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Lawmakers from Windham County sum up session

Legislators review their work this year at Chamber breakfast

BRATTLEBORO—With this year’s session of the Vermont Legislature in the rear view mirror, local lawmakers took the opportunity to tout what got done in Montpelier at a breakfast put on by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce at the Brattleboro Retreat on May 23.

Most of the Windham County delegation was present, except for Sen. Peter Galbraith and Reps. David Deen, D-Putney; Richard Marek, D-Newfane; Charles Goodwin, D-Weston; and Matt Trieber, D-Bellows Falls.

Here’s some of what the delegation worked on this session.

Burke: The gas tax

Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro, said the House Transportation Committee, of which she is a member, had a productive session.

Two important initiatives — a ban on texting and driving and a statewide anti-idling law — were passed.

She defended a 5.9-cent a gallon increase in the state fuel tax as being absolutely necessary to maintain the state’s roads and bridges. Without the tax, the transportation budget would have been short by about $36 million.

“I think that this was a very thoughtful budget,” Burke said. “But in the long term, this is only going to buy us a few years.”

Burke said the state needs to find new ways to fund repair and maintenance, because with gasoline consumption steadily declining, the gas tax doesn’t generate as much revenue as it once did.

“We’re using 40 million fewer gallons of gasoline than we did in 2005,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”

Hebert: Wind and paint

Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, has served on the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee for the past three years. As a result, he said his time was dominated by the ongoing disputes regarding the siting of alternative generation methods such as wind, solar, and biomass.

An attempt to impose a moratorium on commercial wind development was the biggest issue that Hebert’s committee faced. This summer, Hebert said that a joint committee of House and Senate members will review the report from Gov. Peter Shumlin’s commission on siting energy projects.

“Any legislation that may or may not be necessary to implement this bill will be considered at that time,” he said, adding that there remains a “lot of controversy” over construction of commercial wind turbines on ridge tops.

“Is this what we’ve saved our mountaintops for?” he asked.

He also wants to see that, when it comes to any energy generation method, if surrounding towns have to share in the potential negative impacts, they should also share in the benefits.

Not all of Hebert’s committee’s time was spent on wind. Disposing of house paint was another issue, and Hebert said it was resolved successfully by establishing a recycling program. He said paint manufacturers will work with retailers to collect and recycle paint. It will be funded through a fee charged on every gallon of paint sold in Vermont.

Manwaring: Budget making

Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington, sits on the House Appropriations Committee and she was pleased with the way her colleagues in both chambers were able to carefully balance spending needs with available revenues.

“You folks need to be proud about the work that has been done with the General Fund,” she said.

But there was one exception she was not happy with — education funding.

“Inside the general fund budget is one line item, in the amount [this year] of $1.4 billion,” she said. “No one ever asks a question about it. We dig under the hood in every other expenditure in the General Fund, but not one question gets asked about that $1.4 billion.”

Manwaring said the Act 60/68 formula for funding education in Vermont is still broken. “The basic principle is still equity, which is perfectly fine when you’re raising money,” she said. “But when you’re spending money, don’t you want to see some outcomes?”

The Legislature approved a slight increase to the statewide property tax this session, and Manwaring said residents should expect another increase next year as local school boards continue to increase spending. As a result, she said it’s time to make some very tough choices.

“We spend $1.4 billion to educate our kids,” Manwaring said. “Every kid in this state should have a world-class education for $1.4 billion. But we have to start thinking about it as a system. We have to do one of two things: We have to decide whether we’re going have the state take over and run the schools, and no more local control, or we have to figure out how to live with the system we have now.”

Stuart: Dissenting view

Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, who sits on the House Education Committee, said she disagreed with Manwaring’s assessment of school spending.

However, while she and her fellow committee members are “very cognizant” of outcomes of educational funding, Stuart admitted that her committee only deals with policy, and has “little to no say” over how the money is spent.

And how the policy is being set is different. Now that the post of Education Commissioner has been replaced by a cabinet-level Secretary of Education, appointed by the governor, “there is more direct control from the top down.”

The focus on education spending shouldn’t be solely on its cost, Stuart said, adding Vermont’s consistently high quality of education is a significant economic driver that attracts people to the state.

“We want to spend our resources well,” she said.

Other education accomplishments she cited were the institution of a dual-enrollment program to make it easier for high school students to also take classes at the state’s colleges, and the expansion of the school lunch program so that all low-income students can get a free noontime meal.

Partridge and Toleno: Ag issues

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, led the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee. She was pleased that the state plans to allocate $1.4 million for “working lands” grants in fiscal year 2014.

The program is a popular one, she said, with far more requests than there was funding available. Partridge called it “more than a forestry bill": “an economic development and job creation bill.”

Another crop that could generate money for Vermont farmers is hemp, as the Legislature passed a bill authorizing hemp cultivation.

Hemp is grown all over the world, and Partridge believes the United States is missing out on an big economic opportunity with the current federal prohibition against growing hemp, the non-psychotropic cousin of marijuana.

Until the federal government legalizes it, Partridge advised farmers who want to begin cultivating hemp to remember that their activities will be tracked by federal authorities.

Rep. Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, spent his first year in the House on the Agriculture Committee, which meant he too dealt with hemp, and the other hot-button ag issue — the GMO-labeling bill that was approved by the House and awaits action in the Senate.

Despite heavy lobbying and threats of legal action by agribusiness firms such as Monsanto, Toleno said he is confident that a law calling for mandatory labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients will pass constitutional muster.

He said there is widespread public support for GMO labeling and that the rest of the nation is watching Vermont on this issue.

“Vermonters as a whole are very enthusiastic about this bill,” Toleno said.

Moran: Looking out for workers

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, serves as vice-chair of the House General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee, which he describes as the committee that “gets everything no one else seems to want.”

One issue his committee looked at was setting a “livable wage” for Vermont workers, and it has worked with both business and labor groups to strengthen conditions for workers.

Moran said the state is in better economic shape than most of the country, and cooperation between business and labor has played a big role in that.

“Not only do we need a business-friendly Vermont, we need a worker-friendly Vermont,” Moran said. “If you don’t have one, you don’t have the other.”

Moran said his committee dealt with many different issues from sexual harrassment in the Vermont National Guard to unionization of home health care workers. He called this year one of the most productive for the General Committee that he has seen in years.

Mrowicki: Death with dignity

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, serves on the House Human Services Committee. His session was dominated by the debate over the state’s new end-of-life law.

Mrowicki said he doesn’t anticipate that many Vermonters will avail themselves of the law, which allows doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients requesting it.

“People will see that this is a very narrow law that will affect very few people,” he said.

While he said he believes that government has no right to interfere one way or the other, he supports giving those who need it the option to control how they die.

“Technology can keep us alive almost indefinitely, so we have to make decisions,” he said. “But I don’t believe that government has a role in that area.”

White: Campaign finance reform

Sen. Jeannette White, D-Windham, said that her push for campaign finance reform — despite the opposition from her colleague, Peter Galbraith — is “not dead” and may be resolved when the next session begins in January.

The House and Senate could not agree on how to regulate Super PACs. While White is hopeful that the bill is still alive, if any action is taken, it will be too late to take effect for the 2014 state elections.

She also touted legislation that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying that such cases are unnecessarily “clogging up our criminal-justice system.”

Shumlin is expected to sign the legislation, which institutes civil fines rather than criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana.

White also praised the passage of legislation to ensure that women and men are paid at comparable levels for comparable work. Women in Vermont earn, on average, 84 cents for every dollar a man earns.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #205 (Wednesday, May 29, 2013).

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