Another difficult year for lawmakers

As the Vermont Legislature begins a new biennium this week, it faces many of the issues it faced in the last biennium: a lousy economy, increased demand for state services, and a shrinking tax base.

The state's General Fund is estimated to be short by between $50 million and $70 million for fiscal year 2014. Then there is the uncertainty of the state seeing federal funds to pay for a new state hospital and the full cost of rebuilding roads, bridges, and culverts damaged by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

While Gov. Peter Shumlin and legislative leaders have said they don't want to raise taxes, they might need to if revenues from broad-based taxes - income, sales, rooms and meals, and gasoline, among others - continue to be sluggish.

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With yet another biennium dominated by battling budget deficits, the biggest casualty is likely to be single-payer health care.

Lawmakers were expecting to see a funding proposal for a single-payer system this year. That presentation is probably not going to happen. Instead, the state will focus its efforts on establishing a health-care exchange under the terms of the federal Affordable Care Act. These exchanges will be in place by 2014.

There's also a lot of unfinished legislative business from the last biennium. Topping the list is marijuana decriminalization, collective bargaining for child-care and home-health-care workers, and a “death with dignity” law.

Those items are priorities of Gov. Peter Shumlin, but it sounds as if Shumlin will have just as difficult a time getting this legislation passed as he did in 2011 and 2012.

Despite wide majorities in the House and Senate, and the continued leadership of House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, the Democrats will not necessarily provide a rubber stamp for the governor.

Other hot-button issues in the upcoming session include a proposed three-year moratorium on commercial wind development in the state, possible changes to the state's firearms laws, and how the state might deal with federal funding cuts if Congress can't reach agreement on a budget.

All in all, it looks like another difficult session for lawmakers in Montpelier.

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