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New session, same tough issues

Members of Windham County delegation dig into this year’s legislative docket

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

It’s day two of the 2014 Vermont legislative session, and the grand hallway of the Statehouse’s first floor is nearly empty. Most lawmakers sit in committee meetings, cramming work in before the governor’s State of the State address later that afternoon.

One harbinger of crowds to come: a police officer standing in the lobby with a sniffer dog. Rather than a big bruiser of a German shepherd, the dog appears to be a young Labrador retriever. A gaggle of civilians approach the officer and admire the dog.

Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, emerges from a Senate committee room. She passes the sniffer dog, which happily receives belly rubs and ear skritches, on her way to discuss health-related exemptions to the public records law with the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare.

White co-chairs the joint Public Records Study Committee. Since 2011, the committee has investigated, and has been attempting to untangle, the hundreds of exemptions to the state’s public records laws. Most documents created by a state or municipal government are considered public unless an exemption exists allowing the document to remain closed.

“We’re trying to do this [process of vetting existing and future exemptions] in a way that is less cumbersome,” she said to members of the Health and Welfare Committee.

According to committee discussion, lawmakers have unknowingly created exemptions when they pass a new law.

Housing needs

Down the hall, Rep. Michael Mrowicki, D-Putney, emerges from Room 11, where House committees on appropriations, general housing and military affairs, and human services grapple with the issue of homelessness and emergency housing.

Topping the committees’ agenda: Why is the need for temporary housing so great, and how can we put people in more permanent settings while lowering costs?

The Legislature wants to find ways of raising people out of poverty besides just throwing money at the issue, Mrowicki explained.

Rarely does poverty simply mean the lack of money, he added. Poverty often comes as a tangled web of factors such as low financial literacy, mental health issues, addictions, and trauma.

Mrowicki said the committee members have found from research and through taking testimony that often trauma serves as the link between generations in poverty.

Having case managers able to help people find and stay in their housing long-term has surfaced as an essential component to ending homelessness, said Mrowicki.

Looking at the Legislative session, Mrowicki said he anticipated broaching issues related to early-education, childcare, addiction treatments, recidivism, and services for the elderly.

“The goal is to get people housed, fed, and working,” said Rep. Matthew Trieber, D-Rockingham, taking a seat outside Room 11.

Trieber also serves on the Health and Welfare Committee.

He said committee members were discussing targeting program monies effectively. Last year, the state slashed funding for emergency housing. The emergency housing usually meant hotel rooms.

The state will boost program funding because the need for housing assistance is high, said Trieber.

This session, the committees are reviewing using rental subsidies over emergency housing to break the cycle of homelessness, he said.

Trieber said the rental subsidies would entail working with landlords to help people stay in stable housing while tenants build references and credit history crucial to finding future housing situations.

In Trieber’s opinion, addressing homelessness meant developing effective, holistic, and interconnected services that addressed people’s need for stable housing, food, and employment.

Maple matters

In the Statehouse cafeteria, Reps. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, and Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, ate their lunches before returning to the House floor.

Partridge is chair of the House Committee on Agriculture; Toleno is a member.

The Ag Committee took testimony that morning on the new maple syrup grading system, said Partridge. The committee wanted to learn whether the rules governing the new maple grades were fair to long-time producers.

New maple grades designed to standardize the different levels and tastes of maple syrup nationwide go into effect this year in Vermont. Maple producers have three years to change their labels. Vermont producers can still mark syrup with “Fancy” and “Grade B” as long as they also mark the syrup with the standardized grades.

The goal of the morning’s testimony was to discover whether the rule “reflected our intent,” said Partridge. “Yes. It does,” she added.

Ensuring fair taxation around composting organic material is also an issue, she said.

Toleno and Partridge said that last session’s controversial GMO labeling bill, which passed the House, will go to the state Senate Committee on Agriculture this session.

A large grassroots effort to build support for the bill, which requires companies label products containing genetically engineered organisms, has helped the bill get to the Senate, said Toleno.

“VPIRG (Vermont Public Interest Research Group) hit the pavement hard,” said Toleno.

Toleno said that pro-GMO lobbyists left the House members alone. He anticipates they’re waiting to spring themselves on senators.

GMO labeling laws are great, said Toleno, but the changes in the marketplace are better.

Toleno said he sees more and more products marked “GMO free.”

‘Austerity vs. prosperity’

“Austerity is a failed approach,” said Rep. John Moran, D-Wardboro, as he sat in a large wooden chair in the lobby between the cafeteria and House of Representatives.

Moran recalled that in his childhood, his family had a water pump for their drinking water. They had to prime the pump by pouring a little water into the pump before it could draw water from the well. Similarly, he said, the state needs to prime the pump of people’s economic lives.

“It’s time for us to get imaginative,” said Moran.

The state needs to have a serious dialogue on income inequality, he said. It has used austerity cuts to close the budget gap. Unfortunately, the cutting usually translates into slashing services to the people who need the services.

As a result, the whole population shifts downwards economically, he said.

Moran said the state should rethink its taxation system, which he feels penalizes those at the lower end of the income spectrum, primarily service workers. As a state, Vermont also needs to find other revenue producers, he said.

Moran is co-sponsoring a House bill to raise the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour. Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, is co-sponsoring a sister bill in the Senate.

In a separate interview, Galbraith said that raising the minimum wage will mean fewer people will require state social services.

Moran also supports the Paid Sick Days Campaign, a joint House and Senate measure — bills H.208 and S.255 — to guarantee all Vermont workers a minimum of seven paid sick days. “No one should have a job where they can’t take time off,” he said.

Employers already offering paid sick days will be unaffected by the bill, he said. But there are about 60,000 Vermont employees whose employers do not allow any paid time off for being sick, seeing the doctor, or caring for a sick family member.

Vermont’s approach to economic development and social inequality seems “confined to a box within a box,” said Moran. “The [American] economic system is seriously failing a majority of the people.”

On the roads again

Funding transportation is “the big unknown,” said Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, during a break between committee meetings.

Burke serves on the House Committee on Transportation.

Shortfalls in the federal highway fund and lower gas taxes due to people driving fuel-efficient cars have taken a bite out of the Agency of Transportation’s budget, she said.

Vermont has received substantial funding in recent years, including stimulus funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and Tropical Storm Irene recovery, she said.

“But now what?” she asked rhetorically.

The transportation committee is set to delve into this conundrum — and will also develop long-term proposals and discuss infrastructure for electric cars, said Burke.

Burke added that she plans to continue her years-long focus on pedestrian and bike safety.

Bridges and roads in Vermont face challenges beyond funding, said Burke. Given the number of weather-related disaster declarations, it’s likely weather will become more extreme, which puts more stress on the state and local transportation infrastructure.

“There’s a lot of stuff on the horizon, and it’s all related,” said Burke.

The long haul

As Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, sat in the Statehouse cafeteria at the end of a long second day, waiting for his Montpelier housemate, another legislator, to emerge from a committee meeting, he listed four key priorities for the coming months.

The ongoing disposition of Vermont Yankee is an obvious priority, with Hebert taking the long view about the financial effect on his district’s property tax base and the eventual loss of a cluster of very-high-paying jobs.

“Everybody’s asking for money,” he said. “What we need is continued relief once it’s decommissioned and the land is accessible.”

Hebert is also looking at the proposed agreement between Entergy and the state, particularly the provision that would give the state the right of first refusal to buy the VY property.

Hebert also wants the legislature to reevaluate Act 148, expressing deep concern about some provisions in the state’s universal recycling law, which took effect in 2012.

In particular, he cites the mandate that haulers offer residential recycling collection at no additional charge.

For some smaller, family-owned regional trash haulers, that mandate would “double their routes,” he said. Yet such haulers would need to double their prices to offer that service for free as required by law.

Hebert also hopes to see some reform of Act 60, the law that redistributes property tax money throughout the state in an effort to equalize state education spending.

And he expressed support for repairs or reconstruction of the Sweet Pond Dam. The water was drained from the pond in 2012 after the 1928 dam was deemed unsafe.

“It’s huge,” he said. “It has to be done in Guilford. Its history and educational value is a tremendous resource.”

And with that, Hebert called it a night and prepared to go cook dinner for himself and his legislative housemates as day two of the session turned to night.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #237 (Wednesday, January 15, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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