By Christian Avard & Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian
Posted December 29, 2006
When lawmakers convene on Wednesday to kick off the 2006-2007 biennium, many of the same issues that befuddled them in past years will rear their heads again — rising property taxes, health care premiums, global warming, keeping farms viable, and planning the state’s future energy mix.
Along with these issues, lawmakers will still have to balance the state budget at a time when surpluses are shrinking, and not predicted to continue in the ensuing years.
Gov. Jim Douglas will kick off the session with his inaugural address, and a top aide said Vermonters should expect the governor to focus on long-term strategies to make the state more “prosperous.”
“I think he it will become evident what he will be focusing on this session from his inaugural address — he will focus on where he envisions Vermont heading, and what Vermont needs to do to be prosperous in the future,” said Mike Smith, secretary of the agency of administration.
“After the election, he came back to work we had a meeting and said, ‘Listen, we really need to look at the cost drivers in Vermont that are hurting people,” added Smith.
Smith said the Douglas administration will introduce a “lean” budget with only minimal increases, largely because the state’s economy, and tax receipts, are becoming less robust. He anticipates a total budget growth of about 1.1 percent in the proposed FY 2008 budget.
Douglas, top staff, and legislative leaders have already met since the election to talk about mutual priorities.
“We have met twice and early on and we were just trying to connect and be cordial and then more recently we were able to talk more specifically talk about how we want to approach the issue of property taxes and what we expect of schools,” said Gaye Symington, D-Jericho. She is all but assured to resume her post as speaker of the House when the session convenes on Wednesday.
She said neither the Democratic-controlled Legislature, nor the governor, should be declaring they have a mandate due to the election results. In November, voters gave the Democrats a veto-proof majority in the House and Senate, and Douglas was reelected by a wide margin.
“I think you’ve got to listen to Vermonters, first of all, and they’ve put in place a strong Democratic majority but reelected Douglas and they expect us to work together,” said Symington. “I take the results not so much as a mandate to go and override vetoes, shove legislation through, and make it happen. I see it as Vermonters saying, ‘You did good work which we believed in and you tackled tough stuff and we want you to keep doing that and to work together and not come to stalemate.”
The most recent property tax reform plan — Act 68 — was designed by a Republican administration, a Republican House, and a Democratic Senate, and Symington believes the Legislature will have to work with the governor to craft an updated version.
“I think we have to keep working together in that kind of bipartisan way,” said Symington.
However, she thinks some fundamental questions have to be asked. Schools have been asked to take on more and more roles in communities, and that may be leading to tax increases.
“What we need to ask is fundamentally what are we asking schools to do, and how can we improve services with the price we’re paying, but more importantly, what are the outcomes we’re getting,” said Symington. She also wants the House Education Committee to look closely at what services are being provided by schools, either by request or mandate, to determine the cost.
There is also likely to be a continued discussion around the governance of schools, and whether the state needs so many school districts and superintendents. This discussion was started earlier this year by Education Commissioner Richard Cate.
“I think everyone agrees that property taxes are an issue we need to spend some considerable time on,” said Smith. “The cost of education is something we need to focus on. The fact is we have declining enrollment, and Vermonters are seeing their incomes rising 3.5 percent, but their school budgets are going up 6.5 percent — that can’t be sustainable.”
Douglas has proposed capping increases in school budgets, but Smith said he is open to other proposals that achieve the same goal.
“While I’m not enthralled with caps as a mechanism, I think we do need stronger consequences for spending increases,” said Symington. “I’m not trying to be dismissive of the governor’s proposal, but I’m interested in looking at what the idea is trying to accomplish and see what is going to be the most effective way of achieving that goal.”
The House Ways and Means Committee is already looking at ways to decouple some of the education funding from the property tax, possibly by using a portion of the income tax, or other broad-based taxes.
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns, too, is pushing a proposal to put more of the education budget on the backs of the income tax rather than local property taxes.
Putting more resources and focus on Vermont’s emerging economy, especially among homegrown industries, will be a focus of this year’s Legislature.
In particular, lawmakers say they are interested in finding ways to help businesses thrive in more rural parts of the state, largely through rebuilding, or building, the necessary infrastructure.
“Our basic focus has to be, ‘What are we passing on to the next generation?’ And, we want to build on what we did last year especially in the worlds of health care and energy and rural economic development,” said Symington.
For Symington, rural economic development is a big umbrella that covers everything from housing to transportation to broadband. On this last point, Symington said the state has to get serious about expanding broadband to the entire state, not just the areas that private companies want to service.
“It’s not enough to wait around for the private sector to get to everyone,” she said. “We are a rural state and there isn’t the economy of scale that works for the system to unfold through the market. Meanwhile, people in the rural parts of the state are missing out on tremendous opportunities.”
Smith said technology will be a major focus of Douglas’ inaugural and budget addresses.
Symington said the state should look to the work in Burlington by Burlington Telecom as a way to help expand service to more rural areas, or use a cooperative model similar to the way some utilities in Vermont are organized.
Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, and chairman of the six-member Progressive caucus in the House, agrees. However, he said this year the Legislature has to get serious about helping out rural Vermonters.
“We’ve been talking about rural economic development for years and supporting the agricultural infrastructure and that’s not been solved,” said Pearson.
The work of the Next Generation Commission, which was asked to look at ways to boost economic development and retain a younger workforce in Vermont, Symington said, also raises some good points.
“It sends a strong message hat we have to integrate workplace investment into economic development, and if you haven’t done that then you really haven’t built an economic development plan,” she said.
A ban on the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the Farmer Protection Act have been the primary focus of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, but the primary issue legislators will tackle are struggling family farms.
There’s been a lot of talk among farmers and policy makers that 2006 has been a particularly rough year due to warm weather, low milk prices, and high fuel prices.
Immediate financial assistance for Vermont dairy farmers may be in the mix, but it has not been determined what that aid may look like.
Another concern is the lack of slaughterhouses in the state, a problem exacerbated after a slaughterhouse fire in Rutland. There’s a 10-month waiting list to get animals slaughtered in the state and lawmakers plan to look \at how to alleviate the persistent problem.
“I think we need to look hard at this issue and determine if the state can intervene in some way, and what that might look like,” said Symington. “The loss of slaughterhouses is a big concern for farmers, and we should see if it can be addressed.”
It is unlikely that premises identification — a proposal requiring all livestock operations to register the location of their animals to identify them in the event of a disease outbreak — will come up this session. Proponents believe it is necessary so that officials will know where animals are located, but critics maintain that surveillance is unnecessary, a waste of taxpayer dollars, and a first step toward a federal identification and tracking mandate.
The state’s new agriculture secretary Roger Albee does not plan to push the issue.
“It will be busy even though there’s no defining issue like years past,” said Amy Shollenberger, policy director for the advocacy group Rural Vermont. But with the departure of Steve Kerr as agriculture secretary, Shollenberger hopes his replacement will bring more to the table.
“We are hopeful the new secretary will be more open to all sides of discussion and will at least have an open mind when approaching problems rather than coming in with his mind already made up, which was one of the patterns that happened with the former secretary,” she said.
Symington is asking the agriculture committee to weigh in on global warming, and how farms can take part in the solution.
And, she wants to make sure that any talk of reforming how education is funded must take into account ways to reduce property taxes on farms.
Finally, she would like to see more attention on how farmers can find ways to add value to agricultural products produced in the state.
Last year, the Legislature voted unanimously to have studies conducted that weigh the relative costs and benefits of all energy sources, including nuclear power.
“This year, the natural resources committees will be further reviewing energy planning and one of the things that the department is obliged to do with oversight from the joint energy committee is to look at the relative cost benefit analysis of the different types of energy generation and that included Entergy Vermont Yankee [VY],” said Rep. Sarah Edwards, P-Brattleboro.
This includes finding solutions should Vermont Yankee go off-line by 2012. With constant pressure from Vermont Yankee officials, Edwards hopes legislators will not be swayed to rely on VY.
“We cannot be held hostage by one form of energy over another. We need to make strong steps towards renewables,” said Edwards. “We need to look for 300 additional megawatts because when VY goes off-line we need to provide for those 300 megawatts that we get from Yankee. I think that’s going to be Entergy’s strategy ... to make people believe that we’re going to have to go without lights, which is not true.”
Symington has been talking to the various policy committees in charge of energy and the environment to begin taking up ideas that can help Vermont curb global warming.
“I reject the notion that there isn’t much a small state can do. There is an opportunity for Vermont to lead the country, and we can’t lead without setting an example,” she said. “There is just too much at stake to not take that opportunity. We need to be so much more proactive and getting real about this.”
Symington believes Vermont can do more in transportation, emissions, and energy conservation. The state should look at the success of Efficiency Vermont in helping businesses reduce power consumption and see if that model can be applied to home heating fuels for homeowners.
Pearson said he and others are talking about forming a global warming caucus.
“This would be a way for us to bring in different minds from around the state to stimulate a discussion, and my sense is that most people find the issue overwhelming, and this would be a way to put some ideas out there,” said Pearson.
“One of the challenges for all us is when you talk about the environment as an issue, you have to keep in mind that some of the options are not available to many working families, who are facing their own issues. For example, buying a hybrid car is not an option for a huge number of Vermonters, and we can’t wait for everyone to afford one, but we can’t also penalize people for not buying one. I don’t know how you do that,” he said.
One of Pearson’s ideas is to create “do not mail” registry, modeled after the state’s do not call registry. This would keep people from receiving junk mail offers and catalogs that they did not request.
“This is a small one, but it gets at consumer issues and environmental issues,” said Pearson. “Think of all the predatory credit card offers that are targeted at low-income Vermonters. And, the way I think of it, how many AOL disks do I need?”
Monitoring fence-line radiation at the Vermont Yankee facility will continue to be an issue but Edwards was unsure if, or when, the state will determine the appropriate measurements for fence-line radiation.
In addition, legislators will reexamine evacuation plans in Windham County and determine whether they remain adequate by state requirements. But for Edwards, this biennium may be focused more on education and less on legislation.
“Anything can happen Legislature-wise. I’m sure VY would love to have our decision made sooner than later because that decreases the time that we can spend educating people,” Edwards said.
Health care was probably the biggest issue facing the Legislature in the most recent session, and expect it to come back up again.
Symington said she is keeping in place the House Health Care Committee, which worked last session to design the landmark Catamount Health legislation, admitting there is more work to do and lawmakers need to play a role in making sure the program is implemented.
Smith, too, said the administration will be putting a lot of effort into Catamount Health’s implementation.
“I think implementing Catamount is a lot,” said Symington. “There are 38 measures and the committee will be there in case we need to make adjustments or if there are parts of it that are unclear.”
She added that the Legislature must also begin to look at ways to make health care more affordable for all Vermonters, not just provide coverage for the uninsured.
Pearson is glad to hear that further reforms of the health care system are not “off the table.”
“I was worried that the discussion would be put off f or another four years while we wait for Catamount to kick in, and then it would be too late for other Vermonters,” said Pearson.
“I think we know the basic structure of how to cover all Vermonters, and there really doesn’t need to be all this constant hand wringing,” he said. “We basically just need to ask ourselves are we going to do it, and if so what is the cheapest way for everybody to be covered. I think it becomes more and more clear that as we try different patchwork solutions, we find they are not really solutions at all.”