Editorial: 2016 session: Balance of work is up to voters to determine

If pundits and critics are lamenting a dearth of “big initiatives” this session, perhaps that’s OK — new initiatives, after all, usually cost money; and part of the goal this year was to limit spending to a sustainable level.
Was that achieved? Democrats say yes, Republicans say no. While reasonable people can agree to disagree on such subjective definitions, it’s a political year and voters will help decide whether the spending rate is too high, about right, or still not enough to keep pace with state needs. The tug-of-war between the House and Senate in this session illustrates some of those issues and the challenges the Legislature and administration face.
On the plus side of the ledger this session:
• The Legislature took quick action in early January to amend Act 46 in important ways by delaying implementation of spending caps and modifying consequences if schools exceed those caps, and/or creating exemptions for schools under other circumstances. They jumped on the issue early and had a fix in time for schools to set budgets for Town Meeting. It was work well done. Act 46 also proved to be far more successful than expected. Communities in 40 school districts have streamlined their operations into nine unified districts, while districts in another 33 supervisory unions have formed 29 formal merger study committees, according to the Agency of Education. Fourteen unification plans were approved in the first year, far more than the five that were predicted.
• The Legislature also approved $700,000 for the state college system — the first increase since 2008 — and eliminated the 40 percent rule for the University of Vermont, which will free the university of a ruling that had limited its ability to raise revenues. Both were milestones, though $700,000 more for the state college system is still inadequate.
• One of the most heralded laws passed this year was a sick leave bill, which requires businesses to provide sick leave to anyone working at least 18 hours per week. Employers must provide 24 hours of leave for 12 months of employment, and increase that to 40 hours of sick leave per year beginning Jan. 1, 2019. While many businesses already provide the benefit, it’s expected to benefit about 60,000 workers. Small businesses of under 5 employees will be granted an extra year to comply, but afterward all businesses will be subject to the new requirement. That’s significant.
• Another accomplishment was passage of the solar siting law, spearheaded by Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven. The bill was controversial throughout the session with the solar energy industry arguing it went too far and municipal governments arguing that the provisions still did not give towns enough power to stop developments in unwanted locations. The legislation strove to forge a compromise between those two positions.
• This Legislature also passed provisions to address the state’s drug problems, including providing for 35 more employees to work with the Vermont Department for Children and Families and adopting rules to limit the amount of opioids prescribed for pain — steps in the right direction.
• In less controversial measures, the Legislature passed a “motor-voter” bill that automatically registers eligible voters when they sign up for their driver’s license; and passed a “Ban the Box” bill that removes questions about criminal records as the first part of job applications for state employment. There were also several important bills passed in the judiciary committee, one that eliminated old citations (pre-1990) and provided for a three-month amnesty later this year where Vermonters can pay off old traffic fines at a reduced rate. (See story, Page 1A.) Other bills were passed that aided the manufacturing and agricultural scene, such as clarifying which agricultural products were exempt from taxes, the creation of a “pollinator protection committee,” and placing restrictions on the conditions that equipment manufacturers place on warranty contracts with dealers — a measure that largely protects farmers from having to pay an unreasonable share of expenses when machinery malfunctions. Go tell farmers that’s not important work.
On the down side of the ledger:
• The Legislature did not pass a bill legalizing marijuana or advance that agenda. The caveat, of course, is that most members of the House were opposed. While the Senate passed a proposal, and the governor was supportive, the House rejected that proposal, and others, by a wide margin. So be it. Like a bad penny, legalization won’t go away.
• Finally, there’s the question of the state budget. Democrats made much ado of the fact that they held total state spending to an increase of 2.4 percent, which should be well below expected growth. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, said she believed “we’ve got the budget on the right track.”
Not all agreed. Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, did a little cherry-picking of the numbers when he cited an increase of 4.8 percent spending in the General Fund budget, while excluding the education, transportation and other special expenses. Still, such spending in the General Fund was too much, he said. “The trend is totally unsustainable.” Different numbers, different perspectives, different impacts. Voters will have to decide.
Critics can look at that ledger of action and call it meager, but voters will have their own metrics for success or failure. In parsing those metrics, here’s something to consider: the issues the state faces today are far from simple. It’s not the late 1980s, when jobs were more plentiful, or the 1990s when the nation’s economy was booming, or the 1950s when life was a lot simpler (harder, maybe, but more straightforward.) That’s no longer the case. The global economy has taken its toll and answers are hard to come by. At the same time, the demand for higher education has been amplified; a high school diploma is no longer enough. We have to do better and that requires change. We have a critical drug crisis we didn’t have a generation ago, and spiraling health care costs that affect the entire country. Our demographics are changing, trending to an older population while those under 45-years-old decline. That, too, requires action. We have new demands on digital infrastructure, which if we don’t meet guarantees continual economic decline.
Where, then, do you draw the line on spending? Do we cut Pre-K spending, even though we know it is the best means of giving our young people a better education? Can we afford to do nothing on health care, even though we know the status quo is not sustainable? Do we turn our backs on alternative energy, even though it’s helping to save our planet and creating jobs? We have increasing poverty, homelessness and hunger. What is our response? Before you buy into easy answers (two-year budgeting and 90-day sessions, for example), learn first what challenges the state faces.
Angelo S. Lynn

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