Vermont’s “citizen legislature” opened for the 2013-2014 session Jan. 9, and Windham County’s delegation, including two new House Representatives, went right to work weighing in on the upcoming session.
“Where am I going, and what does that bell mean?” joked Tristan Toleno (D-Windham-2-3) about his first three days in office under the golden dome.
The frosh representative replaces longstanding Rep. Sarah Edwards as one Brattleboro’s three representatives.
“There’s so much passion in Montpelier for making things better for everybody,” Toleno observed.
Toleno is set to serve on the House Agricultural Committee with Rep. Carolyn Partridge (D-Windham-3), that committee’s chair.
“It’s a total, natural fit,” said Toleno of the assignment.
Although he had listed agriculture as one of his committee interests, Toleno said he also had hoped for the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
“Economic development is the most important [issue] for this corner of the state,” he said.
Toleno said one issue looming large for Windham County is the amount the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s [FEMA] has planned for funding of the State Mental Health Hospital in Waterbury, and its implications for the budget and staff of the Brattleboro Retreat.
The state is experiencing a “very complex shift” in how it funds and manages mental health services, said Toleno, warning stakeholders to expect “uncertainties.”
Toleno said he’s also keeping an eye on how the state deals with an anticipated gap in health care coverage for Vermonters on the state’s insurance plans within Green Mountain Care.
“No one doubts there’s going to be a gap,” he said.
According to Toleno, people covered by VHAP or Catamount stand to pay more out-of-pocket to receive level coverage, absent the state developing a funding structure.
Toleno also said he expects last year’s controversial labeling bill for foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to come up again. The House Agriculture Committee voted the bill out of committee last session, as the bill’s effect hinged on California approving its GMO labeling bill, which did not come to pass.
Toleno said he expects to be busy for the next two years with legislative and other commitments: He co-owns Entera Catering and Rigani Catered Wood-fired Pizza on Highlawn Road, and teaches part-time at Marlboro College Graduate School.
“I knew this would be a big push when I signed up [to run],” said Toleno, 41.
Keep the education coming
Charles “Tim” Goodwin (I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor), also a freshman, described his first three days on the job as interesting, fun, and educational.
The education component needs to continue, joked Goodwin. That said, he has found the Legislature filled with “good, smart, and fun people.”
“I’m not bored,” he said, laughing.
Goodwin is to serve on the House Committee on Judiciary. The assignment was not his first choice, but he said he is not unhappy with the position.
“There are good people on the committee ready to tackle interesting issues,” he said.
Constituents have already started contacting him with concerns. One person emailed Goodwin over the issue of firearm trigger locks.
Goodwin said most constituents who’ve emailed him from Weston, Londonderry, Winhall, and Jamaica are weighing in on a suggestion by the Thermal Efficiency Task force, formed by the Public Service Department, to impose a heating fuel excise tax.
The tax would raise $26 million to $45 million per year to weatherize 80,000 residential homes by 2020, as reported by the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus and Vermont Digger (vtdigger.org).
According to Goodwin, the tax could amount to 11 cents on heating fuels.
“[Residents] just don’t like that idea at all,” Goodwin said, adding that such an initial view is “pretty understandable.”
Goodwin also will meet with David Schoales, a member of the Brattleboro Town School District Board, to discuss taxing sugar-sweetened beverages.
The idea sits “a little outside my ideology,” said Goodwin.
Goodwin said he agrees that sugary beverages contribute to obesity and other health concerns, but adds that government intervention on the issue bothers him.
According to Goodwin, as he represents a district concerned with state-wide education property tax, he found much of interest in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s second inaugural address, which focused squarely on statewide education reform.
Goodwin did not agree with everything Shumlin proposed. For example, Goodwin said the district would be better served with a strong link between education and employment. He characterized his district as being concerned about jobs.
According to Goodwin, had Shumlin moved in the direction of eliminating some supervisory unions, the area could save money.
The education horizon looks bright
Rep. Valerie Stuart (D-Windham-2-1) said she was happily reassigned to the House Committee on Education. In light of Shumlin’s address, she said she expected a busy and exciting two years.
In that address, Shumlin spoke about opening universal access to early education and expanding the free lunch program to cover a coverage gap left by the federal government.
He also talked about an education system where “the money follows the student”; where high school students access dual enrollment courses; where the state pays for the final year of education for students majoring in STEM — science, technology, engineering, and math — degrees; and where personal learning plans travel with students and support career readiness.
Finally, Shumlin spoke about tasking the state’s 17 regional career centers as “Vermont Innovation Zones.” These centers would design programs geared toward meeting local business’ employment needs.
Many of the items in Shumlin’s speech were issues the Education Committee had already been following, said Stuart. But now Shumlin’s agenda seems to definitively back the committee’s work, she said.
Bolstering funding for regional career centers also caught Stuart’s attention.
According to Stuart, she and other members of the Windham County delegation have experience working with school officials on funding issues at the Windham Regional Career Center.
Stuart said she felt unsure about how Vermonters would receive Shumlin’s agenda item to use $17 million of earned income tax credits to help fund universal access to early eduction. Some residents consider the move “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said.
The number of Vermont students going hungry also moved Stuart, she said.
“Kids who are hungry are not ready to learn,” she said, adding that she’s happy to hear Shumlin committed to extending the program to feed more students.
“It’s tragic anyone should be hungry in our rich and powerful country,” Stuart said.
According to Stuart, students qualifying for free or reduced-cost school lunches feel the impact not only of their families’ finances, but also of the perceived stigma of qualifying for the program.
Stuart also looked forward to a stronger dual-enrollment program and adequate funding for Vermont high school seniors to take college-level courses. Dual enrollment will help high school seniors taking college courses know that they can manage the workload, she said, adding that she hopes this move will aid more first-generation college students in graduating.
If Vermont’s goal is to increase the college graduation rate, now at 45 percent, then it must ensure success for first-generation college students, said Stuart, adding that many of these students tend to live on lower incomes.
Stuart also said she felt that dual enrollment would reduce the cost of college over the long run. Dual enrollment courses generally cost a fraction of what college credits cost. They also could reduce the time needed to earn a degree.
“Anything we can do to enhance career readiness and meet our workforce requirements in this state is important,” said Stuart.
Stuart said 62 percent of “new economy jobs” will require a higher education, and that high-tech skills are widely in demand.
Stuart added that her committee has drafted language to help level the playing field for the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (VCDHH), Brattleboro — and require that deaf and hard of hearing Vermont students, or their parents, give compelling reasons for electing to study out of state, as do Vermont’s neighbors.
She pointed out that when a Vermont student studies out of state, Vermont money winds up funding a non-Vermont school.
Overall, in Stuart’s opinion, Shumlin’s eduction agenda signals a commitment to constructing a fundamental building block for Vermonters. In his first two years as governor, she said, Shumlin established infrastructure for the basic right of health care, which she said would spark economic development.
“A good education is the best path to prosperity,” she said.
A full plate
Rep. Mike Mrowicki (D-Windham-4) will continue his work on the House Committee on Human Services.
In an email, Mrowicki said he is sponsoring bills to ban assault weapons, large capacity magazines, and rescind the demotion on background checks at gun shows.
Other work on Mrowicki’s plate:
• Legislation to prevent rapists from gaining custody of children conceived through their crime.
• A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, and increased access to free school lunch for students.
• Creating a Vermont Fatherhood Commission tasked with “promoting positive involvement by fathers in the lives of their families.”
Waiting on the working agenda, in a new committee room
Rep. David Deen (D-Windham-4), with more than 20 years of legislative service, will continue chairing the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and House Rules Committee.
“Not many bills have been introduced yet, so no one really knows the working agenda by committee yet,” said Deen, explaining that he could not say what issues loom on his committee’s horizon.
In an email, Deen expressed some concern for the Governor’s plan to use $17 million from the earned income tax credit for low-income and working families for early education.
“My immediate reaction to the idea is that we will be taking money from the poor to give to the poor,” wrote Deen. “I remain to be educated about the full proposal. Maybe it is not a reverse Robin Hood idea that I heard. But we shall see.”
On a more lighthearted note, Deen said the state had renovated fourth floor House committee rooms over the summer.
“The room [his committee room] is professional, more spacious because of the smart use of existing space, and it no longer makes me feel like we’re meeting in my garage,” said Deen.
Committee assignments for the Windham County delegation remained mostly unchanged:
• Carolyn Partridge continues as chair of the House Committee on Agriculture.
• Ann Manwaring will serve on the House Committee on Appropriations.
• John Moran will serve as vice-chair for the House Committee on General, Housing, and Military Affairs.
• Matt Trieber continues on the House Committee on Human Services.
• Dick Marek is on the House Committee on Judiciary.
• Mike Hebert remains on the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
• Mollie Burke continues her work on the House Committee on Transportation.
Assignments for the county’s State Senators showed some change:
• Jeanette White will chair the Senate Committee on Government Operations and serve on the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
• Peter Galbraith will sit on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy and the Senate Committee on Finance.
Request for interviews to Burke, Galbraith, Hebert, Marek, Moran, Partridge, Trieber, and White were not returned by press time.
Manwaring attempted to schedule a phone interview, but a scheduling conflict at The Commons precluded it.