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Legislators speak at Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast

BRATTLEBORO—On the very early side of a Monday morning and amidst scattered breakfast plates, members of the Windham County legislative delegation discussed their committee work with members of the local business community.

The Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce annually hosts legislative breakfasts at the start and the end of the Legislature’s session, and Monday’s breakfast at the Brattleboro Retreat. Eight of the county’s 15-member delegation attended the breakfast and spoke primarily to work in their respective committees.

Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, opened the morning, informing the audience of issues in front of the House Committee on Transportation, one of the House’s 15 committees. The county’s representatives sit on 10 of the committees.

The state estimates it will have a $240 million yearly funding gap in the transportation budget due to reduced gas tax revenues, said Burke.

Revenues have decreased, in part, because people are driving more fuel-efficient cars and spending less on fuel.

Closing the funding gap will require short and long-term solutions, she said. For the short-term, the state is considering using funds from the transportation bond fund, she said. The state may also change how it taxes fuel.

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, read a long typed statement, attempting to squeeze it into the three minutes allotted to each legislator.

Stuart, once again, voiced her support of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s education platform. She said to thrive economically, Vermont needed to increase broadband access, streamline the health care delivery system, and invest in education.

The House Committee on Education, where Stuart is a member, recently passed H.60, a bill to provide free school lunches to all low-income Vermont students. According to Stuart, the state will also use $300,000 to draw down another $300,000 in federal funds to help finance the expanded lunch program.

Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, said his House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy is looking at two important issues, thermal efficiency and land use.

The state has pledged to increase thermal efficacy by weatherizing 80,000, or about one-quarter, of Vermont homes by 2020. The pledge is an expensive one and no one knows how to fund it, said Hebert.

According to Hebert, the weatherization will require the borrowing of $800 million over seven years, and a possible additional $200 million in state funding. Funding sources that are getting batted around include an excise tax on home heating fuels.

Hebert felt the excise tax was punitive to economically vulnerable Vermonters. Instead, he supports a sales tax on home heating fuels that would also exempt schools, hospitals, and town halls.

Freshman Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, said described his first month in Montpelier as one long learning curve.

Assigned to the House Committee on Agriculture, Toleno said in the next four to six weeks, the committee will start taking testimony on the controversial genetically modified organisms labeling law.

Toleno also looks to introduce two pieces of legislation. The first an appropriations request to fund a Southern Vermont business accelerator and post-Vermont Yankee economic strategy related to the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) group.

The second piece of legislation Toleno intends will create an annual scorecard for key, iconic Vermont business sectors — ski areas, snowmobiling, maple sugaring, orchards - to help assess their risks to climate change and by extension the state’s economy. The assessment would then inform long-term responses and planning for the industries.

John Moran (D-Windham-Bennington) said he supported improvements to the state’s infrastructure and early education funding but not through using the earned income tax credit as Shumlin has suggested.

Moran serves on the House Committee on Military, Housing, and General Affairs. On the military front, his committee is vetting candidates for the Adjutant General’s position, which has been open since Lt. Gen. Michael Dubie was promoted to be the deputy commander of the U.S. Northern Command.

In housing, Moran said the committee is dealing with affordable housing and homelessness.

The committee is also taking its first read of H.99 a bill to equalize pay. In Vermont, women typically earn 84 percent of their male counterparts, said Moran. The bill wold mandate equal pay for women. It would also allow employees to suggest flexible work schedules and the freedom to share salary information with each other.

Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane, who has served on the House Judiciary Committee for 10 years, said this year’s theme for bills considered this biennium is social policy.

The Judiciary Committee will consider bills ranging from the Good Samaritan Act, to dinging pensions of state employees who have committed a financial crime like a former State Trooper who falsified his time sheets, to the End of Life bill, and marijuana decriminalization.

Moving from the House to the Senate, Democratic Sens. Peter Galbraith and Jeanette White took the mic.

Galbraith said he feels Vermont must play to its strengths. The state will never compete with its neighbors on lower taxes. Instead, Vermont can compete with its healthy environment, low crime, and strong sense of community.

The only member of the Windham County delegation to change committees this biennium, Galbraith serves on the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Senate Committee on Finances.

Galbraith said the Natural Resources Committee is considering a moratorium on ridge line commercial wind installations. The second-term senator sponsored the moratorium. He said the bill will come out of committee though some legislators find the issue controversial.

According to Galbraith, commercial wind offsets about four percent of carbon emissions. But constructing wind turbines on pristine ridge lines causes environmental damage that outweighs the energy benefits.

Disrupting these pristine environmental areas, many of which serve as animal migration corridors, could destroy crucial biodiversity and heighten the effects of global warming in the long run.

Galbraith also supports local control over wind siting projects and would consider moving the wind permitting process into Vermont’s Act 250 permitting process. Wind projects are now considered under the Department of Public Service which does not need to consider town plans or conform to environmental restrictions.

“Industrial wind in Vermont is more about making a statement than about addressing climate change,” Galbraith said.

The committee is also hashing out thermal efficiency, said Galbraith.

More of Vermont’s carbon footprint comes from heating buildings than electricity consumption, he said. Conservation is the best way to lower the state’s carbon footprint.

Galbraith supported paying for weatherization through revolving loan funds over state grants.

Wearing his finance committee hat, Galbraith called Shumlin’s proposal to raise $17 million through taxing break-open tickets, a type of gambling game, “unrealistic.”

Shumlin proposes to divide the estimated $17 million between funding weatherization and the state’s Low Income Heating Assistance Program (LIHEAP) program.

Galbraith also felt that the governor’s proposals to restructure the gas tax, and use the earned income tax credit to pay for early education services, came with unintended consequences.

Moving on to health care reform, Galbraith said that the Green Mountain Care Board’s report to the Legislature contained a plan for financing the state’s new health care system.

The board and executive office were required to submit a plan to the Legislature in January on how the state would finance Green Mountain Care. Shumlin has said the state couldn’t develop a plan for financing its single payer health care system until 2017 when federal monies become available. Instead, the report submitted in January set out options for the health care system.

Galbraith said when he read the report he thought, “There’s the plan.”

Of the listed options, the only viable action for raising revenue is a 10 percent payroll tax and a likely 3 percent income tax.

White, who chairs Government Operations and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, started her time by listing successes from the previous legislative session.

These successes included cleaning up the public records law and methods for Vermonters with licenses suspended for reasons other than criminal, but who can’t pay their fines to, to pay their fines and get their licenses reinstated.

The Legislature also developed an expungement bill to allow Vermonters with certain, old criminal records to clear them.

Looking to 2013, White anticipated more work on campaign finance reform, reducing the prison population, and patient choices at the end of life.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #189 (Wednesday, February 6, 2013).

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