Editor’s note: State Sen. Peter Galbraith’s travels kept him from the recent Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Breakfast [“Lawmakers from county sum up session,” May 29], so we checked in with him for his take on state politics.
BRATTLEBORO—The signal beamed through the Internet and pinged off satellites hanging above the Earth’s atmosphere crackles, skips. The momentary silence is followed by another sharp pop.
“Are you still there?” asks state Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, calling via Skype from the Middle East.
With the end of the 2013 legislative session, Galbraith has returned to his day job.
The former diplomat is working with Kurds in Syria. The Kurdish areas in Syria are peaceful, he said. He hopes to assist in keeping it that way.
Looking back on the session, Galbraith said the Senate operated more smoothly than it did the previous session.
It’s a process, he said, describing it as “very positive.”
The second-term senator switched committee assignments this session, moving to the Finance Committee and the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy from Economic Development, Housing, and General Affairs and Government Operations.
Galbraith stepped down from the Senate Committee on Government Operations last session after citing issues with leadership.
Almost all the controversial issues on the docket came up for debate this session, he said.
Galbraith debated, voted, and — admittedly — did not prevail on all the issues he put forward. The key to understanding the session, he said, is that the Legislature balanced the budget through increasing broad-based taxes, those that affect most of the population.
For example, Galbraith voted for the increase in the gas tax, feeling it a necessary way to raise about $40 million lost due to people driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, as well as driving less in general.
He voted against increasing the education property tax. He said increasing the homestead education tax by 6.8 percent this year is “unsustainable,” adding that the tax will increase another 6.8 percent next year.
As for campaign finance reform, Galbraith wished that things ended differently.
Campaign finance, and a legislative rift
For a second straight legislative session, Galbraith attempted to push forward campaign finance reform.
In the 2012 session, the legislation dropped off the radar. Fellow Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she forgot to pass the bill onto the next step in the legislative process.
The move effectively “deep-sixed” the bill, Galbraith said, and the incident caused a rift between the two lawmakers.
Campaign finance failed to pass again this year. A House-Senate conference committee was established to resolve differences between the versions passed by the respective chambers.
VTDigger.org and The Associated Press reported on May 14 that the failure means any limits on campaign contributions won’t take effect until after the 2014 election.
White told the AP’s Dave Gram that requirements for “more frequent reporting of contributions to the secretary of state’s office might be [in place for 2014].”
As reported by Gram, White said of the campaign finance bill, ‘‘We’d rather wait until we get a really good bill than start making compromises.”
White chairs the Senate Government Operations Committee.
According to Nat Rudarakanchana of VTDigger.org, while the House went against legal advice from the attorney general that allowed unlimited contributions, state representatives voted to limit donations to Super PACs to $5,000.
The House’s version of the bill unnerved some Senators who felt the cap would open the state to lawsuits.
The House also approved “allowing political parties to receive unlimited donations” and upped the donation caps for statewide candidates. The Senate preferred restrictions, however, including setting the amount that one person may donate to multiple candidates to $25,000 per election cycle.
Galbraith’s passion for campaign finance reform mostly hinges on corporate contributions. Lobbyists representing corporate interests have a stronger voice with lawmakers than constituents in some cases, he noted.
He hoped that lawmakers would rethink the provision that allows a person to dodge donation limits by giving twice, once as an individual and again through their business, and he hoped that constituents will make their views known to their elected officials.
Other legislative efforts
Galbraith said he was pleased with the outcome of “Death with Dignity” bill, which Governor Peter Shumlin signed into law on May 20.
The bill allows terminally ill patients expected to live less than six months to request a lethal dose of medication from their doctor without the doctor facing criminal liability.
According to Galbraith, he helped formulate the compromise that ensured passage of the legislation, which has been over a decade in the making.
The compromise included that some of the more controversial portions of the bill would not take effect for three years while other portions would become effective immediately, giving time for the medical establishment to plan for the change.
Most disappointing to Galbraith was the lack of progress on environmental legislation. Despite legislation on protecting the state’s lake shores passing the House, the Senate did not follow suit.
Vermont is the only Northeastern state without significant statewide regulations of its lake shores, he said. The result is that Vermont has the worst water quality in New England.
“We know what needs to be done,” Galbraith said. “Instead of improving it, the Senate did nothing at all.”
The Senate also failed to pass any significant legislation on thermal efficiency, said Galbraith.
According to Galbraith, electricity generation contributes a small portion of Vermont’s greenhouse gas output. Home heating tops the list at 70 percent, with transportation-related pollution next on the list.
Retrofitting houses to decrease their energy consumption would also go a long way to decreasing Vermont’s production of greenhouse gases, he noted.
Galbraith would also like to see legislation that instructs the Public Service Board to take town plans into account when considering applications.
Coming down the road
Galbraith advised constituents to keep an eye on some issues when the 2013-2014 legislative session reconvenes in January.
He feels one critical issue is funding the state’s single-payer health-care system. The state has proposed exempting companies from participating in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).
“Once they’re out, there’s not enough of the rest of us,” Galbraith said.
Unless the system includes everyone, moving forward sustainably will prove difficult, he said.
If the state fails to develop a sustainable financing structure, it should alter the plan, he said.
Next session, Galbraith will also co-sponsor legislation to “hold the line on property taxes,” a measure that he says could be offset by eliminating state income deductions. Most of the overall tax benefit lives in federal income tax deductions, he added.
“It’s not enough to vote against [an increase in property tax],” Galbraith said. “You have to come up with an alternative.”
Vermont’s tax burden hits upper-middle-income residents the hardest. According to Galbraith, households earning between $90,000 to $200,000 annually get hit by the property tax and income tax, while they also spend most of their income on necessities.
Those earnings might sound like a lot, he said, but imagine that many of the households in that income bracket are comprised of a couple with kids.
Lone wolf, effective wolf?
Multiple reports from news outlets around the state this session depicted Galbraith burnishing his reputation as the Senate’s lone wolf, as the front of solidarity Galbraith and White presented during the 2012 election dissipated.
When asked if his reputation allows him to remain effective and make progress for Windham County voters, Galbraith answered with an unequivocal “yes.”
He added he had good relationships and support from fellow lawmakers.
Galbraith pointed to the campaign finance reform bill making to the Senate floor for debate as progress over last session, adding that he and the Finance Committee took multiple positions on greater tax fairness despite the full Senate thwarting many of the committee’s attempts.
According to Galbraith, the committee attempted to nix a measure for high-income families to circumvent taxes by putting money into college savings accounts. The committee proposed instead to create a needs-based scholarship.
Instead, the Senate voted to give a half-million-dollar tax credit to households earning over $200,000 and ignored the scholarship alternative, he said.
Anyone can sit and cast a vote, said Galbraith, but if they raise an issue and take on the establishment, they might not be popular.
If lawmakers want to feel 100-percent successful, then they can raise inconsequential issues or bills. Galbraith, however, wants his work in Montpelier to have consequence.
“Occasionally being controversial is not the same as being ineffective,” he said.