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Legislative Review: Session about to hit its stride

The current legislative session has gotten off to a sluggish start. We have a new governor, a new lieutenant governor and a new speaker of the House of Representatives. Each of these positions has a great amount of control over what happens in the Statehouse. We are all getting used to the new dynamic.
Early in the session, Gov. Scott delivered his budget address. In that address the governor challenged legislators to control spending without imposing new taxes. He also proposed new education funding measures:
•  level fund education spending,
•  transfer the teachers retirement package (pension and health care) from the general fund to the education fund,
•  and he proposed teachers pay 20 percent of their health insurance premiums.
Savings from these initiatives would go to additional funding for pre-K programs and more money for our state colleges. These recommendations were not well received.
All school districts are different. For example, asking a district with below-average per pupil costs to level fund just like a district that has a high per pupil cost seems unfair. The transfer of retirement funding from the General Fund to the Education Fund was viewed by some as fancy bookkeeping. Others felt it should be treated as an Educational Fund cost just like teachers’ salaries and employment benefits. Unfortunately, Gov. Scott delivered these ideas too close to this year’s town meetings and school boards had already shaped budgets. Since level funded budgets were not in the cards, transferring the retirement package to the education fund means higher property taxes, and no one wants to go there. Teachers paying 20 percent of their health premium is possible as all school districts are in contract negotiations as we speak.
State Treasurer Beth Pearce has estimated the 20-year cost of complying with the Clean Water Act at $2.3 billion. She and lawmakers have come up with multiple ways to pay this bill. There is also a debate as to whether all taxpayers should cover all or some of these costs or should the burden fall on the cities, towns, farms, businesses, and other property owners implicated in the clean up. This is a big deal and a big bill. Thanks to existing money we have a two-year head start on funding. I believe it is important to meet the Clean Water requirements. Let’s use the time we have to figure our spending priorities and who pays how much.
There is tri-partisan support to create a pathway for construction of workforce housing. Workforce housing is apartments and owner occupied homes for households making up to 120 percent of the median income. A measure I put forward, H.163, has workforce-housing construction occurring in neighborhoods and downtown development zones. This qualifies the building as “priority housing,” which gives projects a speed-pass on permitting and has a requirement for high-density construction, thus controlling two cost factors. The bill also addresses infrastructure costs by offering two alternative funding mechanisms. Affordable and workforce housing is an important issue if we want to grow the Vermont economy.
Other matters of importance that have or will appear on the floor, and move forward, include the governor’s response to the suggested immigration sweep by the Trump administration; a set of ethics rules by which lawmakers must abide; the lifting of the statute of limitations on sexual offences; more open reporting and information availability to those who have been abused; and an extension of the Public Service Board’s authority on cell and communication towers.
So, while we have only acted on a few bills so far this year, there are over 600 bills posted on the walls of House and Senate Committee rooms. The second half of this legislative session promises to be very busy.
Contact Rep. Baser at fbaser@leg.state.vt.

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