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Broadband, taxes, health care top agenda at legislative breakfast in Dover

DOVER—Taxes, health care, and the cost of doing business were on the menu at the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce’s legislators breakfast last week.

State Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, and state Reps. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington and John Moran, D-Wardsboro, discussed their goals for the 2011 legislative session with chamber members at a breakfast hosted by the Matterhorn Inn.

Newly elected state Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, couldn’t attend due to illness, said White.

Patricia Moulton Powden, vice president of public affairs for the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, also attended the breakfast. Last month, Democratic Governor-elect Peter Shumlin appointed Powden deputy secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

Manwaring opened the discussion by saying that she wanted to “raise the conversation” on property taxes.

She said when Montpelier decides not to raise taxes, it never means the property tax. Consequently, any shortfall created by not raising the other taxes to cover budgets gets shifted to the property tax.

Vermonters shelled out $1.4 billion in property taxes last year, she said — more than any other tax. The bulk of the property tax money, $1 billion, went into the education fund.

To change this system, Manwaring has co-drafted a bill with Moran. If passed, the legislation would increase the transparency of the process of setting the statewide property tax. The goal, she said, is keep the tax down in the long run.

The bill would require legislators to vote on the statewide property tax rate as a standalone bill. Currently, the tax rate is buried in a 300-page appropriations document.

Manwaring and Moran’s bill would also change the mechanism of how Vermont sets the statewide education property tax rate by basing it on the previous year’s rate “so people at least know what their money is being spent on,” said Manwaring.

Broadband concerns

Manwaring, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, also raised concerns about the telecommunications companies involved in the rollout of fiber-optic cables to schools and libraries as part of linking the final underserved rural miles to fast Internet service.

The companies have asked schools and libraries to pay a long-term leasing fee to help pay for the new fiber-optic cables. She said that this fee could have an impact on property taxes and would like to see municipalities take on the cost responsibility instead.

Manwaring’s final goal is to work with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to loosen its right-of-way rules that adversely affect older towns like Wilmington, where buildings sit right up against roads.

Moran, a member of the General Housing and Military Affairs Committee, said the state has seen a number of “painful” budget years. Another tight budget year is ahead, with the state facing a $112 million budget gap.

But Moran said he’s also excited for the new people entering the legislature and the ideas they’ll bring with them.

Moran said he looks forward to hearing the Blue Ribbon Tax Commission’s findings in January.

He closed with mentioning the members of the Vermont Army National Guard, who are returning from a one-year tour of duty in Afghanistan this month.

According to Moran, who has experience working with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, the state will welcome home the biggest deployment of its soldiers since World War II.

“I’m looking forward to our response [to their return and support] as a state,” he said.

Tax worries

Chamber members are worried that lawmakers hope to skim so much  tourist spending in the form of taxes that spenders will vacation in Massachusetts or New Hampshire instead.

Mount Snow planning director Laurie Newton requested the Legislature resist raising the rooms and meals tax.

Ken Spicer, executive director of the Chimney Hill Owners Association, a resort community in Wilmington, said he didn’t want to see the property transfer tax raised.

Chamber members also expressed concern over Montpelier sticking their small businesses with any health care reform tariffs. 

White said she had monitoring health care reform and redesigning how the state delivers services on her radar.

She said that a study will result in three possible health-care options for the state in January, as mandated by Act 128. As White understands the situation, residents shouldn’t end up paying more for health care, but pay a coverage premium.

“We don’t deliver health care in a rational manner,” said White of Vermont’s current health care situation.

She said people already pay for health care in some form and often pay for people who are uninsured.

Moran agreed, citing people accepted into emergency rooms despite their inability to pay as an example of the general agreement to provide everyone with health care.

But now the system is inefficient, he said.

“We need a system that is fair, affordable, and not a burden to small businesses,” Moran said.

Dover Selectboard member Randall Terk brought up the longstanding issue of employers avoiding payroll taxes, like workers’ compensation, by listing employees as subcontractors.

White and Moran said that the state has a bill on the books and funds to investigate this type of fraud. Powden said employers “misclassifying” their employees face a $20,000 fine per incident and are barred from bidding on state contracts for three years.

White also spoke about redesigning how the state delivers its services. She cautioned that a redesign didn’t mean cutting services, as others have suspected.

“Businesses do it all the time, and we need to do it,” she said. “But changing state government is like moving a graveyard – one dead body at a time.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #80 (Wednesday, December 15, 2010).

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