MONTPELIER — Addison County lawmakers generally gave good marks to a now-concluded 2013 legislative session that produced a General Fund budget of almost $1.4 billion that did not require the raising of new broad-based tax money, but did produce higher fees at the pump to leverage additional federal aid to repair the state’s roads, bridges and culverts.
With little money available for new programs, lawmakers instead invested in several social initiatives, including making driver’s permits available to migrant workers; decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of marijuana; and allowing terminally ill patients the right to request a lethal dose of medication.
And, without grabbing many headlines, legislators laid a foundation for Vermont’s federally mandated health care exchange, passed a bill to fight opiate-related addiction and crime, and endorsed a new search and rescue policy for lost/missing hikers — an effort launched after the tragic death of New Haven teen Levi Duclos on a Ripton trail in January of 2012.
“I think we achieved quite a bit,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, the House majority leader.
“If you looked at (senate Democrats’) agenda from the beginning of the year, most of it was accomplished,” said Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, the Senate’s assistant majority leader. “We had to work for what we got, and we worked with our colleagues.”
Jewett said the House Democrat leadership didn’t define a broad agenda at the outset of the session, but instead monitored priorities that took shape in the various committees.
Democrats continued to hold a substantial numerical advantage in both the House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office. But the Democrat majority found itself sparring frequently with Gov. Peter Shumlin, particularly on tax policy. The House Ways and Means Committee in March pitched a plan to raise an additional $27 million in revenues to make up for expected state and federal budget shortfalls. That plan included more income tax revenue from the state’s highest earners, as well as a bump in the cigarette tax and lifting the sales tax exemption for soft drinks, candy, bottled water, dietary supplements and clothing worth more than $110.
But the governor strongly objected to House-led efforts to raise new broad-based taxes, though he himself proposed around $33 million from other revenue sources — such as a surcharge on break-open tickets and diverting money from a tax credit program — to fund his own priorities.
In the end, neither the governor nor the House got its way on taxes and fees — and that’s in part due to better-than-anticipated performance in state revenues for April. So the legislative and executive branches were able to agree on simply cutting the General Fund proposal by $10 million. The governor and legislative leaders agreed to consider some tax reforms next year — though such controversial moves rarely get done in an election year.
While the tax showdown produced some tense moments in the waning hours of the session, local lawmakers were pleased with the way in which it was finally resolved.
“It was sort of like hitting a moving target, which was pretty tough,” Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said of the tax policy discussions.
Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the April revenue forecast “really changed the conversation. It creates an interesting conversation for next year.”
While state politicians didn’t see eye to eye on tax policy, they were on the same page in making some adjustments to the state’s education finance law, according to Sharpe. Lawmakers, during the waning hours of the session, got through an education financing bill that Sharpe said allows more leeway in the funding programs (without penalty) while looking at student-teacher ratios.
“What we have learned is that we spend a sufficient amount of money in Vermont, we need to do a better job on education (outcomes),” he said, specifically citing the need for more pre-K and post-secondary schooling opportunities.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, cited development of the fiscal year 2014 General Fund budget as being the Legislature’s top accomplishment this year. He was pleased that House Republicans, while outnumbered, were still able to make a collective impact in pushing for what they considered to be a reasonable budget that passed by an overwhelming 128-9 tally.
“The budget we passed was one that reflected the economic conditions of today and the taxpayers’ ability to foot the bill,” Smith said.
He termed the 4-percent hike “the lowest increase we’ve had in a number of years. I feel good and proud we were able to be part of that process and that we were able to pull (the budget) together.”
The transportation budget also proved to be a challenge, with no more federal stimulus money to apply to fixing the state’s roads and bridges. That led to the Legislature’s decision to raise the state’s gas tax by 6 cents per gallon (and diesel by 2 cents per gallon) to leverage an additional $56 million in federal highway aid for roads and bridges.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, noted it would require the state to spend an additional $240 million each year to keep up with maintenance of its current transportation infrastructure. That would require a 47-cent hike in the gas tax, which lawmakers knew was unrealistic.
“The discussion became, ‘What do we barely have to have in order to draw down enough (federal) money?” Lanpher, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said. “We needed some additional state dollars to maximize that. We didn’t want to leave anything on the table.”
In addition, lawmakers OK’d an additional $11 million in transportation bonding to further boost road and bridge work, according to Lanpher.
“I’m pleased with that,” she said.
HEALTH REFORM ISSUES
Some local legislators also played a big role in health-related bills.
Ayer and Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, led committees that laid the groundwork for Vermont’s new health care exchange. The state is scheduled to launch “Vermont Health Connect” on Oct. 1. Per the federally mandated Affordable Care Act, Vermont Health Connect will serve as the state’s health insurance marketplace where individuals, families and small businesses will be able to compare public and private health plans and select one that fits their needs and budget.
Every plan offered through Vermont Health Connect will have to offer basic services, including checkups, emergency care, mental health services and prescriptions. The system, according to its Website, will offer “easy-to-understand, side-by-side comparisons of each plan’s costs and benefits,” and “will simplify the health insurance world for many Vermonters by serving as the one place to access public programs and financial assistance, such as federal tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.”
A majority of lawmakers and the Shumlin administration are viewing the health care exchange as a springboard to a single-payer health care system in Vermont.
“It is keeping us on the path to universal health care,” Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, said of the exchange.
Fisher, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, said all but around 2,000 Vermonters are expected to fare better financially under the transition to Vermont Health Connect. Around 29,500 Vermonters will be better able to afford health insurance through the new program, he said.
“I feel good that we will be able to spread supports to a wider population that is under-insured or uninsured today,” Fisher said. “We are going to have real competition on the most important parts of health insurance in a way we have never had before.”
But some lawmakers remained dissatisfied with the state’s tack on health care reform.
“One of my biggest disappointments is that there was no new information on the funding of this health care system and how it’s going to work,” Smith said.
Lawmakers also approved an End of Life Choices Bill brokered between the House and Senate that will allow terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live to request a lethal dose of medication from a physician in order to end their own lives. It was an emotional issue that featured several days of debate and testimony. It was also a top topic of debate at Addison County’s weekly legislative breakfasts.
Ayer was a chief organizer of efforts to get the new bill passed. She cited its passage as one of her top accomplishments of 2013.
Fisher was also pleased.
“I have worked for years and years on End of Life Choices and I feel very good about its passage,” Fisher said. “I know people who are now relieved to know that they now have that option.”
Not everyone was pleased to see the measure become law. The county’s delegation was split fairly evenly on the matter.
“I think natural death is part of natural life; they go hand in hand,” Smith said.
MIGRANT WORKERS GET LICENSES
Also hailed by some area lawmakers was passage of a bill that will allow migrant workers to obtain a driver’s license to enable them to shop at stores, attend church and community events. Local supporters believe the measure will be a boon to the many migrant workers on Addison County farms, as well as to the farmers who employ them.
“Any time you can bring a bunch of people out of the shadows, it’s a good thing,” Jewett said. “It’s a good thing for the economy and the communities.”
Jewett said he hopes Vermont’s action will prompt similar action at the federal level as a means of making it easier for agricultural enterprises to retain critical labor and be able to treat migrant workers as part of the community.
“It was a challenge for people to get there, but the (House) Transportation did a great job threading the needle on this,” said Ralston.
But the driver’s license provision earned its share of detractors, including those arguing that people who are in the country illegally should not have access to key rights enjoyed by citizens.
Smith, a lifelong farmer and member of the House Agriculture Committee, was one of those who opposed the law. He noted that farmers are not allowed to hire undocumented workers and is concerned that the awarding of “driver’s privilege cards” to illegal employees could open farmers up to prosecution.
OTHER BILLS PASSED
Addison County lawmakers also hailed other action during the 2013 session that produced:
• A new search-and-rescue policy that still places the Vermont State Police in charge of missing hikers, but calls for more participation from local rescue teams, law enforcement and fire officials. Jewett played a particularly active role in that endeavor.
“I think we really raised the bar on that and really stepped up,” said Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury. “Vermont is a recreational state and we have a lot of people in the backcountry recreating. To know we have taken this process seriously and reworked it is a good thing.”
• A law that decriminalizes possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, with such offenses to be subject to misdemeanor fines. Supporters reasoned this would ensure that small-time offenders don’t have their future careers or federal benefits jeopardized.
“I think it was a good idea,” Ayer said. “For (underage possessors of marijuana), the fines will be similar to what they are for alcohol-related crimes. (Possessing pot) will still be a crime.”
• A “patent trolling” law that will inhibit unscrupulous individuals or businesses from indiscriminately sending letters to software developers demanding payment for alleged patent infringement, based on alleged patents they have previously purchased — often from bankrupt companies.
Ralston, a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, was particularly pleased about passage of this bill, which he said could be very helpful to banks and local enterprises like Middlebury Interactive Languages and the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies.
“It’s a modern-day extortion racket,” Ralston said of the “patent trolling” practice, through which some companies are threatened with a federal lawsuit unless they pony up five- or six-figure settlements. The targeted company sometimes accedes to the payment request for fear of having a protracted legal battle against the frivolous suit.
• Another $250,000 in funding for the Working Lands Enterprise Fund, which awards grants to emerging business dealing in agricultural and forest products.
But along with the successes came some disappointments.
Ayer was disheartened that the General Assembly didn’t approve a new campaign finance reform bill that, among other things, required all campaign finance reports to be filed with the Secretary of State; increased the reporting requirements for candidates, political committees and political parties; established new contribution limits; and would have campaign finance information be accessible through a searchable database maintained by the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.
“This year we thought we had a pretty good bill,” said Ayer, a member of the Senate Government Operations Committee who has been particularly concerned about giving voters more information on exactly who is bankrolling political campaigns. Current campaign finance laws grant too much anonymity to donors through Political Action Committees, she said.
Ayer conceded that some legislators were concerned about again passing a sweeping campaign finance bill that would face another costly challenge in federal court, but she believes the Legislature could have taken some firm steps this year.
“To me, the most important thing we could do is make sure that when there is an ad in the newspaper or TV saying (a candidate) is terrific, that you know who paid for it,” she said.
Ralston expressed frustration lawmakers could not leave the Statehouse with a new labor bill that he said would have significantly improved (for employers and employees) rules governing workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and contract labor.
“The House and Senate both voted out bills,” Ralston said. “The Senate dug in (in conference committee) and wouldn’t negotiate a conclusion, so we lost all that work.”
The sticking point, according to Ralston: The waiting period for workers’ comp benefits to kick in.
Some legislators were also disappointed to see the tabling of a “shoreland protection” bill that would have required a permit to be obtained from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) prior to new construction within 250 feet of a major pond or lake. The bill also allowed for permitting to be delegated to the towns provided they had adopted state-approved shoreland protection bylaws by Jan. 1, 2015. The measure drew a lot of opposition from lakeshore landowners concerned that it would drastically limit their ability to expand or improve structures on their property. A legislative committee will tour the state this summer listening to concerns in preparation for the 2014 session.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]