Citizen Legislature Disbands Until 2015

When the last gavel fell on the last day of the 2014 legislative session, it marked the end of my third year serving the towns of Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee, and West Hartford in the Vermont General Assembly. I am running again to serve for the 2015-2016 biennium. It has been an honor, a challenge, and an enjoyable responsibility to represent the Windsor 4-1 district and I value all of the correspondence and constructive criticism from my constituents.

The State of Vermont came very close to fundamentally restructuring our education system this year. Sanctioned by leadership at the highest levels, a House-passed bill with momentum collapsed in negotiations with the Senate in the final hours of the seventeen-week session. There are compelling reasons for consolidating administration and some districts, but the House was closely divided on the issue of dissolving local boards and whether that would dilute community involvement and the local control that we struggle to hold onto. I shared the concern of many that the bill drafting process was being rushed without a full understanding of the consequences for rural areas where small schools are the hearts of their communities. The possibility of having schools like Barnard and Pomfret involuntarily merged into a larger school district was unappealing to most of the people I talked to. Our schools are, however, negotiating under their own initiative to find collaborative solutions to the fiscal and educational challenges that we face. I supported efforts to keep the Small Schools grants in place (essentially a small tax-break for the smallest schools), and though we lost that battle in the House, the phase-out of these grants was removed by the Senate. One of the stated purposes of the consolidation bill was to increase educational opportunities with the acknowledgment that cost-savings were not guaranteed. The Barnard and Pomfret schools have consistently delivered high-quality education and learning opportunities (as has the larger Ottaquechee School) while the respective school boards have functioned in a responsible and deliberate manner. I’ve really enjoyed my visits to local classrooms as well as meeting with students and teachers visiting the State House, and I’m inspired by the curiosity of the students and the dedication of the teachers. Our local schools and boards are exemplary of how Vermont schools should be run, but our towns feel penalized from the pressures of rising costs, disparate town grand lists, and a fluctuating housing market with a funding formula that hasn’t adjusted well to these factors. Declining enrollments are due in part to high local property taxes which can dissuade families from relocating to these smaller towns (lack of broadband internet can too), and we shouldn’t have to cut important programs and eliminate bus routes to keep the doors open. While we can all agree that providing adequate funding for quality education is a necessity in a well-functioning society, how and when we achieve real progress remains to be seen with competing opinions and interests between House members, the House and Senate, the administration and the legislature, cities and towns, and parties. The fundamental problem is the rising cost of education which is influenced by many factors both beyond our control and that we can play a role in addressing, like healthcare reform. I will continue to support efforts to maintain and improve the quality of our education system while transitioning to a more sustainable funding model. At the present time it looks like an income-focused system of funding is preferable once we figure out how to define income and account for income fluctuations and the values of property and assets. Reform of education spending and cost-sharing is a top priority for Vermont in tandem with economic development and healthcare reform. Another challenge is how to enhance the education that we provide and resist top-down, technology-dependent, bureaucratic mandates. In addition to strengthening our delivery of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) we should also be building strong foundations in civics, arts, trades, critical history, and current events.

One substantive education action that did pass was mandated pre-kindergarten in all districts. Earlier education, socialization, and stimulation create lasting advantages for kids entering grade school, and 80% of districts already offer Pre-K services. Requiring all districts to offer Pre-K has been criticized as just another unfunded mandate, but sometimes (to borrow an old adage) you have to spend money to make money. Around 38% of Vermont children are thought to be underprepared for grade school, so Pre-K will pay off in the long run with savings on the back-end from up-front investments. Enrollment, as always, will be voluntary.

A higher minimum wage — approved with only three dissenting votes in the House – means more economic security for workers and families and reduced public subsidies (welfare benefits) to offset the low wages paid mostly by highly profitable companies headquartered elsewhere. The legislature should pay close attention to the experiences of smaller, homegrown businesses during this transition and learn from their challenges and successes.

We passed a “balanced budget” again this year if higher fees, one-time funds, and new sources of revenue qualify as acceptable means of balancing a budget, and the total budget is once again rising slightly more than the rate of inflation. On the other hand, many expenditures are necessary and achieve worthy goals. The legislature will be exploring new revenue sources and broad-based tax reform next year.

On healthcare, we will collectively be spending around two billion dollars a year whether we create a single-payer system or not. For those who are skeptical of “Obamacare” and/or private insurance companies, this is an opportunity for Vermonters to come together and create a less costly and more efficient healthcare system of our own. However, if we don’t fix some of the root causes of rising medical costs it may not be enough. We still have not been presented with a financing plan for the proposed single-payer system and the 2017 start time may be pushed back if the plan is not ready. Reforming healthcare in Vermont will be a heavy lift under great scrutiny from Vermonters and other states. Related to healthcare is our much publicized drug addiction crisis. By all accounts we have made notable progress in a short time by allocating additional resources for expedited treatment and establishing harsher penalties for traffickers. Prescription medications, which are often the gateway drugs to heroin, will need to be more carefully prescribed and monitored.

I introduced a number of bills in the biennium to address constituent issues but most didn’t gain enough traction and support to rise above the piles of other legislative proposals vying for attention and committee time during the short session. I was able to work with the administration on assessing the fiscal impact of expanding the free hunting and fishing license program to disabled veterans with disability ratings of at least 40% or lower. A friend and veteran brought to my attention the fact that most states offer these entitlements and in some states there is no minimum rating required. I was given assurances from the outgoing Commissioner of Fish and Game and the respective House committee that this idea would be supported next year.

Another amendment that I introduced survived the end-of-session sausage-making process by changing the ban on handheld electronic devices in vehicles to allow for the operation of such a device as long as it’s securely mounted in some type of fixed “cradle”. The original language, perhaps inadvertently, would have required us to pull over every time we had to initiate a call. After much consideration and in light of two distraction-related accidents that I’ve experienced myself, I supported the bill. I also discovered that my current mount, attached to my windshield, is illegal. Go figure.

As I mentioned last week, I was the committee-appointed reporter of H.112 (the GMO Labeling Bill), which means that I had to report the Senate’s modifications to our bill and respond to interrogation on the House floor before a final vote to concur of 114-30 sent the bill to the governor. It was signed on May 8th.

Thanks for reading and please keep in touch. You can reach me at 234-9125 and info@teozagarforhouse.org.

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