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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 Hoouse 2/16/2017 - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Bags

The last time I went grocery shopping I tried to observe how many shoppers brought their own reusable bags to the checkout counter and how many used the disposable bags provided by the store. Very few shoppers that I observed actually brought their own reusable bags. Many walked out with four or more single-use plastic bags of groceries. While many of the larger supermarkets have barrels in the entry for recycling plastic bags and other thin film plastic, the bins are rarely full. Paper bags are somewhat better on the environment because they are made from a renewable resource (wood) and are more easily recycled. But they are also used only once or twice and involve an energy and chemically intensive manufacturing process.

So what happens to all the plastic bags that go home day after day, week after week, with us? If you're like me, they might get a second use like lining a small trash can before they get thrown away. On the other hand, heavy duty plastic or cloth bags can be used over and over many times. Americans consume 100 billion plastic bags per year, about 325 per person. Most in Vermont find their way to a landfill. One of the board members that oversaw the now-closed Moretown landfill told me that he would see hundreds of plastic bags blowing around during a strong wind. The only way to prevent that from happening was to quickly cover trash with dirt, which in turn lessened the capacity of the landfill. This is a serious concern because the Coventry landfill is the only one left in Vermont, and we have to make it last as long as possible.

So, the question is, what do we do about this problem? I and several colleagues introduced House bill H.88 seeking to reduce consumption of raw materials and the impact on the environment of disposable bags. It does this by putting a ten cent fee on disposable bags at the checkout counter. It is a tax, but an avoidable one simply by bringing your own reusable bag. Two cents of the tax is retained by the store and eight cents would be remitted to Vermont's Solid Waste Assistance Fund, which helps support the solid waste districts across the state. The bill also includes exemptions for small bags used for produce, newspapers, pet fish, etc., and a total exemption from the program for small retailers that typically dispense less than 20,000 bags per year, roughly 50 per day. Experiences with similar programs in states and cities across the U.S. have shown a decrease in the use of disposable bags of up to 40%. Retailers will save money by not having to buy as many bags, the cost of which is spread out over their merchandise. Some retailers already offer a small credit of 3 cents for each reusable bag brought by a customer. This has been shown to be not as effective as a fee because people are more likely to change their behavior in response to a loss of something than for a potential small gain. The bottom line is that this program will be a win for the environment, a win for the retailer, a win for consumers who take advantage of the program, and a win for our recycling program.

H.88 has been assigned to the Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee for consideration. They will be hearing testimony from consumers, retailers, environmental organizations and other interested parties over the next few months.

As always, I invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 2/8/2017 - Budget Adjustments and Education

Although it is still early in the session, the Vermont House has already done some noteworthy work. Faced with a revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year of $51 million, the House Appropriations Committee made adjustments to the budget adopted in May of last year. The data on which the original budget is built reflect estimates and projected trends that are made several months prior to the start of the fiscal year on July first. The budget adjustment process allows the impact of actual experience to be incorporated into the appropriation levels for the year. The action taken in January brings the budget back into balance. This was accomplished by moving some funds from areas where spending was less than expected, by the addition of non-budgeted federal funds paid to the Agency of Human Services, and by tapping some of the reserve funds set aside for budget adjustment purposes. The budget adjustment bill (H.125) passed on a tri-partisan vote of 141 to 0.

Despite the unanimous agreement on the budget adjustment issue, other issues presented more of a challenge. In his budget address Governor Scott laid out a plan to revise how Vermont pays for education. The proposed changes included level funding all school budgets and moving several programs from the General Fund to the Education Fund. Payments to the Teachers' Retirement Fund, higher education support, and child care support as well as PreK-12 education would come out of the Education Fund which would also see an increase in Innovation Grants. The total additional cost to the Education Fund would be about $136M which the Governor would offset by a transfer of $86M from the General Fund, leaving a difference of $50M. To make up this difference, he proposed using one time funds and requiring all teachers to pay 20% of their health insurance premiums, up from an average 16% currently. Furthermore, he proposed deferring voting on school budgets from Town Meeting day to May 23rd. Coming only weeks before school boards had to finalize their budgets, it left little time for the Legislature to review and evaluate the proposal, and threw school boards around the state off balance. These changes would also come just as many school districts are implementing consolidation under Act 46. Adding an additional $50M in costs to the Education Fund will have the effect of raising the statewide property tax rate by at least 5 cents according to the Joint Fiscal Office.

The plan for education as proposed by Governor Scott is going to require a lot more analysis that is going to take several weeks. We have taken steps with Act 46 to address education costs, and we need to give those steps time to work before more major changes are made. The Legislature now has to do its job to make sure all the consequences are apparent and determine whether the proposal should be adopted in the future.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 2/2/2017 - Keeping an Eye on IT

Legislation dealing with money, whether it is raising it or spending it, is often contentious and always a challenge. When the state raises money through taxes and fees, we as taxpayers want to see that it is well spent. It should be used to promote the common good, be used efficiently, and accomplish the purpose for which it is being used. This requires oversight by the legislature as well as the administration. The legislature several years ago adopted Results Based Accountability (RBA) which requires agencies to report on the results of the programs and services they provide, including how much was done, how well it was done, and whether anyone is better off. One area that has received limited oversight, however, has been the various computer systems and projects which have had mixed success with implementation. Both the legislature and the Scott administration have taken steps to address this area of concern.

One of the first orders of business for newly elected Speaker Mitzi Johnson was to establish the House Energy and Technology Committee which would have as one area of responsibility the oversight of Vermont’s Information Technology (IT) infrastructure. At nearly the same time, Governor Scott issued an executive order to change the model of the Department of Information and Innovation (DII), which had nominal responsibility for IT, and create a new Agency of Digital Services.

Up to now the administration of the various IT systems has had two parallel structures responsible for purchasing, development and management. Some of this authority is centralized under DII and some rests with the agencies the systems support. In addition, about 30% of the systems are administered independently under control of the statewide elected officials like the Secretary of State or the Treasurer. As a result, there may be duplication of effort, poor project management, and reliance on outdated legacy systems which are costly to support. In the meantime, the legislature has had little insight to the operation of the IT projects and systems but must appropriate money to fund them.
In order to improve the coordination, procurement and governance of technology and IT resources and spending, and more efficiently deliver services to the public, the executive order would have all IT projects report directly to the Agency of Digital Services while project managers and developers remain embedded in and report dotted-line to the agencies they serve.

The history of state IT projects has had mixed results, with the problems of Vermont Health Connect illustrative of the public perception of dollars not well spent. A joint hearing was conducted by the Energy & Technology, Institutions, and Health Care Committees to hear a report from an independent auditor on the current status of Vermont Health Connect. The recommendation of the audit report was that problems remain with automation of some functions involving communications with billing and insurance providers. However, they determined that the best solution is to continue work on improving VHC after analyzing a half dozen other alternatives including moving to the federal system. On top of their findings they noted that the uncertain fate of the federal Affordable Care Act under the Trump administration injects an unknown factor into the equation for Vermont’s health care system. It will be up to the legislature working with the Governor to successfully navigate through this uncharted territory.

As always, I invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/25/2017 - Vermonters Rally for Universal Background Checks

The Vermont statehouse in Montpelier is nicknamed "The People's House". For one thing, it is where legislators do "the people's business." Furthermore, unlike many other statehouses around the country, the public has complete access to both the building and their legislators when the legislature is in session, usually January through early May. In fact, the statehouse functions as a living museum, with free access and free tours all year long. Those Vermonters who let their representative know they will be visiting during the session are often introduced to and welcomed by the assembly during the announcements.

This accessibility is a hallmark of democracy in Vermont and is most apparent when groups of citizens, advocating for one issue or another, converge on the building en masse. The place becomes a beehive of bodies and voices. Press conferences by legislators or organizations are often held in the Cedar Creek Room which features a huge mural of the Civil War battle of Cedar Creek in which the First Vermont Brigade played a key role in the Union victory.

It was such a press conference organized by Gun Sense Vermont on January 10th that saw more than a hundred Vermont citizens from across the state pack the room in support of background checks for all firearms sales. Senator Phil Baruth introduced a bill (S.6) that would extend the federal requirement of a background check for firearm purchases from a licensed firearms dealer in Vermont to include private and internet purchases as well. A companion bill, which I plan to co-sponsor, is being drafted for introduction in the House. These bills would close the so-called "gun show loophole" which today allows a prohibited person to obtain a gun without going through a background check. The definition of a prohibited person includes anyone convicted of a violent felony, anyone with a restraining order resulting from domestic abuse, and anyone judged in a court of law to be mentally ill and considered a danger to themselves or others.

Vermont is considered to be one of the safest states for gun violence per capita, so why do we need such a law? Governor Scott, as did his predecessor Governor Shumlin, has stated that he does not see a need for any more gun laws in Vermont. It is true that most gun owners in Vermont are responsible individuals and would pass a background check without any problems. However, we still read and hear about gun violence in Vermont, often perpetrated by individuals who fall into the prohibited category. According to the Gun Sense VT website, in the states that require criminal background checks on unlicensed handgun sales, there are 38% fewer women killed by guns than in the states that do not have this requirement. In Vermont in 2013, there were more than 1,000 final relief from abuse orders issued, and 1,457 violent crimes that involved violence against intimate partners or family members. And of the 13 homicides in Vermont in 2013, eight (62%) were deemed domestic violence-related, and of these, four were committed with a firearm.

Gun trafficking is another problem fueled by the ubiquitous opiate crisis that results in guns being traded for drugs. I-91 has become known as the "iron pipeline" because drug dealers and criminals find it easier to buy a gun in Vermont than in southern New England or New York, states which have stronger gun laws. Without a federal universal background check law, state laws are like Swiss cheese with Vermont being one of the holes. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a report last October that showed 74% of firearms used in New York crimes were bought in states with weak gun laws, and that 489 of those were traced back to Vermont. While this was only 1% of the total, it illustrates that Vermont is a source. Every gun sale prevented by a background check has the potential of saving a life. A VPR-Castleton Polling Institute poll found that 84% of Vermonters, including more than 70% of gun owners, approve of universal background checks. Common sense dictates that the hole should be plugged, and I hope that Governor Scott will eventually agree.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com)

The Word in the House 1/19/2017 - New Beginnings

As I drove to Montpelier last week, I felt excited by the prospect of the changes that would be taking place in Vermont's government, changes that would offer new challenges as well as new opportunities. The 2016 election produced a sweeping change of leadership in Montpelier from the Governor and Lieutenant Governor to the House and Senate leadership.  Both House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell decided not to run for re-election to their respective seats. With the election of Lt. Governor Phil Scott as Governor, and Senator David Zuckerman as Lt. Governor, the state of Vermont is in new hands. The change extended to the Legislature with the election of Representative Mitzi Johnson (D-North Hero) as Speaker of the House and Chittenden County Senator Tim Ashe (D/P) as President Pro Tempore. Johnson previously served as Chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

The first week of the 2017 legislative session was filled with the pomp and circumstance of the departure of the old administration of Governor Peter Shumlin and the inauguration of the new administration of Governor Phil Scott.  But before those events took place, the House and Senate had to convene and elect their own leadership.

In her acceptance speech Speaker Johnson reminded us that “The campaign process tends to herd us toward simple sound bites-like those that you see on campaign literature - but the answers are not as simple.” She admonished us to “take time to understand the problem we’re trying to solve.” Johnson raised the challenge for the Legislature to address the problems of the uneven distribution of jobs throughout the state despite having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country; building ladders out of poverty that do not come with built-in disincentives; climate change that poses challenges to our agriculture, public health, tourism base and ecology as well our state infrastructure and budget; and the many challenges of building a strong, healthy future, in a way we can afford. She asked the House to evaluate state government and prioritize what Vermonters most need, "so that we may preserve the long-term health and wellness of our state", and she committed to working with the administration to achieve this goal.

The following day newly elected Governor Phil Scott was sworn in and, in his inaugural speech, laid out his vision of the future he hopes we would build together.  He said he would ask every state agency to work toward three goals: improve economic opportunity, make Vermont more affordable, and protect the most vulnerable Vermonters. These are goals we can all agree on as we start our work this year.

Speaker Johnson also announced some significant changes to the work of House committees.  First, there were many changes to committee assignments as 33 new legislators joined our ranks.  Some committees had a larger turnover than others and a balance of veteran legislators and freshmen had to take place on all committees.  Several committees saw significant changes to their responsibilities.  In particular, the Natural Resources and Energy committee, on which I served for the last six years, was totally reorganized. Responsibility for natural resources, land management and Act 250 was reassigned to the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources committee. Forestry oversight was moved to the Agriculture and Forests committee, and a brand new committee – Energy and Technology – was formed to take over responsibilities for energy, telecommunications, and IT infrastructure, including the IT systems of state government. 

I will be serving along with seven other veteran Representatives on this new committee. I am looking forward to continue working on energy policy while learning more about how we can expand high-speed broadband throughout the state. Both energy and telecom are key components to economic development in Chittenden County and beyond.  Since no single committee had oversight of Vermont's many complex computer systems, our committee will be taking a deep look into the various systems, how they interact, the software platforms they are built on, what they cost, and the security measures used to protect vital data and the systems themselves. 

As the session develops, I will continue to keep you informed about the work my colleagues and I are doing. I also invite you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).