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.

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