Lawmakers ready for tough choices as Legislature convenes

ADDISON COUNTY — As the Vermont Legislature returned to session this week, lawmakers agreed that a handful of issues will likely dominate the 2016 legislative session, including:
•  Resolving an estimated $58 million shortfall for the fiscal year 2017 budget,
•  Reconciling the shortage of Medicaid funds to pay for the state’s expanded health insurance programs, and
•  Continuing the ongoing implementation of Lake Champlain cleanup measures.
The Independent reached out to both of the county’s senators to get a sense of looming priorities in the state’s highest chamber. On the House side, Speaker Shap Smith and Appropriations Committee member Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, were polled on their expectations for the coming session.
As usual, much of the Legislature’s agenda will hinge on funds, which, as usual, are inadequate to fulfill the wish lists of individual lawmakers. That means that successful initiatives will be the ones that garner a lot of political support and don’t present a big drain on the state’s coffers.
Chris Bray
Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, is beginning his second year as chairman of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. It is a panel that spent a lot of time in the limelight last year for its work on a Lake Champlain cleanup plan and its study of rules to give communities a greater say in the siting of solar arrays.
Bray said he expects another busy session. His priorities include work on renewable energy planning, promoting pay equity in the workplace, continued work on water quality, earning support for a program through which Vermonters could invest in their state through the purchase of “Freedom and Unity” bonds, public education reform, more work on solar siting, and the creation of an ethics panel to help deal with cases such as that of Sen. Norm McAllister, whose status in the Senate this week was being debated as he awaits trial on sex crime charges.
“The critical challenge for this century is moving from an economy powered by fossil fuels, to one in which we power our homes, our businesses and transportation with clean, renewable energy,” Bray said. “That, for me, is the large frame of reference to keep in mind.”
Bray acknowledged the road to renewable energy will come with some bumps, which are already surfacing in areas in which large wind turbines and solar arrays are drawing criticism for their visual impacts. Here in Addison County, New Haven has become a hub for the development of solar arrays, and local officials and neighbors are concerned about it and the power the Vermont Public Service Board has in deciding such applications. Bray’s committee drafted a bill (now a law) last session that gives communities automatic party status in solar array applications. It also establishes minimum setback requirements for solar arrays and allows the host communities to stipulate landscaping for such development.
But Bray realizes the state should do more on solar siting. A legislative solar siting task force studied the issue this past summer and will offer some recommendations to lawmakers. Those recommendations include creating a new position within the Public Service Board to assist neighbors, developers and the public on solar siting requirements, and an option for Vermonters to pay a little extra on their utility bills to allow for an increasing number of solar arrays to be located in more remote areas. Bray explained that developers currently prefers spots close to roads and three-phase power, in order to reduce costs.
“This would bring the projects closer to naturally screened sites,” Bray said.
He also believes that engineers must play an increasing role in solar siting.
“We will make the grid more robust, more reliable and the move to renewables will be cheaper, if we have engineers to help guide us on saying where we could support and use more renewable energy, while avoiding areas of the grid where there is too much congestion,” he said.
Bray is also watching with interest the development of the Addison Natural Gas Project, involving a controversial natural gas pipeline extension from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes. He was candid in his criticism of the project.
“It’s a failure of colossal proportions that Vermonters are being asked to invest $150 million to trade one fracked fossil fuel for another fracked fossil fuel,” Bray said.
He also critiqued some supporters’ suggestion that the pipeline would serve as a “bridge” to a cleaner burning fuel.
“It seems like more of a parking lot than a bridge,” Bray said. “If you put that much money into something, you’re probably committing yourself and connecting yourself to it for a long time.”
Bray said he does not see any recourse, through the Legislature, to change the project. That’s because it is a utility venture governed by the Public Service Board, which is a quasi-judicial panel.
On the matter of pay equity, Bray called it a “fairness issue.” He called it “stunning” that women, in many cases, are paid less than men doing comparable work. In Vermont, women are making an average of 84 cents for every dollar men are making while performing the same job, according to Bray, who is a lead sponsor on a bill to close that gap.
Pay equity, according to Bray, would “create the largest increase in prosperity in our state that anyone could imagine. It is a huge opportunity, in terms of economic development and stepping up to create a fairer society.”
Claire Ayer
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is chairwoman of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee, which will play a major role in ongoing health care reforms. She is also the Senate majority whip and a member of the Senate Finance Committee.
“School spending, school funding, school taxes and education in general,” Ayer said, in response to what she believed would garner a lot of attention this session. “We took some big steps that had some consequences we didn’t anticipate, so we are going to revisit that, I’m sure.”
Those “big steps” are related to Act 46, a new law that encourages supervisory unions to consolidate school districts under a single budget overseen by a single board. Advocates believe this will result in greater efficiencies and more sharing of resources among schools, which continue to experience declining enrollment. But Act 46 also includes some strict guidelines on per-pupil spending during a two-year transition to school governance consolidation. Some school officials have said the allowable increases — which differ by school — won’t even cover increases in health care premiums. So most lawmakers agree that the per-pupil spending thresholds contained in Act 46 will either be adjusted or lifted.
“Health care went up 7 percent this year; there’s no way to allow for that,” Ayer said of the current law. “We also have a couple of mandates coming in at the same time, like universal pre-K.”
Addison County’s senior senator also mentioned water quality improvements as a top issue. The improvements, part of a federal mandate, require a lot of action from state government, municipalities with wastewater treatment plants, and farms that use manure and other fertilizers.
“We passed a pretty comprehensive bill (last session), but it is woefully under-funded,” Ayer said. “There are going to be some changes for some farm practices. Making sure those things happen, and funding them, I think is going to be a big deal.”
Ayer does not want to relax any provisions in the water quality law.
“(The provisions) are already way late in the game; the damage is done,” she said. “There may be some more creative ways in how we sequence them or where the funding comes from … I don’t think there is much appetite for raising taxes.”
Like Bray, Ayer believes the Legislature will give more attention to rules governing the siting of renewable energy projects.
As the leader of Senate Health & Welfare, she vowed to work hard toward ensuring that all Vermonters have access to health care.  And she noted that more will need to be done to attract nurses and other health care professionals to the Vermont State Hospital, which remains understaffed.
Another one of Ayer’s priorities will be to help safeguard children who are in abusive situations. And Ayer noted that substance abuse by adults continues to be a major catalyst for cases of abuse.
“We need to target prevention efforts,” Ayer said.
The Senate is likely to field a bill calling for the legalization of marijuana, said Ayer, whose committee will take a look at the initiative from a public health perspective.
“I hope that doesn’t take too much time, I hope we can just … make a decision,” she said of the proposal.
“I am not keen on the idea of any kind of mind altering substance,” she said of her personal opinion on legalization. “But what we’re doing now doesn’t work. It’s easier for kids to get illegal drugs than alcohol.”
Diane Lanpher
Meanwhile, Lanpher and her fellow Appropriations Committee members will be among the arbiters for the many financial requests for state dollars. She said the state has done a good job recently in weathering a tough recession.
“Last year, I think we did some yeoman’s work in getting the budget on a more permanent path,” Lanpher said. “This year, but for the Medicaid (shortfall), I thought we would be fine … The tough nut financially right now is the question of how do we fund, or cut, Medicaid.”
That said, lawmakers will have to review a number of budget scenarios to match Medicaid program resources with the state’s ambitious health insurance priorities, according to Lanpher. She expects to see a menu of cuts, alternative revenue sources and other proposals to help resolve the Medicaid budget shortfall.
“The Affordable Care Act had an impact on Medicaid,” Lanpher said. “We have covered more people; that’s been our goal.”
And covering more people has in turn strained the budget.
Lanpher noted the state is under a federal mandate to cover expensive medications for patients suffering from such ailments as cystic fibrosis and hepatitis C. She said the state should challenge the drug companies about the cost of such medications — especially when comparable drugs can be purchased for less money in other countries.
“We can’t just throw our hands up in the air and give up,” Lanpher said.
Lanpher believes the cleanup of Lake Champlain will continue to be a major issue in 2016, and like Ayer is concerned that there is not adequate funding to meet all of the objectives in the cleanup plan.
“If you have a $10 program and you’re throwing $1 at it, don’t be surprised if the problem doesn’t get fixed,” she said.
Lanpher believes the creation of more biomass plants could help solve the lake cleanup problem. These plants take manure and convert it into energy, while producing a byproduct that is less pungent and less harmful to the state’s waterways, she said.
Shap Smith
Shap Smith, a Democrat representing Morrisville, said in a phone interview with the Addison Independent that    the House will have plenty of tough financial decisions to make this year — beginning with the fiscal year 2017 general fund budget.
“We have to address the budget, and in addressing the budget, we want to make sure we keep our commitment to health care for Vermonters,” said Smith, who will be taking leave from state politics at the end of this year in order to support his spouse, who is battling cancer.
“I’ve talked with the administration and the Joint Fiscal Office and I think we’ll be able to get pretty close (to resolving the $58 million deficit) without too much difficulty, but the last $15 million or so will be tough.”
Smith said lawmakers will need to take great pains to ensure that cuts don’t unduly affect the state most vulnerable citizens.
“That means making sure that we don’t restrict who can get Medicaid; we don’t want to put them in a place where they can no longer afford health care,” Smith said.
But since much of the state revenue shortfall is associated with the Medicaid program, Smith said the Legislature will likely look at specific coverage areas in order to maximize savings.
“We have to make sure while we are providing (Medicaid) coverage for Vermonters, we are also being sensible in the provision of those health care services, so we have to understand that people on Medicaid are getting essentially the same services as people on private insurance — but also making sure our utilization rates aren’t any higher than what’s happening in the private marketplace.”
Smith said lawmakers will also be asked to support children at risk and the Department for Children & Families officials that work with such juveniles. And the state cannot neglect its infrastructure, he said.
“We want to make sure we are doing what we can to protect children, as well as the people who are doing the work to protect children,” Smith said. “And we want to make investments in Vermont that are going to make the economy stronger, and that means continuing our investments in infrastructure — like roads and bridges — and also making sure that we are continuing to make investments in workforce development and things like that.”
The Independent also asked Smith about the status of some other hot-button legislative agenda items that have generated headlines during the past year.
Among them is a proposed carbon tax on fossil fuels. Smith predicted such a measure won’t pass this year, nor perhaps even see debate.
He noted there is, in the Senate, a bill mandating that employers provide paid sick leave. He believes there is a good chance the bill will pass both chambers.
“The indication I have gotten from the Senate is that they will pick up (the sick leave bill) this year,” Smith said. “I think it is a well-designed bill that also took into account many of the concerns of small businesses.”
And the speaker is not sure whether the General Assembly will green-light the legalization of marijuana.
“It’s a complicated issue,” Smith said. “I could see it going all the way through this year, but as I have said previously, it doesn’t feel like it’s ready. But we’ll see.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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