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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 3/16/2017 - Towards a Better Bottle Bill

Back in 1971 there was a lot of concern about littering Vermont's highways and byways. A major component of the litter was discarded beverage bottles that were tossed from moving cars. Governor Deane C. Davis and the legislature addressed the problem by passing the “Bottle Bill” in 1972 which established a 5 cent refundable deposit on bottles and eventually cans. This system has worked effectively ever since to promote recycling of these items. According to the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG), more than 80% of returnable bottles and cans are redeemed today. However, 45 years later beverage container recycling is still a subject in the legislature.

Here's how the system currently works. The beverage industry manages the deposit system. Consumers pay the retailer a 5 cent deposit which they get back when the container is redeemed. The beverage distributor(s) then pay the redemption location 8.5 cents per container. The deposits for the 15% of containers that are never redeemed are retained by the distributors to the tune of about $2M per year. The distributors also recycle the aluminum, plastic and glass for their value as raw materials. While aluminum and plastic are valuable materials, it costs money to collect, transport and recycle the glass.

There are currently two bills that have been introduced this year dealing with beverage containers, H.67 and H.173. H.67 would extend the current deposit system to water bottles and all other beverage containers except for milk and milk substitutes, and it would require the unclaimed deposits to be remitted to the state to support our solid waste system. Wine and liquor as well as uncarbonated beverages would be included.

On the other hand H.173, which I introduced, takes a different approach. I proposed H.173 primarily for discussion purposes to re-examine our 45 year old bottle recycling strategy. The committee process of the Vermont legislature allows for a pretty detailed examination of proposals with an opportunity to hear from many perspectives. Because Act 148 of 2012 mandates recycling throughout Vermont, H.173 would eliminate the deposit system entirely and place a 5 cent non-refundable fee on all glass beverage containers. My reasoning is fourfold:
1. Since the valuable aluminum and plastic are diverted from our solid waste stream by the deposit system, a significant revenue source for our solid waste districts is eliminated.
2. Glass recycling already imposes a loss on our solid waste districts because the value of the glass is lower than the cost of collecting, transporting and processing it.
3. The extra 3.5 cents that the beverage distributors pay the redemption centers as well as the cost to handle and transport the containers is built into the price of the beverage. This additional cost is somewhat mitigated by the $2M left with the beverage distributors. This complex handling system would be simplified by my bill.
4. The 5 cent fee on glass containers in H.173 would be remitted directly from the retailer to the state's Solid Waste Assistance Fund which supports certain programs of the solid waste districts. This would also eliminate the middleman, the distributors, from the recycling stream.

Both bills are in the House Natural Resources, Fish & Wildlife Committee which will consider their merits based on testimony from solid waste districts, the beverage industry, environmental organizations such as VPIRG, and groups that rely on the deposit system for fundraising. With changing times, the greater acceptance of recycling, and the positive effects of Act 148, I think it is worth revisiting the strategy for recycling beverage containers. I will support either bill or a hybrid that the Committee might approve.

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 3/2/2017 - The Long and Short of Legislating

Hundreds of bills are introduced in the Vermont House each year. Some are very long bills that create new laws or make major modifications to existing law. A major rewrite of the liquor control laws that were first enacted in 1934 was recently undertaken by the General, Housing & Military Affairs Committee. All of the changes were technical including removal of outdated regulations and bringing others in compliance with current practices and relevant laws. This 179 page bill took over two hours to summarize on the House floor. Other than an amendment to legalize “happy hours”, which was defeated on a close vote because it would require more testimony, there was little controversy and the bill was passed on a voice vote. The committee indicated it would revisit the popular “happy hours” as a separate bill.

On the flip side of bill complexity, the Energy & Technology Committee considered a one-page bill, H.50, that would have simply extended a sunset clause on a section of law regarding telecommunications from July of this year to July of 2020, but generated a great deal of controversy This provision, known as Section 248a, provides an expedited process for getting a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) from the Public Service Board (PSB) for siting of telecommunication equipment such as antennae, wifi transmitters, and cell towers. Telecom facility siting would then have to go through either Act 250 permitting when applicable, local zoning, or both. Cell phone and internet access have been seen as essential for economic development, safety, education, health care, and consumer service. Section 248a has been a key factor in developing this infrastructure since the Douglas administration. The House Energy and Technology Committee took many weeks of testimony from all the stakeholders, including the PSB, the Department of Public Service, telecom providers, and municipalities and Regional Planning Commissions.

The extension of the sunset clause had been passed three times since 2007. Over this time several cases of cell tower siting have been contentious, pitting local zoning and residents against developers. Almost all of these had occurred more than a year ago. As a result of these issues coming to light, the legislature made modifications to 248a in 2015 which requires the PSB to give "substantial deference" to local plans, regulations and recommendations unless there is "good cause" to find otherwise. Substantial deference means that the plans and recommendations of municipal bodies are presumed correct, valid, and reasonable. The modifications also included strong language for co-locating new equipment on existing structures whenever possible. These modifications to 248a took effect on 7/1/2016, a mere eight months ago. After taking weeks of testimony and concluding that the concerns of the towns had been addressed in previous legislation, the committee decided to make 248a permanent by repealing the sunset clause.

As H.50 was brought to the floor for consideration by the VT House, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns (VLCT) sent a letter of opposition to repealing the sunset clause. This generated a lot of emails to legislators from municipal officials, and the Energy & Technology Committee decided to pull the bill back. We subsequently had more discussion with VLCT as well as other affected parties and restored the language extending the sunset for three years and added language to require the CPG applicants to include in the 60 day pre-application notice a list of existing options available to the municipalities, including reference to the substantial deference clause. This amendment to H.50 was satisfactory to VLCT as well as to the telecom providers, and the bill was once again voted out of committee for consideration by the full House and is expected to pass. The takeaway is that even the simplest bill can generate a lot of work and turmoil.

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 2/22/2017 - Legislative Oversight

Our three branches of government, Executive, Legislative and Judicial, form an effective system of checks and balances. The Executive branch administers and enforces laws passed by the Legislative branch, and the Judicial branch makes sure the laws and executive actions conform to the U. S. and state constitutions. The Executive and Legislative branches together determine policies that the Legislature writes into law. Once the policies are enacted it falls to the Executive branch to interpret the application of the law. Broad policies often require rules formulated by the Executive branch that address specific applications of the law. In Vermont the Legislature has the constitutional authority to review these rules before they go into effect. This is done by a special committee called the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules (LCAR).

In January I was appointed by the Speaker of the House as one of four Representatives and four Senators to LCAR in addition to my duties on the House Energy and Technology Committee. This appointment has given me the opportunity to examine more closely aspects of legislation that I normally would not be familiar with. For example, LCAR recently approved emergency rules issued by the Vermont Department of Health that gives authority to prescribe and dispense buprenorphine and methadone to Physician Assistants and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses. Emergency rules can only be issued in situations where health or safety is impacted and are effective for only 90 days. This gives an agency an opportunity to come up with permanent rules. This rule addressed an immediate need for more health practitioners to provide medically assisted treatment for addicts.

Another rule that was approved addressed the criteria for replacing culverts and bridges. This rule change will allow Vermont to receive FEMA reimbursement for replacing old, inadequate culverts and bridges with more robust structures in response to the more extreme weather events occurring as a result of climate change. When tropical storm Irene washed out so many roads and bridges, FEMA would only reimburse Vermont for the identical size structures replacing the old ones. Most of these were washed out because they were inadequate to handle the storm-induced flow. Common sense would dictate structure redesigns to handle larger flows, but there was no basis in Vermont's standards to justify federal reimbursement. The new rules will protect Vermont and help save millions of dollars if similar damage occurs in the future.

A much more complicated rule change has been proposed by the Public Service Board regarding the net-metering program for renewable energy. The PSB was tasked to redesign the net-metering rate structure by the Legislature in 2015. Several drafts were proposed during 2015 and 2016 based on changes to renewable energy (RE) policy made by the Legislature in 2016. Hearings were held and hundreds of comments from RE developers, consumers, businesses, and state agencies were submitted to the PSB. These comments resulted in further changes to the proposed rules before they were submitted for LCAR review. Over the last few weeks we have been reviewing the rules as well as the comments. It is a painstaking process, but it will ensure that when approved, they will be consistent with law and do not exceed the PSB's authority.

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 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).