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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.

Legislative Report 5/16/2016 - End of Session Summary

As the final installment of my Legislative Reports this year, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the important work the Legislature did over the two years of the biennium.
Water Quality
In 2015 legislation was passed that will help prevent agricultural runoff from farms, roads and other impervious surfaces by controlling discharges that could violate our water quality standards. The Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) that all farms must follow are in the final stages of development and should be released in September, 2016. The Agency of Agriculture will provide technical and financial assistance to help farmers comply and there is funding in the budget to help towns comply with water treatment and road runoff mitigation.
Legislation was passed this year that will allow voluntary regional collaboration by municipalities around a range of services, including ambulance, solid waste, fire protection, and land use planning to achieve economies of scale. The law promotes transparency, local municipal voice, and treatment of municipalities as equal partners. The Legislature relaxed the requirement on how often municipal plans need to be updated from every five years to every eight years to allow more time for plan implementation. We also passed a bill that automatically registers eligible Vermonters to vote when they apply for a state driver’s license making it easier for our citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Human Services
The Legislature continues to focus on efforts to keep our children safe. At the end of 2015, there were 1052 children in state custody placed in foster or adoptive foster homes or in foster homes of relatives. In the past two years, reports of child abuse and neglect have surged and the state has experienced an 82% increase in the number of children under six who are in the state’s custody. In 80% of these cases, families are struggling with problems related to opioid addiction or other serious substance abuse. In addition, the tragic death of a DCF social worker allegedly by a parent this past summer has continued to place our state’s child protection system under pressure. The number of case workers added last year has not kept pace with the increase in cases, and more social workers will be hired along with substance abuse screeners to address this ongoing problem. More is being done to address the opioid addiction problem as well, including treatment, education, prevention, and increased market-constraints such as increased fees on pharmaceutical manufactures to help fund mitigation programs. A key provision is a requirement for health care providers and pharmacists to register with the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) and to query the system upon prescribing or dispensing a controlled substance to help eliminate prescription fraud and the diversion of controlled substances.
Natural Resources & Energy
Over the past decade, Vermont has led the nation with its energy efficiency programs, lowering both electricity costs and rates. In 2015 the Renewable Energy Standard Act was passed which will eliminate the double-counting or Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and is helping Vermonters transform their energy use in the heating and transportation sectors. This year we recognized Vermonters’ concerns over the proper siting of solar and wind projects and passed legislation that will give municipalities a greater voice in these decisions if they develop energy plans to address the state’s goals for renewable energy in collaboration with their Regional Planning Commissions. We also required the Public Service Board to develop noise standards for wind projects in recognition of complaints about existing projects. We passed legislation this year that will preserve and maintain the health of Vermont’s forests, and we ensured that conservation easements that were always meant to be perpetual will continue to be so by removing the 40 year renewal requirement and ensuring that the easement remains with the property if a tax sale of the property occurs.
Working Vermonters
Legislation passed this year guarantees working Vermonters the right to earn paid sick leave up to three days per year, increasing to five days in subsequent years. We also increased subsidies for child care facilities to provide high-quality, affordable child care for working families. Because of Act 176 of 2014, the minimum wage in Vermont is $9.60/hour and is scheduled to increase to $10/hour on January 1, 2017. 
The Legislature continued to address the increasing cost of education by encouraging school district consolidation under Act 46 passed in 2015 and made some changes early in 2016 to address budgeting issues being faced by school boards. Several districts across the state have already voted to merge and more, including Chittenden South, are expected to vote in the next couple of months. Chittenden South will hold its vote on June 7th, and I encourage everyone in Charlotte to take the time to vote in person or by absentee ballot. You can find information about the proposal at act46.cssu.org. I strongly recommend reading the Final Report to inform your vote.
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).  I wish you all a wonderful summer and hope to see you around town.

Legislative Report 5/2/2016 - Persistence Pays

If you’re old enough to remember the 80’s TV show “The A-Team”, you might remember what their leader, Hannibal Smith (George Peppard), used to say after a successful mission: “I love it when a plan comes together!” That’s how I felt last week when a bill that I’ve been working on for the last five years passed overwhelmingly.
Between my first and second years as State Rep, I was talking with Lambert Lussier, proprietor of Spear Street Mowers. He was telling me about a bill that Rep. Martha Heath had introduced a couple of years before that would have helped small equipment dealers like himself to obtain fair reimbursement for warranty work they had to perform under contract with their product distributors. Often he had to work on equipment that was purchased somewhere else, including big box stores. It was common for the manufacturer to set the reimbursement, usually below his normal labor rate, as well as dictate the amount of time expected to do the diagnosis and repair. I told him I’d try to help and introduced the bill the following session. Nothing happened to the bill, and I had to reintroduce it the following year in the new biennium. Working with the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association (NEDA), we pushed hard to get it through the House Commerce Committee. However, in the process the scope of the bill grew to include snowmobile and ATV dealers, and the manufacturers pushed back hard. Again, it failed to get out of committee.
I introduced the bill again in 2015 with a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Harvey Smith of New Haven. Again there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in taking it up until three things happened. Last autumn, I invited the Chair of the Commerce Committee, Rep. Bill Botzow, to visit Charlotte, and I in turn visited his town of Pownal. One of the stops we made was to Spear Street Mowers. Lambert told his story and Bill promised that the warranty bill would be considered. Then, as the session approached, NEDA hired a good lobbyist to shepherd the bill through. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Rogers of Orleans County, and was taken up by the Senate Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Although the manufacturers pushed back and even tried to delay work on the bill, the Senate passed it as S.224. Since the House Commerce Committee was already familiar with it, they made some tweaks and passed it out unanimously, 11-0. It subsequently passed the House on a voice vote with no opposition. I expect the Senate to concur with the changes made by the House and send it to the Governor. This bill recognizes the value of Vermont's small equipment dealers to our local economies and agricultural communities and provides much needed protections for them as they negotiate contracts with large manufacturers who have the resources to dictate terms that can be detrimental to small dealers. I love it when a plan comes together - even if it does take five years!
On another note, the Charter language creating a two-step approval process for the town budget, which passed by an 1148 to 403 vote at Town Meeting in March, became House bill H.881. After testimony from myself, Selectboard Chair Lane Morrison, Town Meeting Solutions Committee member Lynne Jaunich, and Town Clerk Mary Mead via email, the House Government Operations Committee voted 9 to 1 for it, and it was subsequently passed by the House on a voice vote. It should get through the Senate before adjournment and then signed into law shortly afterward.
I would like to take this opportunity to announce that I will be running for re-election in the Democratic Primary on August 27th and hope that you will support me. I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/25/2016 - Towns Get More Say in Energy Siting

2015 saw an increase in solar arrays springing up across the Vermont countryside. This was occurring as developers and landowners became more active in seeking opportunities to take advantage of Vermont's incentives for net metering of renewable energy. These incentives promote Vermont's goal of obtaining 90% of its energy needs from non-fossil fuel sources by 2050 and have been successful in creating thousands of jobs and keeping Vermont's electricity rates the lowest in New England except for Maine. However, the sight of large arrays along the Route 7 corridor in New Haven as well as other places has become controversial. A letter initiated by Rutland Town and signed by more than 140 municipalities including Charlotte requests that towns be given more input to the Public Service Board's decision-making process.
As a result, the Senate Judiciary committee, chaired by Senator Chris Bray of Addison County, took up the task of addressing this issue and, after months of testimony, passed S.230, the Energy Development Improvement Act. For the past month, the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee has been reviewing S.230 and, after taking several weeks of testimony, made some substantive changes, and voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Every energy project requires a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) to be issued by the Public Service Board (PSB) before it can be constructed. Act 56 of 2015, the Renewable Energy Standards Act, gave towns the automatic right of intervention in CPG hearings for projects in their communities. The PSB currently is required to give “due consideration” to the input of testimony provided by the town. This means that the PSB would take the testimony under advisement, but could effectively give it less weight than it gives to the benefits of the project. This is the situation that led people to believe their concerns were not being heard. S.230 would now require the PSB to give “substantial deference” to a town if the town plan meets certain standards. “Substantial deference” means that the project would have to align with the town plan to get PSB approval unless there is a clear and convincing demonstration that other factors affecting the general good of the State outweigh the limitations in the plan.
In order to get substantial deference the town plan would have to meet certain standards in conjunction with a regional plan. The standards would be set by the Department of Public Service in consultation with other state agencies, Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and other interested parties, and would have to address energy conservation, efficiency, fuel-switching, and use of renewable energy for transportation, heating, and electricity. These standards have to be completed by November 1, 2016. Subsequently, RPCs would develop regional plans using these standards to identify areas suitable for various types of renewable energy generation. If the standards are met the regional plan would be approved by the Department. A town plan would then get approval from the RPC if the town plan adequately addresses the same criteria with regard to identifying sites within the town where renewable energy technologies would be suitable as well as unsuitable. The goal is to give municipalities a role in determining locations as opposed to blanket rejection of any renewable energy siting. In case a town wants to move faster than its RPC to get substantial deference, it would be able to apply directly to the Department up until July 1, 2018, when all RPCs are expected to have plans in place.
From the time the Lowell, Sheffield and Georgia Mountain wind projects have been operational, complaints from nearby residents about noise and associated health effects have persisted. While hundreds of complaints were recorded, the vast majority came from a few of the nearest neighbors to the projects. During its consideration of S.230, our Committee heard the concerns from many private citizens and audiologists regarding noise issues. As part of the revisions to S.230, the PSB will be required to open a docket to review the noise issue, develop standards for acceptable noise levels, and make recommendations for methods of noise mitigation with respect to the nearby residences. S.230 also included provisions addressing some hydroelectric facilities and radar-controlled lighting on wind turbines.
I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 4/18/2016 - Highs and Lows of Marijuana Legislation

Every session seems to have its own highly controversial issue – end of life, vaccines, gun control.  This year it's marijuana legalization. The Vermont Senate passed S.241 in March on a vote of 17-12. Under this measure the state would regulate cannabis from seed to sale and legalize its use by adults. The Health Department would establish prevention and education programs, and the Department of Public Safety would regulate licensed marijuana businesses. Retail sales would be taxed at 25% and proceeds would fund substance abuse prevention, education, treatment and law enforcement. Selling or giving marijuana to and possession and use of marijuana by anyone under age 21 would be prohibited as would driving under the influence of marijuana. Unlicensed growing, selling and possession of more than one ounce of marijuana would be prohibited and current penalties would still apply.

After leaving the Senate, S.241 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. After four weeks of testimony and discussion, including joint hearings with the Government Operations Committee and the Human Services Committee and a two-hour public hearing in the well of the House, the Judiciary Committee voted out a rewritten S.241 on April 8. With this amendment the Judiciary Committee recognizes that Vermont must address public health and safety issues from marijuana use that currently confront the state. It stops short of legalization, but allows the state to prepare for the eventuality that legal marijuana use will come to our region, while also addressing current concerns. It retains certain provisions of the Senate bill, including an education and prevention program including drugged driving prevention, creating a crime for certain dangerous chemical extraction processes, prohibiting the consumption or possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle, requiring additional training for law enforcement, and establishing a workforce study committee. Last week the House Ways and Means Committee took the Judiciary version and restored the legalization of up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivation of up to two plants with a license from the Health Department. They also stripped appropriations for the Department of Public Safety for enforcement and lab testing while retaining those requirements.
According to the Rand Corporation report commissioned by the Legislature, 80,000 Vermonters currently use marijuana. With the legalization issue gaining momentum throughout the country, it is likely that Vermont will also do so at some point. If we do, we must do it carefully and with our eyes wide open. Proponents point to increased revenue from taxation, displacing the current black market, and the benign effects of marijuana compared to alcohol consumption. However, data out of Colorado indicates that there was an 8% increase in the number of 12 to 17 year olds using marijuana in the first year of legalization, and a 32% increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities during the first year. Moreover, the revenues from taxing marijuana sales will likely be significantly diminished by the costs of regulation and enforcement. If we are concerned with the safety and welfare of the general population, we need more time to assess the long term effects of legalization. We should also have at least as much control over sales as we have over alcohol. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia are the laboratories of this experiment. Before potentially endangering our youth further by this addictive substance or experiencing increased road fatalities resulting from an influx of out-of-state drivers or Vermonters driving under the influence, waiting for a careful assessment of the results from those jurisdictions before we become a laboratory ourselves may be a more prudent path.
I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/11/2016 - Education Funding and Property Taxes

A little over a month ago at Town Meeting we voted for our town budget, our local CCS school budget and our CVU budget. Together these budgets will determine the amount of spending that our property taxes will be based on. By far, the largest portion of those taxes will go to the school budgets. How our taxes get to the school districts is not a direct path, however, because we pay those school taxes to the State, which then allocates them to every budget voted in Vermont. This is because our Constitution requires every student to have an equal educational opportunity which cannot depend on how rich or poor their community is. This article seeks to explain this process and the effect it has on our local tax rates.

Our education property taxes along with 35% of the sales and use tax, proceeds from the Vermont Lottery and a transfer from the General Fund go into the Education Fund from which the school districts are financed. Every year the Vermont Legislature has to pass an education funding bill which sets the statewide property tax rate. This requires knowing the total amount of all school budgets, the total value of the statewide property grandlist, and the number of students. These variables determine how much $1.00 of property taxes or 2% of household income will yield in revenues and, consequently, the base yield per pupil. The income-based rate is for homeowners with household incomes less than $135,000. All these factors work together to determine what tax rates are required in order to fund all the school budgets in the state.

This year's education funding bill, H.853, sets the statewide residential homestead property tax base rate to $1.00 per $100.00 of valuation, up from $0.99 last year. This is called the “penny tax rate” and is applied to homesteads with incomes above $135,000. Also, the base income rate for households with income of $135,000 or less is set to 2% of household income, up from 1.8%. This may look like a tax increase, but we're not finished. The yield per equalized pupil for the penny tax rate this year is $9701, up from $9459, and the yield per equalized pupil for the income tax rate is $10,870, up from $9459.

To compute the local tax rates, the tax rates in the bill are multiplied by the ratio of the local spending per equalized pupil to the statewide per pupil yield. For Charlotte the CCS and CVU per pupil amounts are used to come up with a blended average of $15,477, up from $15,203 last year, so this year's ratio is 15477/9701 = 1.595. This is a slightly lower penny tax rate than last year's 1.607. Likewise, the income rate of 2% is multiplied by the ratio of the local spending to the income rate yield, or
2% x 15477/10870 = 2.848% compared to last year's 3.215%. Both of these rates are lower than last year.

However, another local factor, Charlotte's Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), has decreased from 105% to 102% year over year because the prices for homes that sold in Charlotte over the last three years are closer to their assessed values than before. The penny rate is divided by this factor causing the CLA adjusted penny tax rate to increase from $1.53 per $100 valuation last year to $1.56. The CLA has no effect on the income tax rate.

With per pupil spending up and the number of students dropping both locally and statewide from last year, we might ask why property tax rates didn't increase. There are 2 reasons for this. First, there was an increase in the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund by $2M above the $27M scheduled transfer. Second, statewide school spending increased less than expected and allowed $20M collected in the Education Fund last year to be carried forward to this year's budget. Act 46 will continue to improve the school funding situation as more districts consolidate.

Taxation is the most unpleasant responsibility of a legislator, but it is also necessary. When the legislature votes on an education funding bill, we are voting to pay for the education of the children of Vermont as determined by local school boards across the state. We have taken measures to control those costs with Act 46 and with measures we took in this year's budget, and the results we see this year have begun to move us in the right direction.

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