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Note: Blog posts entitled "Legislative Report" have been published in The Charlotte News, and those entitled "The Word in the House" have been published in The Citizen.

Once again, the Chittenden County Democrats Show was privileged to host one of our Democratic candidates for Governor, Sue Minter.  Sue Minter served as Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Transportation under Governor Peter Shumlin, and was responsible for overseeing the recovery operations following the devastating tropical storm Irene in 2012. In this appearance February 1st, she talked about her background and her candidacy and what she hopes to accomplish as Vermont's next Governor.

The Word in the House 2016-02-01 - Parliamentary Procedure and Politics

Act 46 was crafted last year to address the realities of increasing education costs due to declining enrollment and a 130 year-old structure of governance. In many parts of Vermont implementation has been an overwhelming success. But for some it was clear that the cost containment threshold provisions weren’t working as intended. A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked together to craft a solution in time for Town Meeting.

After four weeks of hammering out House and Senate responses to the outcry by school boards, the end seemed to be in sight. Senate bill S.233 would have repealed the spending thresholds altogether.  The House voted to amend the bill by adjusting the threshold for per-pupil spending increases upward by 0.9%, reducing the penalty from $1 to $.25/dollar of excess spending, and giving school districts the option of which Agency of Education calculation to use.  The Agency’s original calculation was modified mid-January and changed the effect on tax rates for many districts.  The House decided to let each school district choose the calculation that provided the better benefit.

After considerable debate and a number of further amendments which were defeated last Wednesday, the House approved by a wide bi-partisan margin the amendment and sent it back to the Senate.  The Senate accepted most of the changes but further modified it on Thursday evening and sent it back to the House. It looked like the bill would get to the Governor’s desk by Friday afternoon just barely in time for many school districts to finalize their budgets by the Sunday deadline for Town Meeting agendas.

The additional changes the Senate made included bumping up the excess spending penalty to $.40/dollar, exempting from penalty those districts whose per-pupil spending remained below the statewide average despite year-to-year increases that exceeded the threshold, and eliminating the spending threshold entirely for the 2018 budgets.  To get a final vote in the House, however, required a suspension of the rules since one legislative day is required for a bill to appear on the House Calendar before a vote can be taken. This is where it got sticky. Despite assurances by both the Education and Ways & Means Committees that the 2018 budget provisions would be reviewed later this session, the Republican minority refused to suspend the rules.  This set up a situation where the bill could not be passed in time for those remaining school budgets to be finalized and meet the 30-day notice requirement for Town Meeting. 

After repeated conferences of the party leaders with Speaker Shap Smith failed to resolve the impasse, the Democrats and Progressives agreed to adjourn for the day and reconvene at one minute past midnight.  That would officially be the next legislative day and allow us to take up the bill and vote on it.  When we reconvened at 12:01 AM, another amendment was offered that would have prevented the bill’s passage until Tuesday at the earliest. After an hour of debate including two roll-call votes, the bill was passed as amended by the Senate and sent to Governor Shumlin who signed it hours later with the following statement: “Act 46 is working better than I had imagined. Over half of all students in this state now live in communities that are moving forward with or having serious conversations about how to work together to improve educational quality and provide relief to taxpayers. That is happening because of Act 46 and it is how we will right size our education system to reflect the fact that there are 20,000 fewer students today than in 1998. The spending caps had become the enemy of that important work, and I am pleased the Legislature acted quickly to make this change.”

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/25/2016 - Renewable Energy Siting

It’s 6 PM and you’re getting home from work. You walk into your home and flip the switch to turn on the lights, open the refrigerator to get something out for dinner, and turn on the TV to watch the news. All of that relies on electricity.  But how often do we think about where that electricity is coming from?

For at least half a century the average person has taken electricity for granted. Maybe we’ve had a vague notion that a power plant somewhere was pumping out those electrons; but unless we experienced an outage, we didn’t give our energy sources much thought. The fact is that until recently most of that energy was coming from coal, oil, natural gas or nuclear reactors.  While nuclear has its own problems, the others pumped tons of CO2 into the atmosphere contributing to a steady and accelerating rise in greenhouse gas concentrations and rising global temperatures.

Now that we have become aware of the effects of CO2 on climate change, we have taken steps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy sources. Vermont has become a leader in renewable energy, getting 40% of our electricity from renewables like wind, solar, hydro and biomass which includes wood and methane from landfills and biodigestors. More than 16,000 well-paying jobs have been created, the highest number per capita in the U.S., and hundreds of millions of dollars in transmission costs have been avoided by distributing generation close to where it is being used, thereby helping to keep Vermont’s electric rates the second lowest in New England.

This accelerated growth of large-scale solar and wind has also resulted in pushback by those who focus on their effects on ridgelines, landscapes and neighbors. These growing pains are often caused by poor planning and communication by developers as well as a negative reaction to the aesthetics by some people. Unfortunately, any type of energy generation has negative consequences, and we need to keep in mind the degree of harm each type entails. While we may not want to see a farm field covered with solar panels or industrial wind on our ridgelines, they are nothing compared to massive oil spills, tar sands mining, or mountaintop destruction for coal.

This past week we on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee heard testimony from citizens and community leaders regarding the siting of wind and solar facilities. A common theme seemed to be that renewable energy is laudable, but needs to be properly sited and scaled down.  For example, a 500 foot tall wind turbine a half mile from a residential development is not acceptable. Moreover, towns would like the Public Service Board to give more consideration to their town plans and zoning regulations.

While the Vermont Senate is currently developing legislation addressing these issues, my committee is preparing to weigh in once the bill comes to us. Threading this needle won’t be easy. We want to retain the broad public support for renewables and continue to grow this important part of our economy. We want to give town government an appropriate role. I believe we can have large scale wind with minimal impact to our ridgelines and communities if they are properly located.  We can have large scale solar that benefits farmers and communities. And we can continue to build out residential and group net metering that will benefit consumers, make the electric grid more reliable, and reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change.  We just have to find a reasonable compromise.

I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 1/18/2016 - Seeking Accountability

First, here’s an update on effects of the spending cap or threshold on school budgets in Act 46. Action to address this is progressing in both the House and Senate, although the approaches are different. Whether the spending threshold is increased by 0.9%, as proposed by the House, or whether they are repealed altogether, as proposed by the Senate, will probably come down to a compromise which will be decided in a conference committee of both bodies. 

In the meantime, our attention in the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee has been focused on the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) and its departments including the Fish and Wildlife Department, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the permitting processes of ANR.  Several years ago the Legislature adopted a policy called Results Based Accountability (RBA). This policy requires each legislative committee to request the government departments and agencies in its purview to develop metrics to answer three questions with regard to their missions:

  1. How much did we do?
  2. How well did we do it?
  3. Is anyone better off?
For example, if the Legislature sets the goal of treating all persons addicted to opiates and allocates money for the program in the budget, the RBA metrics would include how many addicts got into the program, how many were successfully treated and at what cost, how many reintegrated as productive members of society, and how many seeking treatment couldn’t be accommodated. 

Following this model the Department of Environmental Conservation asked its employees what could be done to increase the efficiency of its operations. One division of the department had a backlog of 1100 drinking water and pollution control project audits. They estimated that it would take more than 100 person years to resolve the backlog using the existing audit process. A new approach was needed to tailor the level of audit to the level of project risk and streamline the process. The Commissioner at the time, David Mears, charged his team to analyze the process and come up with suggestions for improvement. 

As a result of this exercise dozens of iterative steps were condensed to a few necessary ones while retaining the effectiveness of the audits.  The changes resulted in a 76% reduction in the backlog, which is on target to be eliminated by March 2016, an increase in job satisfaction for the employees involved, a savings of $1.6M returned to the State Revolving Fund, and the ability to reallocate some personnel to unfilled positions in other areas. 

This success and similar ones in the Agency of Transportation serve as a model for other agencies of state government.  The Legislature hopes that continued attention to Results Based Accountability will help state government become more efficient, save taxpayer dollars, and help us get a better handle on the state budget.
I continue to welcome your comments and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/11/2016 - Reflections on the State of the State

The first week of a legislative session features a joint session of the House and Senate called to hear the Governor address the state of the State.  Amid the formal ceremony in the chamber of the House where the members of the Senate sat in their special seats near the podium, distinguished guests sat in additional chairs in the center of the well of the House, and other special guests sat among the members of the House and in the balcony, Governor Shumlin gave the last state of the State address of his six year tenure.

He made note of many accomplishments including a renewable energy policy that has grown thousands of new jobs while holding down electric rates, a strong and successful response to tropical storm Irene, success in getting 16,000 Vermonters health insurance they didn't have before, refocusing the criminal justice system from incarceration to rehabilitation, and expanding access to higher education for Vermont students through various innovative programs. On a lighter note, he touted the successes of the micro-brew, cheese and local food movements.

Looking to the future he focused on the economy, education and marijuana legalization among other things.  He said he is looking forward to signing the Paid Sick Leave bill, which passed the House last year, is expected to pass the Senate early this session. He announced a $1 million grant from the Enterprise Fund to Global Foundries to make 100 temporary jobs permanent.  And he called for quickly postponing or repealing the caps on education spending enacted in Act 46 last year. This approach is in contrast to the direction proposed by members of the House to raise the cap by 0.9%.

I was pleased to see that the Governor stipulated five criteria before he would sign any legislation legalizing recreational marijuana: 1) the market must keep it out of the hands of kids, 2) it must be taxed low enough to prevent a black market, 3) revenues must be used to expand addiction programs, 4) there must be a way to detect driving under the influence, and 4) it should include a ban on the sale of edible marijuana products.  These criteria are necessary but, in my opinion, there should also be a detailed analysis of the experiences of Colorado and Washington regarding the increased usage, especially by teenagers, and the additional costs to society as a result of DUI, marijuana tourism, and the use of other drugs accompanying marijuana use.

The Governor's focus on addressing the opiate crisis remains unabated.  He harshly criticized the FDA for approving stronger pain killers and the use of Oxycontin for children and denounced the pharmaceutical industry for transforming “compassionate pain management” into “pain for profit.”  He proposed limiting prescriptions for opiate pain medications after minor procedures to 10 doses at a time, increasing the periodic drug take-back events, and expanding the use of the prescription drug monitoring database to physicians and pharmacies in nearby states to reduce cross-border abuse.

Finally, I am proud that he continues to support accepting refugees from the civil war in Syria who pass the extensive and lengthy background checks by UNHCR and our own State Department.  As this past Sunday's Doonesbury strip noted, why should a potential terrorist go the refugee route when it is easier to just get a tourist visa?  Our country must continue to show compassion to those genuinely seeking shelter from terrorists rather than creating a fortress mentality.  After all, we are “the land of the free and the home of the BRAVE,” are we not?
I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).