MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers kicked off the 2012 legislative session Tuesday seeking, among other things, to make further strides in health care reform and to craft a tight state budget that will be further stressed by road, bridge and culvert repair bills racked up because of Tropical Storm Irene.
It is a session during which lawmakers will also re-draw House and Senate district boundaries based on 2010 census numbers. An ad hoc reapportionment committee has already proposed maps that would keep Addison County’s current House districts largely intact, but swap Brandon for Charlotte on the Senate side.
Addison County lawmakers are positioned this year to play significant roles on key issues. Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, is leading the Senate Health and Welfare Committee while Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, is chairman of the House Health Care Committee. As such, the two will help set the agenda for Vermont’s anticipated transition to a single-payer health care system.
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Joint Fiscal Committee. He will, in those capacities, have a say in tax policy when it comes to balancing the budget and finding revenues to pay for Irene-related damage. Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, will also be at the forefront of the Irene repairs debate as a member of the House Transportation Committee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, continues as House majority whip, a role in which he will help set the House’s legislative agenda.
“It will be an exciting challenge,” Jewett said of the General Assembly’s full 2012 agenda. “We are going to be busy.”
Most lawmakers acknowledged that post-Irene recovery will be the dominant issue at the outset of the session.
Vermont Emergency Management officials announced that as of last week, federal authorities had provided more than $72 million in aid to Vermonters who were affected by last spring’s floods and Tropical Storm Irene in August. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that figure includes $23.1 million in aid to individuals and families, $31.2 million in U.S. Small Business Administration low-interest disaster loans, and another $18 million in aid to the state, towns and other entities for infrastructure repair. Currently, FEMA estimates that there will be nearly 4,300 projects with a total cost of more than $168 million eligible to receive public assistance funding.
But lawmakers realize the state will need to pick up part of the total Irene-related tab. With that in mind, the Legislature will need to find resources in a fiscal year 2013 budget that is already facing a $75 million revenue shortfall. It will also mean reprioritizing longstanding project lists that had been queued up for funding.
“We will revisit construction projects,” said Sen. Harold Giard, a Bridport Democrat and member of the Senate Institutions Committee.
Giard on Wednesday was scheduled to tour the state office complex in Waterbury that was washed out by Irene flooding, displacing hundreds of government workers. The Legislature will need to determine how to salvage or replace those offices, along with the Vermont State Hospital, also in Waterbury. Gov. Peter Shumlin has proposed replacing the state hospital with a regional system that would include a new 15-bed mental health hospital in Berlin and expansion of existing facilities in Brattleboro and Rutland.
When it comes to replacing state offices, Giard said officials should think outside of the box. With scarcer resources and better technology, Giard believes state workers could increasingly work out of their homes, thereby saving construction dollars.
“Are we going to go back to doing offices with bricks and mortar, or are we going to go with the digital world?” Giard asked.
Ayer, whose Senate Health and Human Services Committee will play a role in the future of the state hospital, is also willing to look for innovative solutions.
“This is an opportunity as well as a challenge,” Ayer said of post-Irene planning. “We are taking a look at how we deliver care. A lot of times, the way we do things now isn’t what we’d do if we sat down and mapped it out.”
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, called “natural disaster recovery” the number-one issue lawmakers will deal with this year.
“We will be talking about the impact of this disaster for years to come,” Smith said. “It’s affecting everybody’s lives.”
Smith added the Legislature should resist increasing taxes as an Irene-recovery mechanism and instead look at increasing opportunities for business growth that would in turn boost the state’s tax base.
“If we create some wealth in the state it will improve our recovery efforts,” Smith said.
The aftermath of Irene, according to Smith, has provided proof of what can be accomplished under a streamlined permitting process.
“We know firsthand that around 500 miles of roads were repaired, and most of that work was done 30 days after the storm,” Smith said. “A lot of that was because they eased the restrictions on the permitting process.”
He cited the quick rebuilding of Bristol’s twin bridges after the 1998 flood and two-year construction of a new Champlain Bridge after the former span’s emergency closure in 2009 as examples of projects speedily completed following emergencies. At same time, other projects have been lingering so long on the state’s to-do list that they have had to be re-permitted, according to Smith.
“We are wasting an incredible amount of time going through re-permitting,” Smith said.
HEALTH CARE REFORM
The General Assembly is expected to spend some considerable time on health care reform.
Ayer, Fisher and their respective committees this session will help map out a “Health Benefits Exchange” as part of Vermont’s health care reform law. The exchange, also required by federal law, will include a clearinghouse of information offering Vermonters the means of comparing information on available health benefit plans — including private insurance and state-sponsored plans such as Medicaid and Dr. Dynasaur — to enroll in plans, and to receive tax credits or public assistance, if eligible.
According to the Department of Vermont Health Access, the exchange will also approve “qualified health plans” to be offered in the state, rate those plans based on quality, maintain a website and toll-free phone number, provide an online calculator for consumers to determine the amount of their tax credit, require insurance plans to justify rate increases, and contract for “navigators” to provide public education and help people enroll. The exchange will also offer small businesses the opportunity to assist their employees in enrolling in health plans offered on the exchange. Exchanges must be up and running by Jan. 1, 2014.
“We have to define the market and educate Vermonters on what all of this means,” said Fisher. “The rules have changed significantly since the passage of health care reform.”
State finances — or the lack thereof — will have an impact on many issues to be debated in the Statehouse, and the House Ways and Means Committee will be consulted frequently for possible revenue streams.
“It’s going to be very tough,” Sharpe said. “It’s not likely for the Legislature or the governor to look at tax increases in an election year, but I think the pressures are going to be tremendous on the state treasury. We are going to have to find a way to balance that and I don’t see a clear path to that yet.”
Sharpe noted Shumlin recently agreed to earmark $6.1 million in state funds to backfill a reduction in the federal Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that helps qualifying residents purchase heating fuel.
“I await the governor’s budget to see where he’s going to get that $6.1 million from,” Sharpe said.
Permit reform, environmental protection and increased government efficiency are topics lawmakers are likely to deal with this year, according to Sharpe.
While the Legislature will spend a lot of time trying to solve current problems, it will also seek to lay a foundation for future economic prosperity, according to Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury. Ralston is a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee.
“My focus will be to keep the economic development agenda on the forefront,” said Ralston, founder and president of Vermont Coffee Company. “I think that will be more difficult this year because of the flood, but I will work hard to protect at least minimal funding that exists in our state for economic development and make sure that in these tough fiscal times we continue to invest at least something in our economic future.”
Like many of his colleagues, Ralston believes the aftermath of Irene gives the state an opportunity to look at delivering government services differently.
“I feel this very strong sense of urgency about moving Vermont’s economy into the ‘new economy,’ moving away from our difficult times and investing in the opportunities that are there for the future,” he said.
The state, Ralston said, must look at different ways of attracting new employers and rewarding existing businesses that create new jobs and tax revenues. He applauded his hometown of Middlebury for considering (at its upcoming town meeting) an economic development director position and said towns that take such initiative should get more consideration when it comes to state grants.
Ralston said his committee will also work on unemployment and Workers’ Compensation Insurance. Specifically, he said the Legislature must come up with a definition of “independent contractors and how they are treated for tax and insurance purposes. We have to get to a common definition across different agencies, different programs and different laws so that employers are clear about what their obligations are.”
Other 2012 legislative priorities cited by lawmakers include:
• A “Death with Dignity” bill that would give qualifying, terminally ill patients the right to end their own lives.
• Further expanding broadband Internet access and cell phone coverage in the state.
• Upgrading the state’s electricity transmission line system.
• Finding a way to crack down on the abuse of regulated drugs.
• Defending the state against a lawsuit filed by two advocacy groups alleging that Vermont has failed to improve its backlog of unassigned cases related to adults and children that have been placed in Vermont Protective Services.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]