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State Representative Mike Mrowicki.

Town and Village

Mrowicki offers his preview of 2016 legislative session

PUTNEY—State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, recently paid a visit to the Selectboard to provide a review of the past year’s legislative session and a preview of what will be happening at the Statehouse when lawmakers return in January.

Mrowicki said he was there “to hear what’s happening on the ground level for you here,” so he can bring Putney’s concerns to the Statehouse.

Water issues

Mrowicki said Act 64, known as Vermont’s water quality bill, was “years — maybe longer — in the making.” Passed by both houses in the most recent legislative session, it was signed by Governor Shumlin on June 16. Mrowicki said his colleague Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, worked hard on the bill.

Although Mrowicki said the law “affects all Vermont waters,” and not just Lake Champlain, that body of water provided the impetus for the bill’s passage.

“It’s gotten to the point on Lake Champlain, there are towns now lowering the value of lands on the lakefront because some of the areas are so polluted,” he said, noting the lake is worth $2.2 billion of the state’s economy.

The Connecticut River is also of concern, especially at its mouth, Mrowicki said. “There’s a big dead zone” from nitrogen running off from farms along its shores. He said the states are trying to establish limits and provide resources to farmers, but, “Vermont is the last one to the dance on this one.” Other states “have already started their work."

“We want to leave [the land and water] cleaner than we found it, and hopefully this will help address those problems,” he said.

Vermont’s fiscal picture

“We’re doing a pretty good job managing our state finances,” Mrowicki told the board, adding, “and that’s not me saying that — it’s our bonding companies."

All three major credit rating agencies gave Vermont high marks for 2015, Mrowicki said. Standard & Poor rated the state “AA ,” the second-highest score; Moody’s and Fitch both gave Vermont their highest rating: AAA.

“The AAA-rating reflects Vermont’s strong financial management, which features conservative fiscal policies, consistent governance, and a proven commitment to maintaining healthy reserve balances,” Moody’s wrote in a Sept. 23 press release. “The state’s debt is modest, and its economy, while small for a state, is vibrant,” it added.

Mrowicki explained that the state’s “fiscal management,” and lawmakers’ ability to “stay ahead of our problems” contributed to the high ranking.

Health insurance

“If it weren’t for the increase in people signing up for Medicaid, we’d have a balanced budget [in 2015],” Mrowicki said. “That’s the tough news, because we’re going to have to find $30 million to $40 million to pay for it,” he said.

But, Mrowicki noted, “those are people that now have health insurance — that’s what we want."

He said that, along with Massachusetts — which has a mandated health insurance law — Vermont has “the best coverage in the United States."

The state has “close to full coverage,” with approximately 3.5 percent of Vermont residents uninsured.

“In the long run, this saves us money and increases the quality of life,” Mrowicki said.

Dog problems

In 2014, Mrowicki told the board, he was approached by a local woman who had been bitten by a dog. She brought this to his attention: Vermont has no dog liability laws.

In January 2015, Mrowicki introduced H.56, “An act relating to strict liability for dog owners.” The House moved the bill to the Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.

Board member Josh Laughlin asked Mrowicki if there “was anything at the state level” to help towns with finding and keeping Animal Control Officers.

“It’s a pretty big problem for all the towns,” Laughlin said.

Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard said the problem is usually a “people” issue, not a “dog” issue, noting dog owners can be “threatening” when town officials confront them with their dog’s bad behavior.

Human services

As part of his work in the Human Services Committee, Mrowicki said he is looking into the bookends of the human life-span: early childhood development, and a bill to protect elders from financial predators.

“Unfortunately, our elders are encountering predators on their finances, and I think we need to stand up for them,” he said, noting the predators are often the same people who are in charge of the elders’ finances, making monitoring and legal investigations difficult.

Dental care

As Vermont continues to deal with a lack of access to dental care, the Legislature has attempted to fill the gap by creating an additional level of practitioner.

Mrowicki told the board about S.20, “An act relating to establishing and regulating dental therapists,” which was co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham.

This act, which would create what Mrowicki described as “a mid-level practitioner,” would help solve the state’s “real shortage” of “access to dental care."

Other states have made this change, he said, and it “works well.” He compared dental therapists to nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. At first, the change seemed odd, he said, but the new levels of medical staff soon integrated smoothly.

But, “there’s a group that doesn’t want this to happen: the dentists,” Mrowicki said.

S.20 is currently in the House’s Human Services Committee.

Act 46

Mrowicki told the board he didn’t vote for the state’s new education consolidation act.

“I think it was rushed through,” and “I don’t think it’s going to save a lot of money,” he said, adding he also does not think it will increase student performance.

What it has done, Mrowicki said, is “raise the anxiety level” in the state. “I think it’s too rushed,” he said.

He reminded those present that education, like health care, costs money.

“I think our schools do a good job already,” Mrowicki said.

Employment

Vermont’s unemployment rate, Mrowicki noted, is low. According to the Vermont Department of Labor, as of November, the state’s rate was 3.7 percent, lower than all other New England states except New Hampshire, which stands at 3.2 percent.

Although this is good news, employment continues to present a challenge to some Vermont businesses: they can’t fill jobs.

Mrowicki said the Legislature is looking at ways to address this. He mentioned Minnesota’s program, modeled on Canada’s, of “targeted immigration” — looking at the “world map” to see which regions are training and educating its people with the knowledge and skills our country needs.

“We’re going to need to start doing that,” Mrowicki said. Although “we should train Vermonters” for these hard-to-fill, high-paying jobs, “we should look beyond our borders” to place people in them.

The state also has to change the popular narrative, Mrowicki said, that “Vermont is bad for business, and there aren’t jobs here.” The facts say otherwise, and “we’re good for... the new economy, the green economy. We’re creating jobs in that realm."

“The future is brighter for Vermont,” Mrowicki said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #338 (Wednesday, January 6, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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