Problems, Reactions… Solutions?

February 11, 2015

The first few weeks of the legislative session have mostly been spent on fact-finding, soon to be followed by the assembling of committee proposals and the modification of bills through expert testimony from witnesses representing different sides of the particular issues. Debates on the House floor will be increasing in frequency and intensity in the coming weeks, leading to a crescendo of activity in the final weeks of session.

Statewide demographic and socioeconomic differences continue to challenge lawmakers as we endeavor to set policies and budgets that best serve the needs of the many. One month into the legislative session, and with three or more remaining, there are still more questions than answers with decision points rapidly approaching on the horizon.

Will we find a way to bend the spending curve in education and/or create a more equitable and transparent way of paying for it? Can we put an appropriate dollar figure on how much we value the education of an individual child? How much local control will survive the necessary streamlining of supervisory unions and districts? Will a proposed payroll tax used for increasing Medicaid payments reduce the cost shift to other health insurance plans enough to justify the added expense to VT businesses? Is it finally time to make enrolling in a healthcare plan through Vermont Health Connect voluntary in light of the never-ending technical difficulties? Will millions of new dollars from the Feds be enough to develop the resources and programs to effectively curb pollution following into our waterways, and ultimately to our lakes and oceans?

The committees of jurisdiction are deeply engaged with these issues while other representatives try to ensure that the needs and concerns of their constituencies are addressed in whatever policies emerge from the committee process. If not, diverse coalitions are formed to create potential amendments to address what could not be achieved in committee. This is already starting to happen around the issue of small schools and the potential elimination of certain funding mechanisms that have minimized tax spikes in our more rural districts with lower than optimal enrollment numbers. The good news is that Barnard may be spared the elimination of its Small Schools grant because it could be considered “geographically isolated”, while the proposed merging of the Pomfret and Bridgewater schools would create economic efficiencies to offset the loss of these funds. Perhaps the biggest unknown at this point is to what extent the power of our local school boards will be impacted by the inevitable changes to S.U. and district governance.

There was more bad news on the financial front with predicted revenues coming in under projections once again, forcing more cuts to state programs. While this creates an opportunity to create efficiencies and trim fat, many important services are on the chopping block as proposed by the Governor. These cuts include LIHEAP heating assistance, the closure of two of the four Public Safety Answering Points, a reduction of funds for the education of Vermont inmates, and reduced support for the Vermont Veterans Home.

Budgetary crises like these are troubling to me because the legislature is so reliant on economic forecasting to create budgets and operate important programs. The legislative and executive branches retain their own economic analysts who convene twice a year to reconcile current budgets with actual revenue. Too often the predictions come up short of the mark, forcing us to reduce or eliminate services and programs that are being utilized and are often relied upon by citizens and state agencies. “Rainy Day” funds aren’t sufficient to mitigate the effects of these budgetary rescissions and “efficiency” measures, and it becomes almost impossible to budget within our means when we can’t accurately predict what our future means will be or respond effectively to the shifting economic winds. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that in an estimated 80% of counties throughout the United States, median household incomes for the middle class peaked in the late 90′s and have not kept pace with the increased costs of goods, services and government taxes and fees. With recent revelations of some of the largest and most powerful banks on the planet (i.e. HSBC) actively assisting the world’s wealthiest individuals and criminal masterminds in avoiding hundreds of millions of dollars in tax payments to their respective national governments, it’s enough to make this small town elected representative question the wisdom of “business as usual”.

Nevertheless, I will continue to work hard to ensure that whatever laws are passed under the Golden Dome are in keeping with the ideals and values embodied by the words Freedom and Unity. I will remain optimistic that we are capable of weathering these challenges and adapt accordingly, so long as we are able to find common ground and fully consider the future consequences of our actions on up-and-coming generations of Vermonters.

Please keep in touch. You can reach me at 802-558-3966 and at tzagar@leg.state.vt.us.

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