2015 Session Ends on High and Low Notes

Another legislative session came to an end late Saturday night on the 16th, and the final results were mixed. Did we heed the calls for education and healthcare reform or address structural flaws in our tax system, taking bold and decisive actions to right the listing ship? It depends on who you ask and how much their political career depends on a favorable answer, but I’d say we still have a lot of work left to do. One of the biggest challenges in our legislative system, in my opinion, is that lawmakers have little time to devise complex solutions to systemic problems and often can’t even agree on what the roots of the problems actually are. Each body of the legislature has about eight weeks to pass their bills over to the other body, where they can be rewritten from scratch. Some ideas and proposals are given much committee time and deliberation only to be abandoned in the end, while others are proposed at the last minute, not fully fleshed out, and tacked onto must-pass bills with fingers crossed that they don’t make matters worse. In the end-of-session flurry, most major bills are finalized in committees of conference that consist of three reps and three senators. When they reach a deal the bill is brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote that can’t be amended. In this manner many proposals that weren’t given due consideration in committees of jurisdiction or with floor debate become law, for better or worse.

Some of the session’s most touted accomplishments – balancing the budget, passing a water quality bill, developing a new renewable energy standard and coming up with new ways to incentivize school governance changes – are being criticized for either going too far or not far enough, which I suppose is to be expected. Compromise often leaves neither party satisfied.

The budget was balanced through a mix of budget cuts and new sources of revenue. Itemized deductions were capped at 2.5 times the standard deduction, a minimum tax of 3% is applied to taxpayers making over $150,000 per year as a percentage of their adjusted gross income, and the state sales tax is expanding to cover soft drinks (but not candy, unfortunately). We will have another budget gap to address next year.

The education “reform” bill includes new incentives for districts to merge and retains small school support as long as schools can demonstrate good educational and fiscal management. The spending caps that initially passed the House would have punished many schools and were removed by the Senate. However, the final compromise included a new excess spending penalty for schools spending over a certain percentage increase. Unfortunately, this will have the effect of raising property taxes in many towns that are not overspending by any objective accounting. I did not support this bill and voted “No”. Campaign pledges to adjust or replace the funding formula were barely given the time of day. There seems to be an institutionalized mindset in Montpelier that small schools are the problem that needs to be fixed, and funding mechanisms are imposed on the existing economies of scale to pressure smaller schools into consolidating with their neighbors though there is little evidence that this will save money. I will be working with other legislators representing smaller schools over the summer to develop a better strategy going into next year. After all, Vermont is a small state covered with small towns whose schools are often the glue that holds communities together. Consolidation and closure may be necessary in some cases, but there are many small schools providing high quality educational opportunities while being fiscally responsible. We shouldn’t penalize them because we think that bigger is better in all cases.

On the healthcare front we passed a weak and watered-down bill that barely “keeps the lights on”. By raising the cigarette tax we will have just enough to make small investments in Medicaid subsidies and primary care and increase Medicaid reimbursement rates. We are also (finally) allowing people to enroll in insurance plans directly with providers and bypass the infuriating Vermont Health Connect system. An amendment that I successfully tacked onto the healthcare bill would have tasked the Healthcare Reform Oversight Committee with focusing on the high cost that obesity and related diseases are imposing on employers and the healthcare system in general. This was cut out in final negotiations, however, which is troubling because obesity is estimated to cost the state hundreds of millions every year and we can’t rightly reform the healthcare system without addressing one of its biggest cost drivers. Maybe next year…

Some of the other things I was working on crossed the finish line intact or nearly intact. Healthcare pricing transparency, solar siting standards, relaxed regulations for small farmers, first-time homebuyer credits, and broadband internet improvements passed through in one form or another. A child protection bill, S.9, includes a  provision that prioritizes the safety of the child over the traditional practice of reunification with family when that isn’t always the safest option. We are also moving towards a budgeting process that considers less than 100% of projected revenue to account for shortfalls in actual tax receipts. Why we weren’t already doing this is a mystery to me, since budgeting for more than we would later take in was partly responsible for the budget gap we faced this year. H.35, the “water quality bill”, moved through my committee as a must-pass law to prevent the EPA from imposing expensive regulations and to address ongoing water pollution from farms, centralized wastewater treatment facilities and development. My concern is that unless we boldly transform our agriculture and wastewater practices we will continue to pollute faster than we can clean it up. I voted not to remove the philosophical exemption from vaccinations for public school attendance because the result will be that parents will either check the religious exemption box (no proof of church attendance or tithing necessary!) or homeschool, and we will fail to achieve our public health goals while also possibly driving up property taxes by lowering student enrollment numbers.

Positive developments include the formation of Communication Union Districts (CUDs, yes, CUDs) that will allow providers like ECFiber easier access to capital for expanding true fiber-based broadband, investments in workforce training and development, a minimum standard of paid sick time, same day voter registration, forester licensing, and strengthened substance abuse treatment options.

In the 2016 session I will continue to work on some unfinished business, including healthcare and education reform, addressing the potentially unconstitutional double taxation of retirement benefits accrued out of state, expanding local meat production, decentralized wastewater treatment alternatives, pesticide regulation, and water quality.

Please contact me anytime during the off-session to ask questions or make suggestions. I can be reached at info@teozagarforhouse.org and 234-9125.

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