Rep. Diane Lanpher: House concludes fruitful session
A successful legislative session is a result of leadership. The Vermont House just might all agree that Speaker Shap Smith represents the best of leadership qualities. In January the speaker truly shook up committee assignments by re-arranging member assignments as well as appointing new chairs and vice chairs. The new assignments maximized the skills and experience of 150 legislators in a new and different way. My assignment was one of the examples of change, and I was asked with all the others to push my limits beyond their past levels, because the 2015 session had tough issues to tackle.
Some of the challenges addressed in the session:
Budget — Balanced a budget with a revenue gap of $113 million by reducing spending by $56 million, raised revenue of $32 million and used one-time revenue savings of $25 million.
Education — The education reform bill expanding school district size and oversight will encourage improvements in quality and diversity of educational for students at a cost that taxpayers can afford. Broad goals designed to encourage and support local decisions and action that, among other things, meet the state’s Education Quality Standards stand at the forefront of the bill.
Water — A comprehensive water quality bill passed this year bringing together road and highway crews, farmers, municipal officials, developers, wastewater treatment operators, and foresters to improve practices with long-term and sustained efforts. The Vermont agricultural community recognizes that it has a role to play in continuing efforts to reduce nutrient loading and improve water quality in the state and testified that they are ready to do their part. Specific revenue is raised to assure the resources are there to achieve the water quality goals.
Health Care Reform — The Legislature took measurable steps to address two key components of our health care reform agenda this 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, however these measures are far less than the believed needed steps. Fiscal constraints contained the efforts of this years health care bill. The revenue required to support this health bill is raised through cigarette taxes.
Energy — With this year’s Renewable Energy Standard (RES) law, Vermont will launch a new energy transformation in the heating and transportation sectors. The law will incentivize a shift in these sectors from fossil fuels to clean electricity, reduce carbon emissions, and save Vermonters money. Going forward, communities will have greater say in the siting of ground-mounted solar projects. Municipalities and planning commissions will have automatic party status in permit proceedings before the public service board.
Child Protection — In the past year the number of reports of child abuse and neglect has continued to increase and has led to an increase in the number of child safety investigations and more children in the custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF). There has been an 82 percent increase in the number of children under 6 who are in custody. Serious child maltreatment associated with adult substance abuse has challenged our system as well. These increased pressures are not just on DCF. In the past year, prosecutors and the judiciary have seen an increase in the number of petitions filed for both children in need of supervision (CHINS) and termination of parental rights (TPR). No single agency or system can keep all children safe from harm. Child protection is a community responsibility requiring collaboration among the various departments within DCF, families, the courts, treatment providers, other stakeholders, and the public.
Legislation that we passed this session will go far in improving how we in Vermont protect our children by requiring better communication between these stakeholders, clarifying and strengthening the mandatory child abuse reporting law, focusing on the best interests of children rather than a rigid placement hierarchy, and enhancing the penalties for those who harm children with death resulting, serious bodily injury or sexual acts.
Law Enforcement — 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. In addition, it protects individual liberties by establishing a process for individuals who are no longer adjudged to be a danger to themselves or others to regain their rights to purchase and possess firearms. The act both respects the Second Amendment and protects public safety.
PSAP (public safety answering points) have been funded until September 2015, allowing workgroups time to review and act on alternative actions.
Economic Development — The 2015 session advanced numerous policy recommendations to create jobs and build a better climate for economic development.
Vermont Economic Growth Incentive (VEGI) changes offer an earned credit to qualifying companies for creating jobs.
Tourism and Economic Development Marketing expands the mission to emphasize Vermont’s innovative culture, expanding technology sector, education and business opportunities.
Land Use Act 250 — The Criterion 9L Procedure (which went into effect in 2014) has proven to be problematic recently. A review with public testimony and outreach to stakeholders is requested of both the 9L criterion and implementation by the Agency of Natural Resources and the Natural Resources Board.
Cloud Tax — This tax on Internet services has been problematic. Ending the Cloud Tax” by clarifying that access to the “cloud” is not tangible personal property and thus not taxable.
ABLE Savings Accounts/Working Disabled Vermonters — The Vermont treasurer is directed to establish an ABLE savings account program for the state. These accounts let people with disabilities save without endangering their benefits. We also raised the earnings caps for working disabled Vermonters on Medicaid.
First Time Home Buyer Down Payment Assistance Program — This is a five-year tax credit program administered through VFHA. First-time home buyers could qualify for a down payment loan. The loan would be payable upon sale or transfer of the home. VFHA estimates this could help 100 to 150 buyers annually.
The 2015 session with all its challenges came together to address the issues of Vermont, and I am very proud to have been a part of this year’s solutions on your behalf. Thank you. See you this summer and at the many joyous parades. Contact me at home phone) 802-877-2230 or by email at [email protected]
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