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Legislative Review: Chris Bray, Senate is busy; budget yet to come

Pneumonia put me out of action for the last 10 days, so I missed most of you on Town Meeting Day. I’m submitting my report to you through the Addison Independent.
In the Senate, here are some of the current bills we’ve passed and issues we’re addressing:
S.79 was passed 30-0 by the Senate. The law is an important declaration that Vermont will not allow our law enforcement officials to be enlisted in constitutionally questionable roundups of individuals. The law also prevents Vermont from assisting the federal government in creating a national registry based upon religious preferences. I am proud the Senate was unanimous on this law.
S.50 expands “telemedicine” in Vermont. Telemedicine is a tool to allow patients to interact in real time with their health care providers using technology. In a rural state like Vermont, telemedicine allows greater and easier access to health services. We also believe it can save money since patients will not need to travel, sometimes great distances, to see their health care provider.
The committee I chair, Senate Natural Resources and Energy, will continue to work on increasing the safety of Vermonters proactively against toxins of all kinds in the weeks ahead.
S.103 tackles the problem of Vermonters being unknowingly exposed to toxic substances and hazardous wastes. We propose to create an online unified registry of such substances to be shared across all branches of state government and with the public. The first step in getting ahead of these chemicals, as opposed to reacting to spills, is to know what chemicals are in our state and where they are located. This is essential information for first responders, such as fire and rescue personnel, who face the risk of exposure when responding to emergencies. It’s also essential information for all to help us reduce the use of and our exposure to potentially dangerous chemicals, such as the PFOA now contaminating nearly 300 wells in Bennington.
S.75 aims to help reduce the spread of aquatic nuisance species, such as milfoil and zebra mussels. Lake Champlain currently has over 50 such nuisance species and we want to limit their spread through programs such as boat inspections and washing at boat launches, and enhancing and supporting the control programs (such as weed harvesting) that lake associations are implementing.
STATE BUDGET Later in March, the Senate will receive the budget bill from the House. These are challenging times for budget writers in Vermont and in states all across the country. Nearly daily, either the President or Congressional leadership promotes a policy that would deal a blow to the Vermont budget. Possible dramatic reductions in federal support for health and environmental programs are two particularly troubling areas. The Senate will continue to work on a budget that meets Vermonters’ expectations, and does so as efficiently and effectively as possible.
It’s worth noting that in a nearly $6 billion budget, what the governor’s proposed budget changes amount to approximately $70 million, or just 1.2 percent of state spending. The governor and Legislature effectively start with 98.8 percent agreement. We will close the last piece together.
The governor’s budget added new spending in early and higher education, and in new housing. These areas do merit additional investment. However, to fund these initiatives, the governor’s plan would require cuts at every school district in Vermont, and would move new programs to the property tax-supported Education Fund. The Senate does not agree with this strategy, and looks forward to finding a better way to close the budget with the governor.
In closing, thank you for your role on Town Meeting Day and every day as “citizen legislators,” helping to make Vermont an even better place to work, to play, and to raise a family.
As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please get in touch; we legislators serve you better when we know what’s on your mind. You can reach me at cbray@leg.state.vt.us, or call in a message to 1-800-322-5616.

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