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Legislative Review: Baser, House unites in vote for state budget

No new fees or taxes, a 1 percent budget increase and an unprecedented vote on the floor of the House that supported these measures, a first in quite some time in Montpelier. Why was there such unanimity among House members? To begin with our governor, Phil Scott, ran a campaign vowing no tax increase and a responsible budget. His win in November said Vermonters agreed with him. The governor’s message to the Legislature that he’d veto irresponsible budget and tax actions was also respected. Finally, there is considerable uncertainty in Montpelier about the federal government’s potential actions that could reduce state aid and, as a result, wreak havoc on the state budget. Caution was exercised. Will the Vermont Senate follow the House’s lead? Time will tell.
Also news was the last minute about-face on marijuana legislation. Voted out of the House Judicial Committee 8 for and 3 against, the legislation to legalize one ounce of marijuana and growing two mature plants seemed posed for passage on the House floor. A last hour straw poll of the body revealed to proponents that passage was not assured. As a result, the bill was referred to the Human Services Committee for “further review.” This step, while not used often by leadership, assures that the measure can be reintroduced to the assembly later this session or next year. If the bill had been turned down on the floor, legalization would likely be set back for another two years.
An important measure that needs to be addressed in Montpelier over the next 12 months is funding the Clean Water Act. Act 64, established last legislative session, acknowledges the impairment of many of Vermont’s waterways and establishes actions to improve the quality of state waters and prevent further degradation. Our state treasurer, Beth Pearce, was charged with providing a Clean Water report, a requirement of the Act, with the focus on estimating the cost of implementation of Act 64, as well as recommending possible funding sources to pay for the Act’s agenda.
Using estimates from the agencies of Agriculture, Transportation and Natural Resources, and vetting those estimates with various stakeholders, the Treasurer reported we need $2.3 billion over a 20-year period to fund Act 64. The report acknowledged existing funds dedicated to the Clean Water Act, and upon subtracting those known dollars, estimated at $1.06 billion, arrived at a funding gap of $1.3 billion, the money we need to raise to get the jobs done. This equates to an annual gap in funding of approximately $62.4 million for 20 years. This is a big number for Vermont.
Over the next year, two major decisions will need to be made in Montpelier. (1) How much of the $62.4 million do we raise in taxes, fees, etc. and (2) how do we raise these dollars? The Treasurer’s report included 64 possible funding options, as suggested by the study’s participants. A few of the most interesting were a tax on limousine services, a tax on general auto repair, taxing your haircut or beauty treatment, and taxing coffee. The Treasurer chose to recommend funding sources that were a version of existing levies, and those that were predicable in the revenue they generated. Three major sources were identified: continue using a portion of the Property Transfer Tax, assess a per parcel or per-acre property fee and, make use of an impervious surface parcel fee recognizing storm water issues those parcels often generate. The Treasurer’s report also suggested a shared responsibility for the $62.4 million cost of the programs. In other words the state, you and me, fund a large portion of the Act and stakeholders, cities, municipalities, farms, businesses, fund some balance of the actions that impact them directly. How much, or if sharing will go on, is yet to be determined. Fortunately, we have a little time to make decisions, as the Treasurer found funding for the first two years of the 20-year program. We expect a recommendation from the governor within the next nine or 10 months.
 Act 64 deserves priority from all of us in Montpelier. Our waterways are a precious resource. As long as we approach the questions at hand fairly, I am confident the Legislature and our governor will reach consensus on a plan of action in a timely fashion.

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