2015 Session Underway

The legislative branch of our state government reconvened last week amid a heady combination of tension, anxiety, uncertainty, optimism and civility – for the most part. With a projected gap between tax revenues and budget expenditures of up to $100 million, an education spending/funding/governance crisis, water pollution, and still being at or near square one for meaningful healthcare reform, the high energy of the earliest days of the session was tempered by a grim but determined atmosphere. We are at a watershed moment of reform and transition in the education and healthcare systems that have been in place for many years, and our citizens will expect some signs of progress in the very near future.

I was reassigned to the Agriculture & Forest Products Committee where we will be doing important work around water quality, examining proposed changes to Current Use, adjusting regulations to better suit farms of all sizes, and continuing the positive economic development trend in agriculture that we’ve witnessed over the past few years. In contrast to the party ratio in the legislature as a whole, the makeup of our committee this year is five democrats, five republicans and one independent, so I expect that we’ll work towards constructive bi-partisan solutions to the challenges we take on. The Governor revealed some of his proposals for agricultural reform in his inaugural address, including a Current Use penalty for farmers not following accepted agricultural practices around water quality, and a controversial fertilizer tax to raise money for the clean water fund. Raising taxes on all farmers to help fix the problems contributed to by a minority of them seems overly burdensome and I expect that this proposal – if it even manages to find its way to our committee in the form of a bill – will be heavily scrutinized and modified. We absolutely need to clean up our waterways and Lake Champlain before they reach a tipping point of pollution, but levying higher taxes on hardworking farmers who are doing the right thing will be problematic.

Outside of my committee work I will be focused on education reform and making sure that the needs of the students, teachers, schools and taxpayers in our district are addressed and considered when making any radical changes. We have to fix all three legs of the stool at the same time – spending, funding & governance – while reducing the tax burden and improving educational quality, which will be no small feat. I’ll be in regular contact with our school staff and select boards as proposals take root in the Education and tax committees and offer feedback and/or amendments that address specific asks from our local school and municipal administrators. I see real opportunity for progress but it will be one of the heaviest lifts that our legislature has undertaken in quite some time and may take a while for improvements to come to fruition.

As you know, the legislative vote for Governor resulted in the 110-69 reelection of Peter Shumlin. Many voted the will of their districts and picked Milne while some went with the popular vote despite outcomes in their own towns. I cast my ballot for Peter Shumlin (who won every town in our district) for the simple fact that I hold the democratic process and the concept of “one person, one vote” sacrosanct. Perhaps a popular runoff vote would be the better course of action in the future when a candidate fails to secure a 50%+ majority, while some are proposing that a 40%+ plurality should be the deciding factor. Either way, the people should decide who will govern them and not politicians left to their own biases, interpretations or the political winds that may buffet them.

While the (finally) elected Governor gave his inaugural address – which was focused on energy and the environment with nary a mention of education or healthcare (expect more on this in the budget address this week) – protesters from the Workers’ Center disrupted the proceedings to show their frustration with Shumlin’s abandonment of single payer healthcare financing. While I sympathize with the plight of the un- and underinsured in this country and believe that some form of universal health insurance combined with systematic reform of the entire healthcare system is necessary and woefully behind schedule, I was particularly dismayed when their singing nearly drowned out the introductions of Vermont veterans escorting former governors into the chamber. Free speech and the right to petition one’s government for grievances are American values of the highest order, but some methods of civil disobedience are less constructive than others.

I’d like to leave you with some encouraging developments this week. On the evening of Opening Day a bi-partisan group called Vision to Action Vermont, in collaboration with Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, hosted an “economic pitch session” at the Capitol Plaza hotel where business leaders from around the state gave timed presentations to the assembled legislators. They offered suggestions and proposals for spurring economic growth, improving workforce development and playing to Vermont’s strengths in order to reverse negative trends and smooth the playing field for employers and employees. These suggestions will take shape in the Commerce and Economic Development Committee right out of the gate.

Another positive development was the establishment of the “Vermont Caucus” by leaders of the three parties. This will be an end-of-the-week gathering of legislators to hear presentations and discuss the biggest issues. Traditionally, parties have caucused amongst themselves and debated their differences on the House floor prior to a vote. This new format will give us the opportunity to work together collaboratively to try and reach consensus solutions in a less contentious setting and with more time to share and process ideas.

I’ve also been encouraged by the volume of correspondence from my constituents lately – in the form of emails, letters and phone calls. Please keep in touch and continue to share your thoughts and opinions with me. It helps to keep me informed, accountable and motivated, and reminds me who I’m working for and why. If you would like to be added to my email list please drop me a line at info@teozagarforhouse.org.

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