Lawmakers anxious about federal funding as education, lake cleanup hang in the balance

SHOREHAM — Concern over continued federal funding for the state’s education, health care and Lake Champlain cleanup programs dominated discussion at Monday’s legislative breakfast in Shoreham.
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, called these the “three serious areas of concern” for the 2017 legislative session. All three programs, according to Sharpe, are largely dependent on federal support — which is in flux under the presidency of Donald Trump.
GOP lawmakers and the Trump administration are still tweaking a “Trump Care” proposal that could result in 24 million Americans losing their health insurance, according to a review of the proposal released this week by the Congressional Budget Office.
Meanwhile, the Legislature is considering two bills — H.248 and S.53 — that propose to establish a system of universal, publicly funded primary care in Vermont by 2019. This coverage would cover patients’ visits to their primary care physicians.
“If we could find a way for every Vermonter to see a doctor or an appropriate practitioner early on in any disease or health care issue, it promises to save a lot of money down the road, in terms of emergency room visits, chronic care — particularly around things like diabetes, where the long-term costs are a whole lot more expensive than doing some preventative work,” said Sharpe, who is a sponsor of H.248.
While he believes H.248 “holds some promise,” Sharpe conceded he’s not sure if the bill will advance beyond the House Health Care Committee this year, given the state’s tight finances and the “no new taxes” mantra invoked by many lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration.
Shoreham resident Barbara Wilson is among those who support H.248 and S.53. She believes universal primary care would lower health care premiums, reduce the need for expensive hospitalizations, and encourage people to visit their physicians before a minor ailment becomes significant and potentially debilitating.
“I’m really excited about it, because is costs about 5 percent or 6 percent of the total costs of health care in Vermont, so it’s really something we could do,” she said.
“I’d hate to see people not be able to go to the doctor because they don’t have health (insurance), or have to go to the emergency room, which drives up the cost for all of us,” she added.
Sharpe said Trump is recommending changes within the Environmental Protection Agency that could affect the federal subsidies Vermont is hoping to secure for the Lake Champlain cleanup. Farmers are already grappling with expenses related to new rules designed to prevent manure and phosphorous runoff into the lake and its tributaries. Farmers have been told to carefully segregate manure storage areas and, in some cases, relocate barns and other farm structures, according to Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven. Smith was recently told he would have to build a new barn at a cost of more than $60,000, he said. Smith currently runs a small livestock operation.
“Every farmer in the state is going to be looking at their particular farm situation,” Smith said. “It’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be a lot of changes to the face of agriculture, especially for those smaller producers that don’t have the resources to invest in these kinds of structures.”
Smith is a senior member of the House Agriculture and Forests Committee.
Lake cleanup, Smith noted, is being mandated by the federal authorities regardless of the amount of assistance available from Washington.
“The agriculture community is nervous right now about where the funds are going to come from,” Smith said. “There’s going to be a lot of costs trickling down in a lot of different ways.”
Such costs, Smith said, could force some tough decisions among farmers on whether they should expand, shrink or even close their operations.
But Smith praised area farmers for doing “an incredible job” thus far in complying with the new lake cleanup rules.
“We have some real challenges, but farmers are committed to making it work,” Smith said.
On the subject of education, Sharpe, chairman of the House Education Committee, believes there could be some big changes in the way the feds operate the so-called “Title” funds (of which there are 9) for public schools.
“We hear rumors that (the Title funds) will be turned into a block grant and cut by 10 percent the first year, with more reductions going forward as the federal government reduces its responsibilities to the states,” Sharpe said.
Discussion on Monday also touched upon a renewed effort this session to get Vermont on a path to legalizing marijuana. Bill H.170 would — among other things — remove civil penalties for adults found to be in possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and take away the criminal penalties (currently up to two years in jail) for growing two mature marijuana plants.
Middlebury attorney Dave Silberman has emerged as a statewide leader in Vermont’s ongoing marijuana legalization effort. He said passing H.170 would be an important step toward green lighting a substance he said was made illegal during the post-prohibition period of the 1930s, in a move he believes was steeped in “racial animus.”
“We’ve seen throughout the years that marijuana prohibition continues to be enforced with racial bias,” he said, pointing to a Vermont ACLU study showing that “black Vermonters were four-and-a-half times as likely as white Vermonters inbeing arrested for marijuana possession, even though blacks and whites use marijuana at identical rates.”
The House Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote on H.170 on Wednesday, March 15, meaning the legislation could be considered by the full House as soon as next week.
Local lawmakers said they will carefully consider their votes.
“The war on marijuana has failed,” Smith said — though he is not sure if legalization is the way to go. Smith pointed to testimony from medical officials indicating that pot use could affect brain development among youths, and enforcement concerns raised by police agencies.
“I’m going to be struggling with the bill,” Smith said.
Rep. Terry Norris, I-Shoreham, said his emails have been evenly split on the subject of marijuana legislation.
“I’m on the fence about it,” Norris said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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