Posted By Anne on June 10, 2013
Budget: Setting the budget begins before the legislature starts in January. The House Appropriations Committee begins by taking testimony from those agencies and departments that are impacted by the budget. In late January the Governor gives his annual budget address proposing expenditures for the next fiscal year. The House initiates the process by finding the revenues and/or gaps in revenues and arrive at a final budget. This final budget is voted on by the House and sent to the Senate for approval. Each budget (the Governor’s, the House’s and Senate’s had different priorities. This year there were many proposals to generate revenue – many of you sent emails regarding some of those proposed changes – thank you. I am including a message from the Chair of Appropriations Committee, Martha Heath, as I find her words about the budget say it best.
“Preparation of the FY14 budget required, for the 7th year in a row, addressing a gap between available resources and estimated expenditures. While the nation is easing its way out of the Great Recession, revenues for the state of Vermont have finally returned to 2008 levels. Finding the right balance between maintaining necessary services while making investments for the future was our challenge.
The House raised $23M to support its version of the budget. $8M was put into reserves to help with future shortfalls – particularly ones caused by sequestration at the federal level. While the Senate was working on the budget, lower caseload projections decreased anticipated costs by an additional $4M. In addition they chose not to put any money into reserves therefore they only raised $10M. In April we all learned that revenues were far above forecast thus the need for reserves would be filled when the end of the year closeout happened. Given this revised forecast, the House, the Senate and the Governor came together and agreed to build a final version of the budget without raising any new revenue. The budget outlines how the $10M gap was closed using updated information and good management practices.
Many of the differences in the budget were in the language sections. The biggest change related to money was in childcare where the total new investment is $4.5M; this is $1.7M less than the House proposal. The good news is that FPLs (federal poverty levels) used to determine subsidies will rise from FY09 levels to FY13 levels and will impact both who qualifies for a subsidy and those already receiving subsidies. In addition childcare providers will receive a 3% increase beginning on November 1st.
This final budget makes important investments. It addresses the Medicaid cost shift by increasing provider reimbursement by 3%. This will affect not only hospitals and doctors but also our direct care workers who serve the developmental services and choices for care populations. Language in the bill directs insurance companies to acknowledge this change in their rates, lowering rate increases from what they would otherwise be. This directly benefits Vermonters who purchase private insurance. The bill eases the transition for Vermonters moving from Catamount and VHAP into the Exchange by providing premium and cost sharing subsidies per the House-passed budget. For the first time we are appropriating dollars for LIHEAP in the base budget, reluctantly recognizing that what was for many, many years a federal responsibility must now be partially paid for by the state.
This budget increases investment in higher education by 3% specifically for scholarships and financial aid to Vermont students thus lowering their debt burden. This is a critical investment in our future.
We have taken steps to both build jobs and get people back to work. By continuing and increasing our investment in working lands, using further investment from the federal government to rebuild from Irene and supporting employers hit by that storm, we are building industries and jobs of which Vermont can be proud. We have invested in housing by redirecting the General assistance appropriation from crisis management to housing supports .
We have made significant investments to support Vermonters with substance abuse and mental health issues. The funding for the new state hospital, Reach Up supports additional substance abuse focused case workers, and the addition of a manager for the Hub and Spoke initiative are a few examples.
The House and Senate have worked hard to come together to find the right balance between fiscal responsibility and making investments for the future while not raising new revenues….”
Health Care: Vermont Health Connect This fall Vermonters will be able to access health insurance in a new market place called Vermont Health Connect. Through Vermont Health Connect, individuals and small employers will be able to compare health plans and choose the one that best fits their health care needs and their budget. Starting in 2014, insurance companies will have to compete in a new way for your business with better outreach, lower costs and better customer service.
At www.healthconnect.vermont.gov Vermonters can look at the benefit package and see if they qualify for tax credits to help them pay for their premiums and subsidies to help them pay for their other medical bills.
Small business owners can get information that will help them choose whether to offer health insurance to their employees. There is a list of information sessions being held around the state where people can go to get their questions answered. Phone number: (802) 654-8977.
The House Health Care Committee has been focused on making sure the transition to Vermont Health Connect works as smoothly as possible. That is why we worked with Gov. Shumlin’s administration to put forward a bill that would supplement the Federal premium assistance for Vermonters moving from VHAP and Catamount to plans on Vermont Health Connect. Vermont will be one of only two states to offer additional assistance to people when they buy health insurance. We will continue to meet over the summer and fall to be sure that when Vermonters begin to enroll in Vermont Health Connect on October 1, 2013 everything will be ready to go.
Human Services and Health Care: Human services and health care spending is roughly $2 billion per year, or about 40% of the statewide budget. This includes Medicaid, Long Term Care, VHAP (Vermont Health Assistance Program), Catamount Health, 3Squares, Reach Up, and General Assistance.
On January 1, 2014, Vermont’s health care exchange known as “Vermont Health Connect” will go into effect, as mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act. Vermonters who currently enroll in VHAP or Catamount Health will transition either to expanded Medicaid or Vermont Health Connect. During the 2013 session, the Legislature worked hard to ease the impact of health care reform on lower-income Vermonters in the following ways:
About 30,000 Vermonters in VHAP and approximately 2,000 in Catamount will transition to an expanded Medicaid program. The State has invested about $18 million state dollars into Medicaid expansion, which will be matched by about $68 million in federal dollars, which is a great deal for both Medicaid recipients and Vermont taxpayers.
About 20,000 lower-income Vermonters will transition from VHAP and Catamount toVermont Health Connect. The Legislature has invested in lower premiums for these Vermonters, so that they can purchase health care at reduced cost.
Nearly 30,000 Vermonters who currently do not qualify for state-funded health care will be eligible for premium and cost sharing assistance in Vermont Health Connect. These are lower-income, working Vermonters who are uninsured or underinsured or paying a very high percent of their incomes on health coverage. They will do significantly better in 2014.
The Legislature addressed the Medicaid cost shift by increasing provider reimbursement by 3%. This will affect not only hospitals and doctors but also our direct care workers who serve the developmental and elderly populations.
Agriculture: GMO Labeling According to a UVM poll, more than 90% of Vermonters are in favor of labeling foods produced using genetic engineering, they want this labeling for health, religious, moral, economic opportunity and environmental, reasons. On a strong vote, the Vermont House voted for this right, moving it onto the Senate for action next year.
The State faces potential litigation from the biotech industry on 3 legal issues: federal pre-emption; first amendment rights; and the dormant commerce clause. The bill was carefully crafted to address possible litigation on each of these issues. According to expert testimony the bill, as written, is legally defensible and has a reasonable possibility of prevailing in court. Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor next year, it would go into effect 18 months later. At that time, Vermont would join 64 countries that already have such labeling requirements in place.
Agriculture: Brownfields There are at least 97 contaminated sites or ‘brownfields” in Vermont, and some of these may be suitable for remediation. Municipalities and developers shy away from these properties due to potential liability concerns. H.226 limits this liability for municipalities, regional development corporations, regional planning commissions, secured lenders and innocent purchasers. This opens the door to expedite clean up and reuse blighted properties to everyone’s benefit.
Government Operations: Search and Rescue What happens when someone is lost in the backcountry, remote areas or on the waters of the state? Interim standards set last spring will be replaced with a comprehensive search and rescue response that is organized, immediate and cooperative. The Commissioner of Public Safety will coordinate responses with public and nonpublic entities that specialize in protecting this safety: state police, game wardens, ski patrol, municipal police, fire departments, emergency medical service providers and others. The goal is to save lives and recover lost people as swiftly as possible and help to protect against needless loss of life.
Government Operations: Campaign Finance Reform Government Operations has been working intently on a Campaign Finance Bill. The Committee wants to illuminate where a political candidate’s money is being used, the money coming in and the money being spent. An agreed upon message is — enhanced, robust reporting of finances, more disclosure , more often. Our constituents have been requesting this reform.
We heard very pointed testimony from a constitutional law scholar. We were advised to move forward cautiously when trying to institute campaign finance reform and how best to avoid potential lawsuits in light of recent federal court rulings , including a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2007 that threw out VT’s attempts to curb campaign spending.
The Citizens United decision which allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts on electioneering communications, suggests that stricter and more frequent disclosures of spending and donations to such entities could withstand judicial scrutiny. A few guiding principles guide much of the litigation and law surrounding campaign finance. States regulating campaign donations and expenditures must meet the high standard of showing that their regulations prevent actual corruption or its appearance.
Political donations facilitate speech and political association, two fundamental First Amendment rights. To try and regulate or suppress those rights in anyway puts the burden on a state to show that there is a compelling governmental interest for those regulations.
We are trying to craft a defensible bill that provides transparency for all and be upheld under scrutiny.
Judiciary in the 21st Century: This year, the Vermont legislature addressed a variety of issues related to victims’ rights, possession of marijuana and end-of-life issues. First, access to justice was increased for people who were sexually victimized as children, raising the statute of limitations to 40 years after the occurrence. Second, individuals who suffer from domestic abuse which results in an inability to work or get to work will have a variety of additional protections and supports. Third, individuals overdosing or friends who find them this way will be able to call 911 without fear of arrest, saving countless lives. Fourth, those in possession of small amounts of marijuana will face a civil penalty rather than the life-altering result of a criminal conviction. And finally, those with a terminal illness who face intolerable suffering will have a legal route to acquire life-ending medication.
Judiciary: Statute of limitations on sex crimes extended S.20 affords greater access to justice to people who were sexually victimized as children. It extends the statute of limitations for certain crimes of sexual violence against a child (anyone under 18) to forty years after the occurrence of the crime. This change acknowledges the serious nature of the crimes of sexual assault, felony sexual exploitation of a minor, and lewd or lascivious conduct with a child.
The current statute limits the window during which these cases may be prosecuted to the earlier of the victim turning 24 or ten years after the date they first reported. For many children, especially those who can’t disclose abuse until they are adults, this is simply not enough time. This is especially important for child victims, because we know that they often delay reporting for a number of reasons: threats from the abuser that they or someone else will be hurt if they tell; fear of the abuser; confusion about what’s happening; not realizing that it’s wrong; shame; not wanting to break up the family; having disclosed to someone previously and not been believed; and repressed memories.
Children are especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and perpetrators specifically target victims who they think will be unlikely to report, or who will not be believed if they do talk about what has happened to them. Now the criminal justice system will be able to respond to these victims when they are able to report, even if it is years later.
Judiciary: Decriminalization of Possession of Small Amounts of Marijuana Beginning July 1, 2013, possession of 1 oz. or less of marijuana or 5 grams or less of hashish (less than 1/5 oz.) will result in a civil penalty rather than a criminal charge for anyone 21 and older. Criminal convictions carry a heavy burden: they become part of a person’s permanent history; can prevent access to federal student loans, public benefits, certain professions and many jobs. They can inadvertently perpetuate poverty and even lead to greater recidivism. A civil penalty avoids these long-term consequences. Now, a first offense will result in a fine of up to $200; a second offense up to $300 and a third and subsequent offense up to $500. For persons under 21, there is a mandatory referral to the Court Diversion Board for screening. If necessary, referral to treatment may be required.
Judiciary: Good Samaritan Bill (H.65) A drug user whose friend is overdosing — or who is overdosing himself — can now call 911 without fear of being arrested. Currently about 52 Vermonters a year die of opiate overdoses, sometimes because their friends are afraid of getting in trouble by calling. This is a law that has saved lives in other places and will save the lives of Vermonters.
Judiciary: Helping Victims of Domestic Abuse Passage of S.47, Relief from Abuse Protective Orders (APO), means that the court, not the victim, now has the responsibility of getting the APO to the sheriff so he can serve the defendant. Should a defendant appeal an order, the appeal will not put the order on hold—a necessary protection for victims. Finally, it says that if a defendant refuses to hand over a victim’s personal documentation—e.g. a driver’s license or birth certificate—which evidently is not uncommon in cases of domestic abuse, the court may order him/her to do so.
Judiciary: Helping People With Suspended Driving Privileges to Legally Drive Again About 23,000 Vermonters have had their driver licenses suspended (DLS) for failing to pay accrued fines. Many of these folks continue driving, often claiming it is the only way to get to work. These individuals will now have a way to get back on track.
The legislature passed a law, building on work begun last year, that clarified that those with civil DLSes (not as a result of DUI) may participate in a program through court diversion to set up a payment plan and be able to get their licenses back.
Judiciary: Addressing the Needs of Abuse Victims H.19 The purpose of the domestic and sexual violence survivors’ transitional employment program is to provide temporary, partial wage replacement to individuals who must leave employment, without good cause attributable to the employer, because of circumstances directly resulting from domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking. The reason for this bill is to clarify the law and to ensure it is meeting its stated purpose.
First, the bill clarifies the existing program to ensure that victims of domestic violence who are physically or emotionally unable to work may access the program. The existing statute is vague on this point, predicating eligibility on the following conditions. The claimant must leave employment for one of the following reasons:
The individual reasonably fears that the domestic and sexual violence will continue at or en route to or from the place of employment.
The individual intends to relocate in order to avoid future domestic and sexual violence of the individual or a member of the individual’s family.
The individual reasonably believes that leaving the employment is necessary for the safety of the individual or a member of the individual’s family.
Consistent with the stated purpose of the statute, this bill would amend the statute to ensure victims who are “physically or emotionally” unable to work as a result of domestic violence are eligible for the program. This is entirely consistent with the purpose of the program and articulates expressly what is implicit in the existing conditions. It removes any doubt for victims who may no longer be able to physically do the work they used to do, or who suffer from mental health issues like PTSD as a result of abuse which makes it impossible for a claimant to continue working.
Second, the statute clarifies the due process protections for claimants by ensuring opportunity for hearing, if requested, and opportunity to provide additional information or evidence to the Commissioner subsequent to an initial denial.
Judiciary: End of Life Choices As soon as the governor signs the bill, Vermonters who are suffering from a terminal illness and who are within 6 months of the end of life may request a lethal dose of medication from their physician in order to hasten their death. There are many safeguards built in to the legislation:
- to be evaluated and diagnosed by 2 physicians;
- to be capable of understanding and making decisions for themselves;
- to make their request 2 times orally and 1 time in writing, witnessed by 2 people who are not related to the patient.
This law is based on the Oregon model but with less governmental reporting. Along with hospice and palliative care, it is an important part of end of life choices for which many have asked. In 2016 after careful scrutiny and assurances that best practices are in place, the legislation moves to a more streamlined program where the doctor-patient relationship is private and protected. Immunity for the physician is granted only when they follow the precise protocol established in the legislation.
Education: Flexible Pathways Initiative S.130, The Flexible Pathways Initiative, easily passed the House.
For 94 years high school graduation has been determined by the Carnegie Unit – the number of hours spent in a classroom seat – 125 hours for each high school credit; a minimum of 20 credits are needed to graduate. A significant number of VT high school students – a number that could exceed 10,000 – are disengaged without connection to their education and to their postgraduate years. S.130 for the first time codifies an alternative learning opportunity.
Dual enrollment offers two free college courses to qualified juniors or seniors that will be offered on college or high school campuses. Work based learning, virtual or blended learning, and early college for seniors are some of the new offerings that will be guided by Personal Learning Plans (PLP’s). PLP’s will be fully implemented in 2017 for 7 -12 students after the Working Group, a number of educators, creates a plan and method of implementation.
Early College will offer a full time college experience to seniors that have met PLP standards. Their host high school will not receive ADM reimbursement, rather 87% of the base education rate – next year $7,960.00 – will come directly from the education fund, similar to what is currently provided to the VAST program at Vermont Technical College.
Tuition for Dual Enrollment will be fully funded from the general fund for the first two years. The third year will be set by CCV’s rate of $669.00 per course. If the college course is offered at the high school, a charge of $134.00 will be paid to a college for administration and course credit approval. Dual Enrolment courses will provide high school and college credits.
In the third year the lesser amount of $134.00 for courses taught at the high school will come out of the education fund, and courses taught on college campuses for $669.00 will come half from the general fund and half from the education fund.
Education: Pre Kindergarten The relationship between enrollment in prekindergarten education and better educational outcomes is undisputed. Children who aren’t able to access high quality early education – for whatever reason – are more likely to challenge the resources of our public school system throughout their K-12 experience.
The House passed a comprehensive prekindergarten education bill that expands access, clarifies oversight, and strengthens quality standards throughout the state. By investing in high-quality early educational instruction, we provide a foundation for learning that can’t be replicated later in life. Unfortunately, not all children have access to foundational supports that can help prevent lifelong difficulties in learning. Only 38% of eligible 3 or 4 year-olds in Vermont are currently enrolled in a high-quality program.
Our current system of providing pre-k to Vermont children exists through a blend of public and private programs. This hybrid promotes affordable options for high-quality education in a myriad of settings across the state. As complex as it is, this system permits unique flexibility that families need to effectively access early education services for their children. With 71% of Vermont’s children under six living in homes where all adults are in the workforce, we know that working families face difficult challenges that impact their children’s access early educational opportunities.
This bill requires the 16% of Vermont towns who do not currently pay for any of their eligible children to attend a qualified program to fund at least 10 hours of prequalified prekindergarten instruction. It also erodes barriers to access for children in towns that do fund pre-k by permitting portability of a 10-hour tuition payment. Portability of tuition helps ensure that a child doesn’t forego their opportunity to participate in an early education program because other wrap-around care and services aren’t available. Our work ensures that Vermont’s children will be on equal footing with one another because it will no longer matter what town a child lives in when they seek access to prekindergarten education.
Under the new law, parents may – but are not required – to enroll their 3 or 4 year-old child in a high-quality prekindergarten program. A comprehensive list of prequalified programs will be available to parents in a publicly accessible database. The bill gives school boards the authority to limit its tuition payments to prequalified providers within the district’s specific “prekindergarten region”.
By eliminating the real-life hurdles to Pre-K enrollment, we are making wiser investments with our education dollars and doing the right thing for children.
Education: Concussions This bill will assure that each school has a concussion management action plan that describes the procedures the school shall take when a student athlete suffers a concussion. The plan will include policies on:
- removing a student athlete from play when it is suspected that the athlete has suffered a concussion;
- what steps the student athlete must take in order to return to any athletic or learning activity;
- who makes the final decision that a student athlete may return to athletic activity; and
- the responsibility for informing a parent when a student suffers a concussion.
- It calls for the provision of a health care provider present at collision sport athletic events (starting in 2015)
Education: H. 60 Free and Reduced Lunch Currently, children in Vermont who are on reduced lunch, pay 40 cents for lunch. This bill expanded the eligibility for the free lunch program to families with incomes between 130 percent and 185 percent of the federal poverty line. Families below that threshold already qualify for free lunch, which is paid for through federal funds. The estimated cost of $322,250 was appropriated in the 2014 budget. Currently, many of the children who are eligible for reduced lunches, do not receive them, as their families are not able to pay for them. It is expected that greater gains in student academic performance, attendance and behavior will occur when children are not hungry. Vermont is the first state to pass such a law.
Education: Mental Health/Substance Abuse Services through Schools The bill calls for a study that looks at how these services are currently being offered at schools, who pays for them, as well as model programs nationally, and funding mechanisms through health insurance or other sources.
Agriculture: Hemp Hemp is one of the most versatile and productive plants and is profitably cultivated and processed in almost all of the developed nations of the world. S.157, “The Hemp Bill,” declares hemp to be an accepted and approved agricultural crop in the State of Vermont, and also provides for a flexible regulatory role for the Agency of Agriculture. This will give our “agripreneurs” new tools to develop unique products for a national market. Hemp remains illegal under federal law, so farmers will have to plant at their own risk!
Agriculture: Meat and Poultry Industry H.515 includes provisions related to itinerant slaughter which will expand the ability of farmers to market their animals and increase opportunities for on-farm slaughter.
Agriculture: Pet Merchants H.50, the so-called “pet merchants” bill, changes confusing and outdated statutes related to pet merchants & animal breeders and strengthens the inspection process. It also creates a pet dealer permit process under municipal authority. The bill’s intent and language was agreed to by a broad coalition of interests, including: VT Federation of Dog Clubs, the Human Society of the United States, and the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association.
Natural Resources & Energy: Shoreland Protection Vermont is home to over 800 lakes and ponds. These lakes are a boon to our economy and our tax base primarily due to the peace and enjoyment we experience in their proximity. Across Vermont, too many lakes are threatened from development styles that are known to harm lakes. Removal of vegetation right down to the water’s edge increases polluted run-off, degrades aquatic habitat and destabilizes banks, resulting in damage to the health and value of our lakes. Although local involvement is best, only 48 municipalities have set standards for shoreline development. This has left us with only 17% of our shorelands fit enough to able to provide these essential protections.
As many of you may remember, earlier in the session the legislature put forward a bill that was designed to provide coordinated, scientifically based, site-specific shoreline protection regulation throughout the state on any new development. This was met with considerable resistance from property owners who did not feel they had enough input in the process. As a result, legislation was put on hold. Over the summer, members of two committees will hold public meetings in 5 different locations. These meetings are designed to inform both the public and lawmakers as to appropriate next steps to protect our shorelands.
General. Housing & Military: Support for Working Vermonters The legislature passed several key pieces of legislation this session that help working Vermonters.
While equal pay provisions have been in law since 1963, Vermont women still earn only 86 percent of what men do today. The equal pay bill addresses this discrepancy by clarifying instances where individuals who do the same work may not be paid equally and by providing employees who seek to find out if they are receiving equal pay with protection against retaliation. Additionally, the law will now extend protections for mothers who nurse or express breast milk in the workplace and allow employees to request flexible work arrangements. These changes will allow for a more employee and family friendly work place at little or no cost to the employer. This law also creates a committee to study the feasibility of creating access to paid family leave in Vermont.
With passage of the agency fee bill, non-union members of public sector employee bargaining units will join their private sector counterparts in paying their share of the costs of conducting collective bargaining (contract negotiations) and grievance procedures. Employees can exercise their right not to join the union while paying their fair share of the cost for these legally mandated services. The agency fee will spread expenses among all employees, making for more effective representation and lower dues and fees for everyone.
Take one part aging population, one part empowerment of people with disabilities, and one large part policy by the State of Vermont and one has a critical need for a stream of quality home care workers. The Medicaid-funded programs the State offers are focused on helping elders and people with disabilities remain in home and community based care rather than in institutions. These programs utilize independent direct support workers, who work as little as two hours a week or as much as eight hours a day. The state recognizes both that they are underpaid and that they do not have a voice in the setting of rates for the services they provide. In fact, many of these workers have never seen a raise that outpaced inflation.
Vermont workers and the Department of Labor achieved a much-needed modernization of our state wage and hour law. Throughout the bill, the investigation, negotiation, adjudication, appeal, and enforcement processes for resolving unpaid wage claims are spelled out in greater detail to clarify the process for all involved. There is also an expansion of corporate responsibility for unpaid wages – now, the president of a corporation or other officers who have control of the payment operations may be held personally liable when wages are unpaid.
Health Care: Treatment of Lyme Disease in Vermont The Health Care committee heard a lot of testimony from Vermonters who have struggled with Lyme disease. There appears to be an increasing prevalence of this and other tick-borne diseases. In order to push for better treatment for Vermonters, the committee sent a letter to the Health Department strongly urging the Commissioner to embark on a number of important projects aimed at preventing infection, encouraging early detection and treatment and reassuring doctors they won’t be subject to disciplinary action solely for treating Lyme disease outside of CDC guidelines. The committee has asked the Department to report back on their efforts and also on efforts underway in neighboring states to combat Lyme disease. The Legislature will revisit the issue early in 2014. Lyme disease can be a debilitating disease, especially if the early symptoms go unrecognized. The Health Care committee is focused on efforts to improve prevention, early detection, accurate diagnosis and aggressive treatment of Lyme disease.
Human Services: The Human Services Committee approached their work on the budget and on bills with this in mind: public investments in people; ensuring our most vulnerable Vermonters are safe and protected; maintaining a structure that helps Vermonters move out of poverty; and preventing problems that can lead to even greater cost to the State.
Human Services: Opiod Addiction & “ Meth” Abuse This spring, the Legislature took significant steps to address the growing problem of drug addiction in Vermont by passing H.522. In order to prevent “doctor shopping” by those looking for multiple prescriptions to legal but addictive drugs (like oxycontin), doctors will need to check the newly strengthened Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) under most circumstances, to make sure the patient isn’t getting the same drug elsewhere. This system was designed to serve public health needs, not law enforcement, and its information has never been available to law enforcement generally. [As a border community, if the nearby states have a similar system, interaction of information can be shared.] However, now, the Commissioner of Health will be able to provide a report from VPMS data about someone to the Commissioner of Public Safety, although not to other law enforcement officers and only if necessary to avert a serious threat to the public.
Vermont has so far escaped a large-scale meth (methamphetamine) epidemic, but we are seeing it encroaching. The legislature had already required that drugs with ephedrine (an ingredient in meth) had to be behind a locked case and were limited to a 30-day supply. Addicts got around this by sending out “smurfs” to each buy the drug at multiple pharmacies. Vermont pharmacies will now start using a free electronic registry system called NPLex that operates in real time to record the sales of drugs like Sudafed, and further limit the amount one person can buy. Because meth is so toxic to the environment in which it is made, the Dept. of Health will look at the issue of housing, contamination, and standards for re-occupancy.
Finally, the Dept. of Health continues its look at how to increase treatment for drug addiction and will also develop guidelines and training for hospitals in how to deal with patients who may have addictions. A pilot project may be created to make “opioid antagonists”—i.e., drugs such as naloxone that can reverse an overdose—more available for people who are at risk of an overdose. This will save lives. In the end, the goal is to prevent addiction, help those who are addicted get the treatment they need, and protect the public.
Human Services: “Tris” Vermonters want products that are safe. Flame retardants used in some children’s products and in upholstered furniture will soon be kept out of products available here. These particular flame retardants have , chemicals commonly referred to as Tris which can be especially unsafe for children. Our firefighters also face greater health hazards when they are fighting a fire where there is upholstered furniture with these chemicals in the foam padding. In Vermont, Tris will not be allowed to be replaced by chemicals classified as “known or reasonably anticipated to be” a human carcinogen or chemicals identified as causing birth defects, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity, or harm to reproduction or development. These products will still have flame retardants in them, but not retardants made with Tris.
Institutions & Corrections: Capital Dollars at Work The legislature approved investments of $173,042,697 in projects throughout the state in FY14 and FY15. Communities and Vermonters will benefit with upgrades in drinking water, wastewater treatment and nonpoint source clean up, support of secondary education and higher education with funds for building construction and maintenance, and support of our forests, parks, recreation, agriculture, and fishing resources. These investments also put Vermonters to work in good paying construction jobs.
Highlights include: More than $70 million is dedicated to Irene recovery, with the funding of the build out of our new mental health system of care and renovation of the Waterbury State Office complex. Significantly, the bill also provides over $17 million to pay off the state’s obligation on school construction by the end of FY15 and leaves in place the moratorium on state aid for school construction.
Over $1 million is invested each year in seven grant programs, which provide for recreation, human services, education, historic preservation and economic development. In addition, the legislature passed two resolutions enabling the Department of Forest Parks and Recreation to transfer recreation land to the town of Grand Isle and allowing for the expansion of a much-needed quarry in Plymouth. A separate bill enables the Austine School in Brattleboro to sell a parcel of land and also asks the Secretary of Education and the school to work together to consider the future of services to Vermont children who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Natural Resources & Energy: Thermal Efficiency We took steps this session to address the problem of heating fuel — one of Vermont’s major contributors to climate change and a growing economic burden for Vermonters, as the price of oil has doubled in the past ten years. H.520, our “thermal efficiency” bill, lacks the funding source we had hoped for and was shortened and weakened by the Senate, but some important provisions remain. First, the bill makes changes to the state’s Home Weatherization Assistance Program, which since 1990 has been bringing workers into low-income homes to make them more efficient. The program has a long waiting list, so we now require it to prioritize those Vermonters who qualify for LIHEAP heating assistance. We also provide a way to identify the leakiest LIHEAP homes, so we can target those homes before the others. This will help us to spread dwindling LIHEAP resources more efficiently over time.
H. 520 also coordinates, under the watch of the Public Service Board, the weatherization services provided by various efficiency groups around the state for Vermonters of every income level. This will begin to provide the same oversight and streamlining that we require for electric efficiency services. Among other improvements, consumers will be able to find, in one central clearinghouse, all the information and resources they need to weatherize their homes.
In addition, the bill recognizes that not every builder complies with the state’s current efficiency requirements for new construction and renovations, so we put measures in place to make sure that every builder knows about these laws before the first shovel hits the ground. The bill also authorizes the Department of Public Service to adopt a “stretch” code for residential buildings to achieve even greater energy savings. We charge a working group with developing a standard “energy rating tool” that an owner may use to disclose the building’s energy performance to a prospective buyer, much as a miles-per-gallon sticker does for a car.
Transportation: (S. 38) Eligibility for Driving and Identification Privileges in Vermont Farming is the backbone of Vermont’s economy and landscape. An estimated 1500 farm workers residing in Vermont face significant challenges to mobility and have been literally living in the shadows of the dairy barns. Being dependent on their employers and community volunteers in order to access groceries, basic necessities and medical care making living in Vermont difficult. Their issues were brought to the attention of many concerned citizens and legislators.
S.38 authorized the DMV to issue operator, junior operator, and learner’s privilege cards and non-driver ID cards to Vermont residents who are unable to demonstrate immigration status, and to Vermont residents who otherwise do not satisfy the requirements of the of the federal REAL ID Act.
To be eligible for a privilege card, applicants must provide DMV reliable proof of their identity and of their Vermont residence, and must satisfy any other requirements of law that may apply, such as paying a license fee and passing a written examination and skills test. The face of the privilege card must indicate that it is not valid for federal identification or official purposes, which is a requirement of the REAL-ID Act.
There is no federal law that prohibits Vermont from taking this action. Other states have already established this, Washington and New Mexico issue licenses and Utah issues driving privilege cards.
We in Vermont can give some acknowledgement to the workers who are contributing to our state’s economy, by providing a way to identify themselves, and by providing some freedom of movement. All communities are safer when everyone feels comfortable, interacting with law enforcement. Police can identify and verify residents when needed and the holders feel more confident. All of Vermont is better served, especially when we know our neighbors.
Transportation: Funding our Transportation Infrastructure Each year, the Legislature seeks to maximize federal transportation dollars. Over the past 10 years, state revenues from the per-gallon gasoline tax have declined because Vermonters are consuming less gasoline, even as they drive more. Due in large part to more efficient vehicles, Vermonters purchased 36 million fewer gallons of gas in 2012 as compared to 2005.
To make up for this lost tax revenue, and to maximize federal matching funds, the Legislature adopted a new sales tax on gasoline to replace part of the per-gallon tax. Assuming the new tax is passed on to consumers, gasoline prices will increase by an estimated 5.9 cents in May 2013. Likewise, diesel prices will increase by 2 cents per gallon in 2014 and an additional penny in 2015. Look at it this way: if you drive 10,000 miles a year, at 25 miles per gallon, this new tax structure will cost you only $24 in additional taxes in 2013.
This much needed increase in transportation revenues will allow Vermont to fully access our share of federal transportation funds [In fiscal year 2014, the State of Vermont will leverage $260 million in state transportation funds in order to obtain $370 million in federal transportation money, for total combined spending on the maintenance and construction of Vermont highways and bridges of $630 million], to maintain funding of our town highway aid programs, and to continue essential repairs to our roads and bridges.
Ways & Means: Charitable Organizations & Break-Open Tickets To fund new initiatives, the Governor’s budget relied on a substantial reduction in the Earned Income Tax Credit, a federal credit put in place to support low-income working families. It has been called the single most successful anti-poverty program in history. Vermont offers a credit equal to 32% of the federal credit. After much discussion and debate, the proposal to cut EITC was rejected by the Legislature because it would unfairly impact low-income working Vermonters. The Governor’s proposed budget also relied on the taxation of break-open tickets, a pull-tab form of gambling used by the Elks, Veteran’s groups and other charitable organizations. The significant new tax burden would mean selling the tickets was no longer cost effective, taking away this form of revenue generation for community causes. The Legislature rejected this tax increase proposed by the Governor.
Ways & Means: Tax Reform: Broadening the Base, Lowering the Rate Tax reform will have to wait until next January. Working closely with the Senate Finance Committee, the House developed a proposal for income tax changes that will give over 200,000 Vermont families a tax reduction. The proposal caps itemized deductions at 2.5 times the standard deduction (roughly $30,000 for joint filers), establishes a 3% minimum tax for households with incomes over $125,000, and reduces marginal tax rates. It does not affect personal exemptions, which will continue to be calculated as they are now.
Between now and January, we intend to fine-tune the proposal and do the necessary work to familiarize and educate the public. We will work to improve the proposal, so please share thoughts and suggestions this summer and fall. Tax policy changes, even when they’re are revenue neutral, are never easy. By definition, they result in some people paying less and some people paying more. In the end, our goal is to make the tax code as fair and equitable as possible. Deductions and credits generally benefit one group over another. While deductions and credits may at times serve the interests of good public policy, such as EITC, they can also create distortions and inequities in the tax code.
Our income tax system is more progressive than most other states, but there is a growing gap in Vermont between the highest income earners and everyone else. Tax reform that shifts slightly more of the burden to high income earners is a thoughtful and reasonable way to address that gap.
Ways & Means: Good Information, Good Tax Policy As part of the technical tax bill (H.295), the Legislature adopted a provision that requires the Tax Department and the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office (JFO) to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to share non-identifying Tax Department data with certain JFO employees so that they can run analyses of legislative proposals. This MOU will include protocols for preventing the identification of individual taxpayers, handling and transmitting returns and return information, and the incorporation of penalties for unauthorized disclosures. It is and would continue to be a violation of law for the Tax Department to turn over personal data to the JFO.
The history behind this provision is that, until about a decade ago, Vermont income tax was calculated as a percentage of federal tax liability and very little analysis was needed of income tax data. When Vermont moved to link state taxes to the federal form at taxable income, the need for more complex analyses became necessary. As a separate branch of government making significant decisions in the lives of Vermonters regarding taxation, we need timely, non-partisan tax analyses to make the best decisions.
Ways & Means: Reining in Education Spending With a $70 million increase in education spending statewide while numbers of pupils continue to decrease, a significant increase in the education tax rates for FY14 was inevitable. The legislature was required to raise the non-residential rate to $1.44, the base penny rate to $.94, and the base calculation amount to $9151. These tax rate increases prompted us to look closely at possible ways to curb education spending.
The establishment of Act 68 encouraged increased spending in property-poor communities but did little to suppress spending in communities; the only real tool that was put in place was the spending threshold over which taxpayers in high-spending communities pay double in per-pupil spending over the threshold. This session, the Legislature reduced the threshold from its current 125% to 121% of the previous year’s statewide average per pupil spending.
The legislature also created two studies: first, to look at the renter rebate program to analyze if the $8 million we are spending is achieving the goal of helping low-income renters effectively, and secondly, a data collection and recommendation process for looking at our staff-to-student ratios to make recommendations about possible tax consequences for an excessive number of paid adults in the school buildings.
Commerce & Economic Development: This session, the Vermont House worked to keep commerce humming through forward-looking insurance practices, consumer protections, better access to capital, and steps to encourage housing. Our emerging knowledge-based economy has required us to improve patent laws and to listen to the changing needs of our many entrepreneurs and startup companies. We continued to focus on workforce training and took steps to modernize workers’ compensation and the unemployment insurance system.
IRENE RECOVERY – The storms of 2011 were devastating to our little state. Many individuals and small businesses lost everything they had, and it will be years before our recovery is complete. We have tried to help by passing a measure that would help our affected businesses by relieving them of the increased cost of unemployment insurance when they were forced to lay off their employees.
WORKERS COMP PAYMENTS – We passed a bill that will allow insurance companies to make payments to injured workers by means of electronic cards. Similar to debit cards, weekly benefits can be directly loaded onto a card, so the worker does not need to wait for a check to arrive in the mail, take it to a bank, and cash it. The benefits are available more quickly!
WORKERS COMP FOR FIRE & RESCUE WORKERS – We all know that firefighters who rush into burning structures, as well as rescue workers who treat people under extremely hazardous conditions, face dangers that most of us do not. These conditions can cause injuries and diseases that might not appear until many years later. We have offered a change to our laws that would make the “presumption” of these injuries that they were actually caused by exposure to the conditions faced, making it easier for workers to collect benefits due to them.
UNCLAIMED LIFE INSURANCE BENEFITS – We learned that some insurance companies use a national database to learn of a death and then stop paying out on that person’s annuity. However, they do NOT use that database to pay out the death benefit on the life insurance policy. We passed a measure that requires companies to search the national death master list to learn if policyholders has died, and to then pay the benefit due to a beneficiary.
Commerce & Economic Development: First-in-the-Nation “Troll-Buster” Bill or Protecting knowledge-based business in Vermont. Vermont is a creative, innovative place. Vermonters invent things – lots of things. Businesses are innovating in technology and software development, building the foundation for Vermont’s future in the ‘new economy.
According to CNNMoney, Vermont is #1 in the nation in patents granted per capita and #8 in entrepreneurial business start-ups. Vermont is home to large, medium, and small tech companies that are developing and exporting hardware and software solutions to companies around the world – often in web-based applications.
These “knowledge-based” businesses are being seriously threatened by a business practice that is nothing more than a modern day protection racket. In the press, it’s called “patent trolling.” The ‘troll’ is an individual or business that has purchased patents – often from bankrupt companies – and indiscriminately sends letters to software developers demanding payment for alleged patent infringement. (The ‘troll’ reference is from the Norwegian fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff, where a troll living under a bridge threatens to eat anyone trying to pass over the bridge.)
The troll’s business model is simple: it threatens a federal lawsuit if the target company does not pay a license fee of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the troll. There is no good faith effort by the troll to perform research and determine whether, in fact, the target is infringing their patent. For the target business or non-profit, their choice is to pay the troll’s demanded fee or spend huge sums on a legal defense in court.
This practice is extortion, plain and simple, and it is harming businesses in Vermont. Vermont will be the first jurisdiction in the nation to offer its businesses a defense against this nefarious racket. This groundbreaking legislation will allow Vermont companies and their customers to bring a cause of action in Vermont or Federal court to demand that the troll “put up or shut up.” The bill helps a court distinguish between legitimate patent enforcement and the troll’s practice of bad faith assertion of patent infringement.
With this bill, Vermont proclaims it is the ‘welcoming place’ for software developers. Our message is clear: “Vermont is the place to innovate and create, and the State has your back.”
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