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Legislative Review: Fred Baser, More to session than pot and health insurance

One’s impression of the legislative sessions is often framed by headline year-end actions. This year it’s the legalization of marijuana and the teacher’s health insurance savings that have stolen the show. There are other initiatives that the Legislature acted on that are likely to have greater meaning for more Vermonters. Here are a few of those developments.
We passed an affordable housing bill that approved a $35 million bond to be used to build new affordable housing units and restore existing structures. The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) will administer the program. Thanks to this bond, VHCB expects to access an additional $20 million to $30 million from the Feds that will expand the program. The anticipated economic development from this effort is expected to exceed $100 million.
The Legislature gave authorization to the state treasurer to establish a statewide 401k style retirement plan for Vermonters that do not have access to a plan at work. People are terribly unprepared for retirement. The goal here is to give Vermonters a great tool for retirement planning as well as a financial instrument to use for savings.
Tax Incremental Financing (TIF), an economic development tool used by communities, was rejuvenated this session. TIFs are used to finance infrastructure needs within Vermont communities. How do they work? Well, TIFs use the growth in property taxes gained from new valuations, which are created by development projects made possible with the infrastructure improvements. TIFs are used for downtown revitalization and developing mixed-use housing. Communities like Burlington, Newport and St. Albans have used them to great effect in the past.
Connecting patients with doctors should become easier with the expanded use of telemedicine as permitted under new legislation. One particularly beneficial feature is expanded reimbursement by insurances for telemedicine. This is especially true in the mental health arena. Mental health also received a shot in the arm with legislation that increased funding for workers in designated health care agencies. This will help reduce employee turnover at mental health agencies and improve mental health care.
A bill to assist sexual assault survivors was passed. This will give victims of sexual assault more information on their legal rights, something that often does not happen today.
All employers will benefit from a lowering of the workers’ compensation rates they are required to pay.
Also of note is the creation of a State Ethics Commission that creates standards for governmental conduct. The creation of the Ethics Commission pleases me very much, as Vermont was one of the few states that did not have an ethics code of conduct for elected officials. Given the public’s lack of confidence in the way government is conducted, this step starts us on a road of greater accountability for our actions.
Finally, a word on taxes and the state budget. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee I was in the middle of conversations concerning financing state government. I am pleased to report there are no increases in taxes or fees for 2018. This is due in large part to the Appropriation Committee’s good work on the budget, which was kept within the state’s anticipated income for the coming year.
Issues to look forward to for next year include a paid family leave bill, which passed the House this year and will be brought up in the Senate next January. Increasing the minimum wage will also be debated next year, as will ways to reduce property taxes through education funding changes. Finally is dealing with the challenge we will have to come up with about $30 million annually, for the next 18 years, to fund the Clean Water initiative.
For any questions or comments, contact me at [email protected]

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