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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.



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).

The Word in the House 4/4/2016 - Dental Therapists, Permitting and Marijuana


The 2016 legislative session is now two-thirds finished and is projected to end by the first week in May. Several bills have been sent to the House from the Senate and are now being considered by various committees. Here is a brief description of a few of them.
 
One bill, S.20, would create a new licensed professional category of Dental Therapist. This is a level of training between a Dental Hygienist and Dentist. A Dental Therapist would be required to have all the training of a Dental Hygienist as well as graduate from an accredited dental therapist educational program. They would be licensed to provides oral health care services, including prevention, evaluation and assessment, education, palliative therapy, and restoration under the general supervision of a dentist. They would only be allowed to practice in settings or areas with a significant volume of low-income, uninsured, or under-served patients. The impetus for this legislation has been the lack of sufficient and affordable dental services in many rural communities of Vermont. The bill is currently under review by the House Human Services Committee.
 
Another bill, S.123, seeks to streamline the permitting of projects under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Conservation in the Agency of Natural Resources. The bill consolidates 85 current processes into five processes and standardizes the procedures for notifications and approvals, including

• requiring pre-application public participation for large or complex permit applications,

• requiring notice of the application for all permits except emergency permits,

• providing interested persons (other than the applicant) an opportunity to provide expert or detailed opinion to ANR technical staff prior to a public comment period,

• requiring administrative records for all DEC acts or decisions, and

• requiring fact sheets for all individual permits.

The bill also requires ANR to develop one web-based portal that is searchable for projects that are on notice by project name, permit type (e.g., stormwater), or geographic location. Interested persons would be able to "subscribe" to be notified when key project milestones take place. It also creates two standardized notice periods, 30 days for major permits, 10 days for minor permits, and allows emergency permits to be issued without notice. The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee is in the process of reviewing this bill.
 
Finally, S.241, the marijuana legalization bill, has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee. Additionally, it is undergoing a thorough evaluation by several other committees, including Government Operations, Human Services, Health Care, and Agriculture. Judiciary and Government Operations held an evening public hearing last week in the House chamber for one and a half hours, taking testimony from both advocates and opponents. Deliberations are expected to continue for several weeks as the potential benefits and consequences are evaluated.
 
I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 4/4/2016 - House Passes Budget – Round 1

The past two weeks saw the introduction of all the money bills the House has constitutional responsibility for developing. These include the Budget, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill, the Fee Bill, the Transportation Bill, the Education Funding Bill, and the Capital Construction Bill. Taken together, they constitute the plan for all the state spending in the next fiscal year from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017 (FY17) and the means to implement the laws and policies enacted by the Legislature. Indeed, they reflect in a concrete way the responsibilities of state government to provide for the safety, health, and general welfare of Vermonters. This article will focus on the Budget, the keystone of all of these bills, which encompasses all of state spending included in the others.

The FY17 budget fulfills the intent of last year’s budget bill by reducing state spending growth, eliminating dependence on one-time funds for ongoing programs, engaging in multi-year planning, and improving program accountability. The Appropriations Committee scrutinized programs to determine their impact over many years. They took testimony on program results and performance measurements from every department and agency and codified reporting of performance measures in Agency of Human Services grants. They invited input from every committee, from agencies and departments, and from individual legislators. The result is a budget that grew 2.7% this year, down from the five-year growth rate of 3.9% and last year's growth of 4.2%. So, what were the reasons and justifications for this spending growth?

The increased spending is not the result of adding new programs but of stabilizing existing programs. For example, it includes an increase in support for Vermont State Colleges ($800K), an additional transfer from the General fund to the Education Fund of $2.6M to help with property taxes, adds $1M to child care subsidies, and provides an additional $1.4M long-term to stabilize the Vermont Veteran’s Home. Other factors in spending growth are the increased number of children in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) requiring an additional $1.8M, a net $71M increase in Medicaid caseload, and $13M for caseload increases in Choices for Care, Developmental Services and Public Safety. Finally, the budget makes investments for the future by increasing the Working Lands funding by almost $200K and providing $11.2M for the Weatherization program, both of which are job creation as well as environmental programs.

This budget addresses the problem of expenditures outpacing revenues that Vermont has been experiencing for the last several years since the budget growth is less than the projected revenues for FY17 by about 0.4%. Moreover, the Miscellaneous Tax bill identified new funding sources to help:
  • assessment of Rooms & Meals tax on private rentals of property, such as AirBNB;
  • an increase in the Bank Franchise tax on average monthly deposits exceeding $750M from 0.000096 to 0.000121; and
  • a 0.25% increase in the fuels Gross Receipts excise tax from 0.50% to 0.75%.

The increase in the Bank Franchise tax brings Vermont in line with other New England states. The increase in the gross receipts tax is dedicated to the Weatherization program, and at a fuel oil price of $2.00/gallon will cost the average homeowner using 700 gallons of fuel oil per year an extra $3.50/year.

No one likes to pay taxes. But taxes are necessary for government to function and provide those services we expect from government. Cutting services too much just leads to greater costs down the road. The Appropriations Committee took great pains to keep spending as efficient and limited to necessity as possible while fulfilling our obligation to protect our environment, to promote our economic growth, and to provide for the safety, health and general welfare of all Vermonters. These bills now go to the Senate for round two.

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