2016 Legislative Session is Underway

The 2016 legislative session began last week amid controversy, high expectations, and, as usual, a lot of uncertainty. After the Senate voted to suspend one of their members for the first time in Vermont history due to charges of sexual assault, committees began to set their agendas and the Governor presented the administration’s priorities in the annual State of the State address. As expected, the economy, education, and energy policy figured prominently in the speech, along with a forceful signal to the FDA that we will take matters into our own hands to address the overabundance of prescription opioids. There was also a shot across the bow of Exxon-Mobil – after decades of covering up what they knew about the effects of their products on the environment, Vermont will consider divesting from Exxon-Mobil assets. Continuing to reform our criminal justice system while strengthening drug treatment and family service programs are also top priorities that all Vermonters can be supportive of.

One of the legislature’s first missions is ensuring that the blunt spending controls imposed on school boards under last year’s Act 46 are adjusted or delayed so that students and taxpayers aren’t unfairly penalized. The “allowable spending threshold” provision was tacked onto the broader education reform bill last year to send a message that Montpelier was doing something about rising property taxes. Unfortunately – though many of us predicted it – the shotgun blast approach has backfired since many schools don’t have a spending problem, they have a cost-containment problem. The implication under Act 46 is that if you exceed your threshold then you are spending more than you should and your taxpayers will be double-taxed on the excess amount. With healthcare costs rising at alarming rates (up about 8%) and with unpredictable special ed. costs and enrollment numbers, it’s unreasonable to expect school boards to limit budget growth to 2% or less over the previous year’s budgets. A good example of a negative consequence of the spending cap is the case of the Prosper Valley School. When the Bridgewater and Pomfret schools combined to improve educational opportunities and save taxpayers money, both goals seemed achievable until a fluke of Act 46 painted the joint school board into a corner as they were unexpectedly subject to the penalty triggered by the allowable spending threshold. The legislature or Agency of Education must act quickly to address this since we should not be penalizing schools for fulfilling the broader goals of Act 46 – combining services, enhancing educational opportunities, and cutting costs. More than 100 schools around Vermont are bumping up against this new penalty, and to make matters worse they are in the midst of budgeting without a clear signal from Montpelier about how we will respond. With pressure from the Senate and the Governor, I’m hopeful that the House will do the right thing – repeal, adjust, or delay the spending caps and focus on long-term solutions to ensure quality education for all Vermont students at a price Vermonters can afford. We also need to come to terms with the fact that our current education funding formula was designed for a system with 20,000 more students and may need to be drastically overhauled to account for the new economies of scale, while ensuring that the smaller schools that remain viable don’t tax residents out of town (or out of state). Reforming our healthcare funding & payment systems and enacting progressive economic policies that make Vermont a more attractive and affordable place to call home for the middle class will also go a long way in bending the education cost curve over the long term. Not to mention the broadband internet we were all promised years ago. Expanding federally regulated private telecom enterprises turns out to be harder than was bargained for.

Another heavy lift of the 2016 session will be closing the budget gap. This year there is an approximately $40 million discrepancy between projected revenues and program costs – the lion’s share being Medicaid expenditures, some of which were unplanned for. While it’s frustrating to feel like we spend much of our time fixing problems created or unaddressed in previous sessions, I’m optimistic that we can close this gap not with painful cuts and/or tax increases, but by re-prioritizing existing resources and finding efficiencies in state agencies and departments. The gap for fiscal 2017 will be even larger and more problematic. Expect tough decisions and compromises along the way. As a member of the Agriculture Committee I will be working with my peers to examine our agency’s budget and trim any unnecessary fat. Vermont has weathered the post-recession recovery better than many other states, but we continue to struggle with the rising costs of healthcare, housing, social services, and higher education.

In future updates I’ll be discussing the ongoing dialogue around renewable energy siting standards, more education funding and healthcare reform proposals, streamlining regulations for small farmers, protecting pollinators from harmful pesticides, and the possible legalization of cannabis.

Please contact me anytime to weigh in on any proposed or pending legislation or if you need assistance with anything involving state government. You can reach me at home at 234-9125, on my cellphone at 558-3966, by email at tzagar@leg.state.vt.us, or at PO Box 875, Barnard, VT 05031.

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