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Rep. Fred Baser reviews start to legislature

The governor’s budget address sets the tone for a new legislative session. Gov. Scott’s message raised a few eyebrows. So did Treasurer Beth Pearce’s proposal to fund Act 64, the Clean Water Act. A few other items that have caught peoples’ attention early on, including a $15 per hour minimum wage and legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The governor’s message can be broken down into three parts. Central to the message is concern for Vermont’s economic future given population and demographic trends. The governor stressed the need for economic growth and at the same time asked the Legislature for no new fee or tax bills. The message emphasized developing more jobs and controlling spending. Gov. Scott also expressed concern for the future of federal funding and it’s impact on Vermont’s programs. About one-third of our budget is made up of federal dollars.
Part two of the governor’s address spoke to initiatives. These initiatives included:
1.      Increase village and downtown tax credits by $200,000.
2.      Invest $1.5 million in marketing economic development.
3.      Provide a tax holiday or rebates on the purchase of energy efficient products and hybrid/electric cars.
4.      Issue a $35 million bond for workforce housing construction.
5.      Add dollars to the opiate and drug addiction battle.
6.      Fund a measure to assist National Guard members in pursuing higher education.
7.      Proposed that all non-Medicaid health plans be secured directly from health insurance carriers.
Two other initiatives paved the way for the last major point of the governor’s address, public education reform. Gov. Scott’s education initiatives were to increase funding for pre-K childcare and education by $9.6 million. He went on to state a desire to increase funding for Vermont’s institutions of higher learning by $6 million. Both of these programs were to be paid for by level funding K through 12 budgets and requiring teachers to pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums. In order to achieve these goals in the coming fiscal year, Scott asked for a delay in school budget votes until May 23.
I, and legislators from all parties, applauded the governor’s initiatives. However, these programs got lost in the ruckus that occurred over flat-lining school budgets. As of this writing the House defeated a measure to postpone budget votes until May 23 killing any action on budget leveling for this year. Despite legislative dissent on Scott’s school budget proposal, the Legislature seems more energized to come up with solutions to rising education costs, while schools enroll fewer students. There will be more to come on this subject.
Vermont’s Act 64 Clean Water report suggests a 20-year compliance cost of $2.3 billion. The money is needed to satisfy the EPA’s goals for clean water — specifically to deal with municipal wastewater problems, storm water and agriculture pollution control, and natural resource restoration. Treasurer Beth Pearce was charged with recommending funding sources to meet our Act 64 obligations. The treasurer reported the state had two years worth of money on hand, and then went on to suggest future funding might come from additional sales tax measurers and/or adding a property fee to all or a variety of Vermont’s property parcels. I feel it is important to fund the Clean Water Act. I am relieved to know we have at least a year to figure things out. It is my hope that the Agency of Natural Resources will vet the $2.3 billion estimate so we can confirm costs and have confidence in future actions.
On other matters, I am conflicted on marijuana legalization. If legalized, I am concerned about its effect on use by young people. Road safety is another concern. By the same token legalization advocates say we will stop drug trafficking, raise tax money and see no change in the pattern of utilization. Plus, neighboring states are going down the road to legalization. This is a tough one for me to figure out.
The two $15 minimum wage bills in the offering move from our current policy to $15 too quickly (three years in one, four in the other) in my estimation. This rapid a rise will cause unwelcome consequences for both employees and employers. I would consider supporting a minimum wage measure that extended the phase-in period. Even more to the point, minimum wage treats a symptom; let’s work on solutions to the problem. 

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