Legislature Digs In

It’s been three weeks since lawmakers returned to Montpelier amid what some have referred to as crises of budgeting, education, water quality and healthcare. Committees are ramping up their work on the daunting challenges facing Vermont and working towards decisions that will impact our state for years to come. Meanwhile, the nation faces significant economic and political headwinds that the Green Mountain State is not immune to. Sometimes it feels like all we can do is rearrange the furniture in one small room of a crumbling estate with limited power to fix the systemic infrastructure that we all depend on. Looking at it another way we have the opportunities and capabilities to exert some independent thinking and find new ways of dealing with old problems. At the very least, voters expect us to not screw things up any more than they already are. These are the realities of serving in a part-time amateur citizen legislature in a small New England state. In spite of the challenges we face it’s important to not lose sight of our strengths and assets – using them to make progress where and how we can.

It has been standing room only in the House Education Committee as ideas for reform emerge and compete for airtime. One of the proposals calls for the establishment of a “reasonable cost standard” for per pupil spending with an option for excess spending to be raised locally without income sensitivity. Another would reorganize districts by creating 17 READs (Regional Education Administration Districts based around existing tech centers), each with a single board with governing authority proportional to the size of its local units. School boards would remain intact with control over hiring decisions and building management, but the READs would assume control over administering the budgets. There is also a bill that would establish a block grant funding model based on a fixed per pupil amount. The state would set a dollar amount to reflect the cost of educating a student and each district would receive a block grant based on its enrollment number. From there it would be up to the local boards to administer those funds. One measure that I signed on to is a moratorium on new mandates that would burden the Education Fund. There is also some discussion of moving Current Use expenditures out of the Education Fund (since the program reduces property tax receipts and exerts upward pressure on the education property tax) and into the General Fund. How this would impact the General Fund and the program itself is equally problematic. With so many competing opinions, agendas and interpretations on education spending, funding and governance, we shouldn’t expect any miracles this year. The property tax rate is expected to rise about another $0.02 in FY16.

With the rising cost of healthcare so prominent in our minds (an estimated 6%/year rate of inflation), I’ve co-sponsored a bill with Rep. Patti Komline (R-Dorset) to try and shed some light on how much the various elements of the healthcare system actually cost in real terms. Other nearby states have created simple and effective websites that allow consumers to compare prices for typical services based on their coverage plans and area providers. Act 48 required the Green Mountain Care Board to implement this idea, but progress has been slow. Our bill sets a completion date with additional parameters – including a prominent link on Vermont Health Connect to increase access to these figures, quality of service information, and prescription drug cost comparisons. If we are going to continue to operate healthcare as a business (the business of life & death!) then we should put price tags on healthcare services and products to ensure accountability, transparency and competition. Credit is due to Scott Woodward – my challenger in the last election – for bringing this to my attention and sharing his expertise and experiences in both IT and the healthcare system.

The big story in Vermont healthcare reform is the Governor’s proposed payroll tax of 0.7% to fund an increase to the Medicaid reimbursement rate (currently 60%). This would bring it up to Medicare standards (80%) and thereby reduce the “cost shift” that happens when private insurance premiums are jacked up to cover the discrepancy in what providers receive for their services. With the already high cost of doing business in this state, this plan will only pass muster if the systemic cost savings can be proven to offset the proposed tax increase.

Some of the other controversial legislative proposals that have emerged so far include: a Senate proposal to expand background checks for firearm purchases; a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to help offset the hundreds of millions of dollars expended on combatting obesity-related illnesses; a three year moratorium on Current Use enrollments; a fertilizer tax to fund water clean-up; and a 30% increase in the valuation of farm buildings for tax purposes. These and many others will be scrutinized, ripped apart and hotly debated if they come to the floor for a vote. I expect that some of them will not survive the process.

I am currently at work drafting bills to address the following issues: the appropriate siting of telecommunications infrastructure to better reach unserved areas; the double taxation of pensions received from other states; a fairer alternative to the proposed fertilizer tax; the root causes of skyrocketing healthcare costs; tiered regulations for smaller farmers; and protections of constitutional privacy rights. With hundreds of other bills in the pipeline I’ll be expending a lot of effort and political capital to garner support for these and other bills & amendments as the session progresses.

A final note: If you hear something on the street about a proposed bill that gets your hackles up or that you have questions or concerns about, reach out to your representatives for clarity. Sometimes legislative intentions are mischaracterized (especially when the bills are not read) and other times a bill proposed by a lone senator (like the “State Dog” bill) is interpreted to mean that the entire state legislature is wasting time debating whether the Beagle should take the crown. The legislative website (legislature.vermont.gov) and vtdigger.org are also good places to find out what’s really going on.

If you have any questions about issues I didn’t touch on here or are experiencing difficulties with Vermont Health Connect, Fairpoint service, or anything else, please feel free to contact me at 802-234-9125, info@teozagarforhouse.org or at PO Box 875 in Barnard, 05031.

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.

2015 Pre-Session Fiscal Update

Last week the legislature was presented with a budget forecast for 2015 along with updates on healthcare reform efforts and the challenges and opportunities in education finance and delivery. All of the information can be viewed here: [http://www.leg.state.vt.us/jfo/reports.aspx] As many already know, we are facing the potential for an upcoming $100 million gap between revenues and expenses. General Fund revenues are almost 3% below previous estimates as personal income and estate tax receipts lagged, while consumption taxes (sales, purchase & use, vehicle registration, meals & rooms) have been strong. One theory for lower-than-expected personal income tax revenues is the use of certain tax strategies for maximizing refunds and minimizing liabilities. Corporate income tax receipts remain stable and our unemployment rate ranks among the ten lowest in the country. However, since revenues haven’t matched spending growth the administration and legislature will be forced to do some serious trimming of programs and services to avoid raising taxes. The governor has tasked all departments to submit level-funded and 5%-reduced budget proposals, and the money committees will no doubt have their hands full vetting and tweaking these numbers in the months ahead before actionable proposals are presented to the legislature and the people. Some of these cuts will be painful. While the “Reach Up” caseload (support for working families) has been declining, the DCF caseload of children in need has increased alarmingly. While the opiate crisis has contributed to this, so has poverty. According to the Vermont Dept. of Taxes, the percent change in adjusted gross income between 2009-2012 for those earning poverty-level incomes has declined while growth for those earning up to $75,000 a year has been in the low single digits. In stark contrast, income classes above $75-$100K per year saw much higher income growth during this three-year span, with dramatic increases of 43.5%, 51.8% and 73% for the top three income classes. According to the US Census Bureau, similar trends appear in household income growth percentages since 1980. Apparently, record stock market gains haven’t trickled down just yet. In the meantime, government spending simply can’t outpace revenue generation to the extent it has over the past couple decades with our state budget doubling while our population stagnates. The macro and micro economies do not appear to be sustainable by any reasonable analysis and state and federal lawmakers have to get their respective houses in order for everyone’s sake.

Interview with Rep. Zagar by Chloe Powell

Teo Zagar has been the local representative for Barnard, Pomfret, Quechee, and West Hartford,  since he replaced Mark Mitchel in 2011, and for the first time he is running opposed in the upcoming election next Tuesday.  I got a chance to sit down with my representative to hear from him about the pressing issues this coming season, and hear from him why he thinks he’s fit to keep up his work in Montpelier.

Driving through Barnard and Pomfret you’ll see many Zagar signs reading  “common ground” and Teo lives up to his slogan, and truly believes that when it comes down to it, “we share more common values than differences, and we should use that common ground as a starting point to work together.” Though he is running as a Democrat, he is not afraid to vote against party lines and working across the aisles to best represent all his constituents.  Teo voted with Republicans for property tax reform before it was a popular issue with Democrats.  At 36, he is one of the seven members under 40 in the house, and his perspective as a younger person and someone who grew up in the community he is representing is valuable.

Zagar not only grew up in the public school system here in Barnard and Woodstock, but also has 8 years experience working within the school system as a special educator at WUHS.  This position has garnered him a unique perspective in the state house about how decisions made at the state level affect the quality of education for the students.  He sees the value of local control of our small schools.   “I think the small schools, like this one here that I went to are really the beating heart of the community.  It brings families and kids together, creates social opportunities, ties the community together and gets people talking and getting to know each other.” The issues facing small schools are going to be one of the priorities this coming legislative session.  “We need to overhaul our education financing system while still providing equal opportunity to all Vermonters.  I think we do need to take a hard look at education governance, but we should leave the decision of whether or not a school should stay open up to the townsfolk.“  Overhauling the financing system, he says,  should involve a move to a more income-based system where taxes are based not on land ownership but on ability to pay, allowing working families to live here without overburdening them with property taxes.

On a bright note, he spoke of the comparatively high rates of achievement in Vermont schools,  and the success of the Farm to School Program statewide which places emphasis on healthy communities through agricultural and nutrition education in classrooms, and local whole foods in school cafeterias.  As rising costs for health insurance are partially a result of increased rates of diet-related diseases,  investments in nutrition education and increasing agricultural output in the state could reduce health insurance costs in the long run.

Along with education, single payer healthcare is going to be the other big issue in the coming legislative session, and Zagar is in favor of a publicly financed option as a more efficient and affordable system, though he stated honestly “ I don’t think we will ever truly fix our healthcare system until we address the root causes of why costs are going up, which have to do with nutrition, environment and lifestyle, and until we change that the government isn’t going to be able to fix it.”  Zagar, who serves on the Agricultural committee, was involved in the Working Lands bill, providing technical assistance and financial incentives to farmers and food entrepreneurs to expand their businesses and believes “the more food we are able to produce and get on the tables of Vermonters the healthier we’ll be in the long run.”

Zagar, as one of the younger members in the house, represents a demographic which, he was happy to report, is no longer fleeing at the same rate as ten year ago.  The rate of youth flight is actually going down.  “In the rural areas” he reported, “what we are seeing happen is more young people getting involved in agriculture and food, which is creating new businesses and jobs”.

Teo represents someone who is bucking the trend, choosing to return to Vermont after college rather than to pursue his work in a city.  “I make part of my living in the arts as a filmmaker, and I made a conscious decision to move back to Vermont to pursue that, when I would have had an easier time doing that in California or New York, but I didn’t want to live there.  There is a growing arts economy where people are making a living from being creative and sharing stories and ideas with others and I think there is value to that. I think Vermont is a nurturing place to do that.”  He spoke of the arts as well as agriculture in our educational and economic priorities.  “Society and culture are defined more by our values and how we express ourselves than by economic statistics. I’ve always felt that as we talk about education, and STEM education in particular, (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) that we should put two A’s into that acronym.  I think that Arts and Agriculture need to be an equal part of the educational and social equation.”

Aside from addressing the biggest issues facing the legislators this coming session, we touched on some stickier issues such as drugs and guns.  Vermont has received a lot of attention for our “drug epidemic” since Shumlin devoted his whole State of the State address last year to the opiate problem in Vermont, but Vermont is not alone. This is a national issue, Vermont has only called attention to it, and I think this is an important first step.  “I think that prescription opioids are the gateway drug to heroin.  Once people get hooked on pills and realize that heroin is cheaper, that’s an easier choice.  We’ve got some of the biggest drug companies in the world basically lying to the FDA about the efficacy and dangers of these drugs and bribing doctors to overprescribe them.”   As young people who have grown up in this area, we are both affected by news of our peers whose addictions have turned them to desperation and crime and Teo stated “addiction needs to be treated as an illness”  stating the need for more access to treatment in the state.  He also stated the need to provide more controls over prescription pain killers, but suggested the challenges doing that at the state level “We are not the FDA ,  we can’t regulate the pharmaceutical industry.  We can try to monitor them and set rules as to how they are prescribed, and we need to invest more money in treating the addicted and in law enforcement to take down more dealers.”  he said.

On guns, Teo said he is a gun owner and supports the second amendment.  “Vermont has a long history and tradition of safe and responsible gun ownership. I think Vermont is a model for how citizens can responsibly possess firearms.  We don’t have the kind of misuse as other areas with much more restrictive gun laws.”  He listed closing the gun-show loophole as something which will be looked at in the coming session, which would prevent private sales at gun shows without background checks, keeping more guns out of the wrong hands.  “I think we can strengthen our existing framework of background checks to minimize guns getting into the wrong hands, and I think it is worth having the conversation about closing the so-called gun-show loophole. But some gun show organizers are already doing this on their own, so this may be something that can become self-regulating without the need for new laws”.

Teo fell into being a politician because the opportunity presented itself to him at a time when he was looking to become more involved in his community, and after three years he is still the best kind of politician- a real person, citizen legislator whose interest is in serving the people the best he can. He does not claim to have all the answers, but promises to keep asking questions and searching for solutions.  As we spoke,  we often circled back to a common refrain.  The issues that Vermont faces are not unique to Vermont but “stem from broader national and international problems” and Teo feels a lot of the job of the legislators is about “putting out fires.”   But he asks and encourages constituents to ask ourselves and engage in conversations with our legislators about “how Vermont can not only insulate ourselves from these larger social and economic problems, but what creative solutions can we find to try to fix them in our own state or at least to start reversing the negative trends we see in healthcare, the economy, education, drug use, etc.”  Let’s give him another chance to keep working on that, and make sure to get out and vote on November 4th.

 

 

 

Running on my Record

I grew up in Barnard and attended the Barnard Central School when there were only two classrooms, but went away after high school like most of my peers. It didn’t take long before the Green Mountains beckoned me back home, but I struggled to find my place and my calling. I took the initiative and found success in my chosen field while also getting involved in special education at my old high school. Three and a half years ago I was encouraged to pursue an appointment to the House seat vacated by the late Mark Mitchell, who served our district well for five years. When the opportunity presented itself I made the decision to throw my hat into the ring almost right away. I was sick of griping about national and state politics and I wanted to get more involved and bring a younger perspective to the table. I embarked on the steep trajectory of learning the process and understanding the issues and I won the appointment a week before Irene came through. During my three years serving Windsor County’s 4-1 district I have successfully presented and defended bills and amendments on the House floor while cultivating effective working relationships with legislators of all political persuasions. Two years ago I supported efforts to overhaul an education funding system that is overly reliant on property taxes, breaking ranks with the majority of my caucus. These efforts were controversial and were defeated but gained enough traction to move my party to commit to transformative action next year. I have also stood up for our small schools and overly burdened property taxpayers by opposing both the elimination of the Small Schools grants and a proposed decrease in the excess spending threshold, which hurts smaller schools disproportionately. I did not support the governance/consolidation bill because I didn’t believe that it accommodated enough local input in determining the future of our schools. Governance changes will need to be implemented to try and bend the spending curve while creating better opportunities for students, but there needs to be public engagement in the process, much like how the Vermont Council on Rural Development devised the successful Working Lands initiative. I will continue to work with other legislators to ensure strong community engagement in any proposed governance changes if reelected.

During my three years on the Agriculture and Forest Products Committee we have expanded market opportunities for Vermont’s food system entrepreneurs in a sector that is approaching $2 billion dollars over the past five years and growing at a faster rate than the rest of Vermont’s economy – growing jobs and business ventures across the state. I helped draft the Working Lands Act, presented the industrial hemp and GMO labeling bills on the floor of the House, and supported an amendment to Act 250 that would allow for greater flexibility for developers while preserving prime agricultural soils (the bill was later defeated but there is growing consensus that Act 250 can be streamlined while still fulfilling its original purpose). I also introduced the state’s first Fourth Amendment protection bill in response to widespread government surveillance with a Republican, an Independent and a Progressive as co-sponsors. When the bill banning handheld electronic devices was on the verge of passing, I noticed a flaw in the language that would have prohibited even the activation and deactivation of hands-free functionality and proposed an amendment that allows for limited interaction with an affixed device. The most satisfying part of my job as your representative is solving constituent problems outside of the legislative process, and I have done this on numerous occasions by working with department and agency officials to remedy situations created either by government oversight or corporate disservice.

Vermont is now at a historically critical juncture as we endeavor to transform and improve our education and healthcare systems, among others. I have listened to the needs and suggestions of my constituency and carried these with me into my collaborative work with other lawmakers. Making and changing state policies is an arduous process and many good ideas take years to percolate to fruition. As one of 180 legislators my power is limited, but my influence is only limited by my efforts. Progress is made in Montpelier with more than just good ideas or aggressive challenging of the status quo. Real progress is made with collaborative, productive working relationships with members from all parties, with committee chairs, caucus leadership, and administration officials. I have cultivated these relationships for the past three years and have earned the respect and trust of my colleagues. As one of the youngest legislators in Vermont and one not afraid to rock the majority boat, my positions are noted and have influence. When the legislative session begins in January we will have little time to spare with Vermonters expecting action and results. I’m ready to go and hope you’ll send me back to work on your behalf for another two years. You can contact me anytime at info@teozagarforhouse.org or 234-9125. Don’t forget to vote on or before November 4th!