Lawmakers happy with 2015 session but say work remains to be done

BRIDPORT — The media and political pundits have already graded the 2015 Vermont Legislature on its performance during the recently concluded session.
On Monday, a handful of local lawmakers graded themselves, hinting at a report card that could bear an “A” effort but an “incomplete” on their body of work on the subjects of health care, state budgeting and public education reform.
Lawmakers offered their self-evaluations at the season’s last legislative breakfast, held at the Bridport Grange Hall. Setting the table for the breakfast discussion was the manner in which the General Assembly addressed a $113 million revenue shortfall in the fiscal year 2015-2016 general fund budget.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes and a member of the House Appropriations Committee, likened the Legislature’s deficit-reduction efforts to an alligator’s jaws.
“We’ve seen it before, like an alligator, every year we balance the budget we snap (the alligator’s jaws) shut, and it seems like only a moment and they are popping open again,” she said, using a loud “clap” for punctuation.
But Lanpher stressed the Legislature this year made a special attempt to make the budget cuts as sustainable and long-term as possible, in order to minimize the chances for recurring red ink.
With that in mind, Lanpher said lawmakers erased the $113 million deficit by making $56 million in cuts, as well as using around $32 million in new revenue and around $25 million in one-time funds.
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, credited the General Assembly for taking a series of new approaches to budgeting that she believes will lead to more realistic spending plans. Those approaches include reducing reliance on one-time funds, more conservative revenue forecasting, considering a two-year budgeting process, and adopting “results-based accountability” in terms of assessing whether the state is getting the best value for programs and services.
Among the $56 million in cuts were funding for two Public Service Answering Points (PSAPs) — also referred to as state police dispatching centers — in Derby and Rutland, a proposal that came from the Vermont Department of Public Safety. The proposed closing of the PSAPs drew some public protests over resulting job losses and a perceived reduction in quality of local dispatching service. So the Legislature agreed to fund all the PSAPs until this September, when supporters will be expected to reveal some alternative funding sources. Lanpher noted that four of the state’s eight PSAPs are privately run and funded.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, recalled that Addison County’s public safety answering center was cut several years ago amid funding concerns. The county, she said, has adapted well to the cut.
“A lot of (the protests) are about jobs in certain counties and the strength of their advocacy,” she said.
Paul Boivin of Addison has been a local rescue volunteer for 37 years. He warned that cutting PSAPs could substantially affect local responders’ ability to respond to an incident in a timely fashion. He cited, as examples, major incidents like train derailments and hazardous waste spills.
“A tremendous amount of services can be needed in a very short length of time,” he said. “As you consolidate the PSAPs, that means fewer people to dispatch more and more services instantly on a rapid basis.”
Lanpher noted that the Vermont veterans’ home in Bennington also came under the budget microscope this year. She said it was only “a handful of years ago” that state government began earmarking general funds to operate the veterans’ home. The state’s annual appropriation for the home has gradually increased, to $5 million.
“(Managers of the home) came in and testified that no matter how much money we put into the home, they are never going to be in the black,” Lanpher said. So the Legislature this past session came up with enough money to develop a better management plan over the next two years, according to Lanpher.
Adding to the state’s fiscal woes, according to Lanpher, is the fact that Vermont’s Medicaid program is currently running a $20 million deficit compared to last year.
“We’ve still got a few more months before the end of this (fiscal) year, but (Medicaid) is another reason you are starting to see that alligator’s mouth start to open up again,” Lanpher said.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, called the lack of progress on health reform his biggest disappointment of the 2015 session.
“The acceleration in those costs, year after year, creates a significant portion of this (deficit) gap that we start out the year with,” Sharpe said.
To make matters worse, Sharpe said the federal government will likely reduce its Medicaid reimbursement to Vermont in reaction to the state’s recent report of a low, 3.6-percent unemployment rate.
“They reduce the match that we get,” Sharpe said, “because Vermont is doing relatively well compared to other states.”
He called health care “a cost that is eating us up, and we have not figured out a way to deal with it.”
Others voiced concern on Monday about what appeared to be a lack of progress on health care reforms.
“I was wondering to myself, ‘Are we hitting the pause button or are we hitting the stop button?’” Weybridge resident Spence Putnam asked.
Ayer served as chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, a major springboard for health reform activity. She, too, lamented the lack of progress in that regard, which began with Gov. Peter Shumlin’s announcement in December that Vermont was pulling the plug on its transition to a single-payer health care system. Ayer’s committee looked at — and ultimately agreed with — the Shumlin administration’s assumptions for concluding that a single-payer system was not financially sustainable at this time.
“It was pretty demoralizing for a lot of us who have invested a lot in the notion of covering everyone, because the problem is still the same,” Ayer said.
The problem, in basic terms, is that $1 out of every $5 spent in the Vermont economy is spent on health care, as reflected by taxes and household income, according to Ayer.
“A lot of people still can’t get care, and the cost of health care goes up very fast; faster than it should,” she said.
Rather than punting on health care progress this session, the Legislature agreed to commission a study on the costs of using public tax dollars to deliver primary care — such as major surgeries — to everybody. Results of that study are due by this October.
“The thought is, the way it would decrease health care spending is that if everyone has primary care … fewer people will get sick,” Ayer said. “Our insurance premiums would have to decrease to pay for that, so our Medicaid expenses would go down and our private spending for insurance would go down.”
Education reform also made headlines during the session.
Lincoln resident Paul Forlenza pointed to a recent Vermont Department of Education report indicating that $78 million is being spent annually on public schooling in Addison County, of which around $12 million is spent by the supervisory unions.
He also pointed to a National Education Policy Center (NEPC) report suggesting that school consolidation — such as what is being promoted in Vermont — is the opposite of what school districts should be doing to improve education.
Sharpe took issue with that study, noting — among other things — that the NEPC was referring to “small” school districts of more than 300. He noted that many rural schools in Addison County have far fewer than 300 students.
 “We have four high schools in the eastern part of the state that had a combined graduating class of less than 70 students,” Sharpe said. “Some of our students are not getting the courses that even qualify them to go on to our state college and university system. We are not delivering to our children the kind of education we need to deliver to them, and could deliver to them, within the context of a larger school district.”
The Legislature, Sharpe noted, passed H.361, a bill that sets up a process for the consolidation of school districts as a means of saving dollars and creating economies of scale in delivering public education. He noted that Bridgewater and Pomfret recently combined their two school districts and saw a savings of $3,000 per student.
“We have an awful lot of work to do,” Sharpe said. “We’re in a situation where we are trying to balance what’s best for children and taxpayers without a heavy hand from Montpelier.”
Sharpe, a former senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, talked about the Legislature’s challenges in finding revenues. Tax revenues are tapped for two reasons, he said: To fund programs and infrastructure upgrades to benefit citizens, and to modify behavior — such as smoking and consuming unhealthy substances — that, if left unchecked, can have the effect of costing society more in health care and other services.
Local lawmakers lamented the fact that lobbyists this past session spent around $500,000 to rally constituents to ask their representatives to vote against a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened products. And Sharpe saved special criticism for large corporations participating in that lobby, corporations that he said pay wages that require their workers to lean on food stamps and health care subsidies.
Some participants at Monday’s breakfast offered their own thoughts about raising revenue — such as fining vehicles for making excessive noise and cyclists who ignore the rules of the road. Others suggested that perhaps tax-exempt civic and fraternal groups could become a source of revenue.
Deborah Ploof, master of the Bridport Grange, urged legislators to think twice before trying to tax groups like the Grange or American Legion. Those groups, she said, contribute a variety of local services, such as hosting legislative breakfasts and community meals. And many of these groups are seeing their membership dwindle, Ploof noted.
“The only reason (the Bridport Grange) does not pay property taxes is because that decision is made at the local level, and I think that’s the way it should be,” Ploof said. “It forces the people in Bridport to decide if we are serving the community, or ourselves.”

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