before the end of the month.
As the Legislature adjourned on Saturday, state senators, representatives and the governor all could count some accomplishment in the session.
“This was among the most ambitious agendas that I have ever laid out in January,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said during a telephone interview with the Independent on Tuesday. “I think it was one of the most productive sessions I can remember.”
The biggest “wins” of the 2015 session, according to Shumlin, included passing a balanced fiscal year 2016 general fund budget that had been plagued by a $113 million revenue shortfall; an education reform bill that he said “is going to improve quality, and, over time, reduce costs for property taxpayers”; a clean water bill that he said will lead to cleanup of the state’s waterways; and an energy bill that he said will lead Vermont to “a cleaner, greener energy future.”
“I think they were all big accomplishments,” Shumlin said.
Addison County’s senior senator, Addison Democrat Claire Ayer, noted some of the same accomplishments. These included passage of the clean water bill (“I’m glad we did something on Lake Champlain cleanup, but it was way less than what was called for in the (federal environmental) report,” Ayer said. “But I think in this very difficult climate where people are so worried about taxes, the fact that we did it is a good thing”), and a renewable energy bill that addressed siting solar arrays.
“It was very contentious, though not a partisan issue. In the end, towns have more to say … I think we will have legislation that lays out a route that gives us sensible balance between local needs and local plans and people who want to invest in the state of Vermont,” she said.
Ayer said that the so-called child protection bill that passed will, among other things, set up new penalties for those failing to protect a child who is in danger. It also calls for more intensive sharing of child welfare information among social workers, authorities and the state judiciary.
“The court systems will have a better idea about what’s going on with the kids,” Ayer said. “In the end, it’s going to be about what is in the best interest of the child.”
As chairman of the House Education Committee, Rep. David Sharpe took a keen interest in the education finance reform bill. The Bristol Democrat said the Legislature made great progress in addressing the challenges of doing a better job of educating Vermont’s children for the 21st century within a cost that taxpayers can afford.
He said that perhaps the most exciting provision is the establishment of college savings accounts at birth for all Vermont children. This collaboration with private funders promises to help deal with one of the most persistent educational challenges; that of educating children from low-income families, Sharpe said.
The much more publicized legislation is the creation of larger school districts in order to realize more efficient delivery of education in the PreK-12 system.
“This should save some money and help schools deliver better education in areas of the state that are losing student population,” Sharpe said. “The challenge of realizing we are all responsible for the education of all our children as required in the Vermont Constitution will result in expanding our sense of local to larger school districts. Local school boards, educational leaders and community members will need to figure out how to collaborate with their neighbors in order to deliver quality education.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, echoed the accomplishments that the others mentioned, and added her praise for steps to improve law enforcement and economic development in Vermont.
This included “enhanced public safety by prohibiting violent felons from owning firearms and requiring state courts to submit to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the names of those whom a court has adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness,” Lanpher noted.
She also enumerated many new policy recommendations to create jobs and build a better climate for economic development. These included, among other things, a new earned credit for creating jobs that will be administered through the Vermont Economic Growth Incentive changes (VEGI) program.
Sen. Ayer also trumpeted passage of the campaign finance bill that says political PACs and legislative candidates for office can’t raise money from lobbyists during the Legislative session.
“That means from early January to the time we adjourn, we can’t raise money from lobbyists or have our PACs do that either,” she said. “I’ve never done that, but it makes a lot of sense to me.”
Ayer said she was disappointed by the proliferation of form letters as a means for some constituents to voice concerns/ support for various issues — such as the controversial proposal to remove the “philosophical exemption” for child vaccinations. Ayer said these often cookie-cutter form letters would flood lawmakers’ email boxes, and did not offer the more measured and personal feedback that constituents have provided in the past.
“It bothered me how other legislators considered (those form letters),” Ayer said.
Many of those queried were frustrated by the lack of progress toward health care reform. Rep. Sharpe, for instance, called it his greatest disappointment of the session.
“We know that the single fastest growing cost in the educational system in Vermont is the cost of employee health insurance,” he said.
Sen. Ayer, who is the Senate majority whip and chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, was chagrined that the Legislature couldn’t continue the transition to a single-payer health system, but added the costs of pursuing such a path, at this point, would have been prohibitive. A “spectacular failure” of an inadequately funded single-payer system might have forever doomed such a system in the future, she said.
But Ayer noted the Legislature did OK an “all-payer waiver,” which is a system that ensures all the private insurance companies, along with Medicaid and Medicare, will have a “coordinated, sensible way” in which to pay for medical procedures. It used to be that multiple insurance companies were billed at multiple different rates for the same procedure, according to Ayer.
Rep. Lanpher also noted that the Legislature took some steps to address two components of health care reform session: access to care and improvement in health outcomes.
“By investing additional resources in our Blueprint for Health, expanding the responsibilities and support of the Green Mountain Care Board, sustaining Medicaid funding for underinsured Vermonters, and increasing support for educational loan forgiveness for primary care doctors, we’ve made an appreciable difference for all Vermonters,” she said. “However, these measures are far less than the believed needed steps.”
Asked about his biggest disappointment, the governor did not hesitate. He said state government “kicked the can down the road” in dealing with the stranded costs associated with Medicaid and Medicare. Shumlin had proposed a payroll tax to deal with those stranded costs, which refer the difference between Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates and what it actually costs hospitals and physicians to perform medical procedures.
“Every year that we put this decision off, the problem becomes worse,” Shumlin said.
The governor added he’s confident that overall lawmakers and administrators made substantial, systematic cuts that will help stabilize future state spending plans.
“The tough choices that were made this year will help take us a long way towards a responsible spending path,” Shumlin said. “But we all knew we wouldn’t get there in one leap. This general fund budget represents a 2-percent increase over the budget that was passed a year ago. We’re headed in the right direction.”
Shumlin touted the fact that no broad-based taxes (income, sales, or rooms and meals) were hiked to mop up the deficit, but acknowledged $32 million in various other taxes and fees.
“I think we made the right choices around revenue without getting carried away,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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