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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 3/1/2018 - Proposed Education Funding Changes

As we approach Town Meeting Day the issue of how to fund our K-12 education system is once again in the news. The fact that we continue to have the discussion from one year to the next indicates that it is not easy to address all the concerns regarding property taxes, budgets and services that are needed. Moreover, the current funding system is nearly impossible for the average Vermonter to understand and for most legislators to explain. At a briefing I attended, the remark was made that the system could be simple or fair, but not both. This year the House Ways & Means Committee decided to take a fresh look at how we fund education with an eye toward making it easier to understand while maintaining fairness in application.

Before describing the proposed changes, it is important to review the roles of the municipalities and school districts, the voters and taxpayers, and the state. School districts decide what is needed to educate their children and put together a budget, with taxpayer input, to meet those needs. The budget is presented to the taxpayers who then either approve or disapprove it. The state, on the other hand, is responsible for raising the money to fund all the budgets passed across the state. Today, that funding consist of 36% of the sales tax revenues, 100% of the lottery revenues, a transfer from the General Fund, federal dollars, and a statewide property tax. The burden on taxpayers is reduced by adjustments to the property tax assessments based on household income, and a fixed rate is assessed on all non-residential property.

The new proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would keep the non-residential rate the same, but would change the other allocations significantly. The General Fund transfer would be eliminated, but 100% of the sales and use tax revenue as well as 25% of the rooms and meals tax would go to the Education Fund. The income sensitivity adjustment would be eliminated and be replaced by a direct school income tax based on adjusted gross income. Low income residents and property owners would continue to be assisted by creating a homestead exemption, by exempting the first $47,000 of income from the school income tax, and by retaining the renter rebate program. Also, responsibility for several programs that do not go directly to K-12 education will be moved to the General Fund. Together, these changes would reduce reliance on the residential property tax by moving to a tax that is more closely related to ability to pay and would more closely link decisions on school budgets to the actual homestead tax paid.

Finally, while the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustment would continue to be a factor on the local level, the per-pupil property tax yield would be reduced from $13,000 to about $5,000. Since the base statewide property tax would be reduced from $1.00 to $0.25, the Champlain Valley School District, which spends about $15,000 per pupil, would see an effective tax rate of $0.75, three times the base rate.

Final details remain to be worked out, as well as a decision as to whether the new funding system will go into effect this year or next. The legislature will continue to look for a fair, easy to understand funding formula that provides a quality education for all the children of Vermont. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 2/22/2018 - Gun Violence Op-ed

It was only after the senseless massacre of 17 students and teachers in Lakeland, Florida, last week that I learned that 17 other school shootings had occurred in just the first seven weeks of 2018. How could I have not known that there were so many? Has it become so common that we don't even notice?

Once again we hear public officials offer condolences, thoughts and prayers, sincerely I'm sure, for the victims and their families and their friends. Yet these expressions of empathy are just platitudes without a commitment to act to prevent these tragedies. Over and over and over again, even after the worst mass killing last Fall in Las Vegas, no action at all on any federal or state level has been taken to do anything about this cancer affecting our country.

We're told that it's “too soon” to talk about solutions. We're told that we “shouldn't politicize tragedy.” So, what happens? Nothing!

The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms. But with rights come responsibilities. What kinds of arms are appropriate for private ownership? In this gun-worshipping culture we have, it seems that no one at the federal or state level is willing to take the responsibility to keep weapons designed for military use in war out of the public domain. The AR-15, the weapon of choice for mass murder in the U.S., is one such weapon.

Since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012 more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings. Since that time more than 150,000 people lost their lives in the U.S. due to gun violence. (Google “gun violence in the U.S.”) Since Sandy Hook, 14 bills were introduced in the Vermont legislature to set reasonable regulations for firearms. With the least restrictive gun laws in the country, only minor changes have been made in the last six years in Vermont. Last year the House passed a Domestic Violence bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from a household when responding to a domestic violence incident. This would offer some protection for domestic violence victims during a critical period in a bad situation. That bill sits in the Senate waiting for action. As usual, a very vocal minority of gun owners turned out in force at a Senate hearing to oppose it.

I am willing to acknowledge that we have a lower level of gun violence in Vermont than elsewhere. However, looking at the characteristics of mass shootings, it can happen here. It's only a matter of time. We are fortunate that a potential school shooting in Vermont was thwarted just days ago due to swift law enforcement action as a result of a report by a concerned citizen of the threat seen on social media.

It's time we took action in Vermont on the bills currently under consideration to protect domestic violence victims (H.422), to ban “bump stocks” (H.876), and to require background checks for the sale or transfer of firearms (H.151, S.6). This will only happen, however, if good people demand it by calling their legislators in the House and Senate with the same sense of purpose as those who oppose regulation. Failure to speak up equals complicity when a similar tragedy occurs in the future on Vermont soil.

Legislative Report 2/21/2018 - Energy & Technology

The Energy & Technology Committee (E&T) on which I serve has three areas of responsibility over Vermont's infrastructure: energy, telecommunications, and information technology (IT). In the six weeks of this session, we've been pretty active in each of these areas.

The House has already passed two of our bills dealing with energy this session. H.410 extends Vermont's appliance efficiency standards. A similar bill enacted last year adopts the current federal appliance efficiency standards for Vermont if the current federal Environmental Protection Agency decides to rescind them. Those standards have saved consumers billions of dollars in energy costs and offset millions of tons of CO2 emissions. With H.410 Vermont will adopt additional standards for products like commercial kitchen items, air compressors, computers and computer monitors, and water appliances like faucets, showerheads and toilets. These include standards developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, those adopted by the Energy Star program and other industry standards that manufacturers have already adopted.

The second bill, H.616, authorizes the Burlington Electric Department to use the waste heat from the McNeil biomass electric generation facility for a district heat project that will pump hot water through highly efficient pipes to the UVM Medical Center, the UVM campus and the new Burlington Center redevelopment project. This project will not only increase the plant's efficiency but will offset greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuels used for heating.

E&T also voted to require that the Agency of Natural Resources use the $18.7M from the Volkswagen settlement solely for electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure and for conversion from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs as allowed under the terms of the settlement.

Again, two of our bills dealing with telecommunications were passed by the House. Both seek to get high speed broadband out to rural areas where population density is too low to justify private investment. H.581 specifies that Connectivity Initiative grants funded by the Vermont Universal Service Fund (USF) can only be used for new broadband infrastructure projects and not for ongoing operational expenses. H.582 would increase the USF fee from 2% today to 2.5% starting in 2018 and ending in 2022. While this will increase the cost of a $100 phone bill by 50 cents per month, it will raise $1.5M annually and will be allocated to the Connectivity Initiative to expand broadband in rural areas.

Information Technology
Last year the Agency of Digital Services (ADS) was created to consolidate the state government's IT infrastructure and services which were distributed throughout the agencies. Our committee has been reviewing the status of the reorganization and the IT projects the agency now oversees as well as the forward focus of the agency. To date, the reorganization is proceeding well with development personnel working in the same agencies and departments as before while reporting directly to ADS. The highest priority of ADS now is cybersecurity. In the last 12 months more than 4 million cyber attacks on state systems were detected. Plans are in place to partner with Norwich University to identify weaknesses and strengthen monitoring and remediation.

E&T has also been investigating steps the state can take to enforce net neutrality within our borders. Net neutrality is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites. The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission to reverse Obama administration rules ensuring net neutrality puts content providers in the position of having to pay tolls to allow users to access their products thereby disadvantaging smaller content providers. While the Governor recently issued an executive order requiring state agencies and departments to write net neutrality into contracts with ISPs, E&T will continue investigating this subject in hopes of developing even stronger net neutrality rules for consumer protection.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 2/8/2018 - Vision Reflects Values

The President's State of the Union address is a tradition of our democracy that allows the head of the executive branch of the government to express his vision for America. It usually addresses a broad range of issues at a high level and is short on detail. Whether or not you agree with what is said, at least you get a pretty good idea of where the speaker is coming from. This got me thinking about my own communications, so I thought I'd try to deliver my own vision of what I try to accomplish as I serve as your Representative in Montpelier.

Let me start by saying that, as wonderful as Vermont is, we all want to help make our state a better place to live, work and play. We want Vermont to be affordable, not just for those at the top of the income bracket, but for everyone. Every family should have the opportunity to thrive, to be able to earn a living wage. While our minimum wage is above average, I believe that it should continue to rise gradually over time until it becomes a livable wage. Likewise, no employee should have to worry about losing their pay or even their job if they have to take time off to care for a sick child or elderly parent. That is why I voted for paid family leave last year, a bill that is awaiting action in the Senate. For those who are stuck in low wage jobs, we need to continue to increase access to training, career and technical education so that every Vermonter has a fair shot at success.

We have a great education system, but the cost of education continues to place a heavy burden on property taxes. With the additional demands placed on our schools from addiction, mental illness, and poverty, great public schools in all our communities are more important than ever in giving all children a bright future. During this session we are proposing a system of education funding that is simpler, still progressive, still subject to local control, and that will significantly reduce property tax burdens. Nor can we forget about the need to support pre-K and post high school educational opportunities.

Another core value is healthy families in healthy communities. The cost of health insurance and housing are the biggest challenges faced by many Vermonters. While Republicans in Washington are dismantling the Affordable Care Act and cutting funding for Medicare and Medicaid we need to make health insurance more affordable and ensure that Vermonters have access to treatment without barriers for drug addiction and mental health. A key to maintaining individual health is affordable housing, We need to support affordable housing development in downtowns and in village centers that also provides access to jobs, shopping and public transportation.

Finally, we need a healthy environment. We can't put off efforts to clean our lakes and streams. We have to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels which has become a major contributor to climate change. Extreme weather events as well as adverse health effects. Lyme disease, algae blooms, heat waves, and extreme cold are the result. We can't afford to do nothing,

These are some of the values that frame my work in the legislature. I hope that my work will lead to a better Vermont for us and for our children and grandchildren.

I'll end by reminding you that I will be hosting an informational forum on the topic of Pricing Carbon Pollution at the Charlotte Senior Center on Monday. February 12, at 7:00 p.m. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 1/24/2018 - A Practical Approach to Pricing Carbon Pollution

Most people recognize that climate change is happening, that it is caused by burning fossil fuels, and that it has serious environmental and health consequences. The challenge to our generation is how to counter the trend of increasing concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most obvious action is to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

Our economy and lifestyle depends heavily on fossil fuels for electricity, heating and transportation. We successfully continue to transform our electric generation to renewable, clean sources, making Vermont's electric supply among the cleanest in the country while keeping our electric rates the second lowest in New England. However, despite our goal of reducing Vermont's GHG emissions by 25% compared to 1990 levels, our GHG levels have instead increased by 4%. We cannot be successful unless we address fossil fuel consumption in heating and transportation.

A proposal currently being considered called the ESSEX Plan, an Economy Strengthening Strategic Energy EXchange, was developed by a group of environmental advocates, business people and legislators over the last summer and has been introduced as Senate bill S.284. The goal of the plan is to move dependence on dirty fossil fuels to Vermont's clean electric energy by discouraging use of fossil fuels and encouraging a transition to electricity for heating and transportation. Here is how the plan works.

The EPA during the Obama administration calculated the “social cost of carbon pollution” to health and the economy to be $40/ton. Based on this number the plan starts at $5/ton of CO2 (5 cents/gallon) and rises steadily to $40/ton (40 cents/gallon) over an 8 year period. The revenue generated goes back to Vermonters in the form of a rebate on electric bills. About $30M would be raised the first year and grows to $240M when the price tops out in eight years. This money would go into a special fund which would be drawn on for the rebates. Each month the amount collected would be allocated to each utility based on its electricity consumed for that month. That share would then be allocated based on whether the revenues came from the commercial, industrial or residential side of fossil fuel consumption. The rebates would be based on the amount of a customer's electricity usage. The revenues from the commercial and industrial customers would be rebated to them. The revenues from the residential customers would be divided based on income and geography.

Of the residential revenue 50% would be rebated to all residential customers, 25% would be rebated to customers in rural areas, and another 25% would be rebated to low income customers. Low income Vermonters in rural areas would get both bonus rebates. This formula is in recognition that Vermont is a rural state that requires longer commutes for rural residents and that low income residents pay a proportionally higher share of their income on energy costs. This strategy should encourage Vermonters to use less fossil fuel by transitioning to technologies like cold climate heat pumps, electric vehicles, mass transit, carpools and other strategies to reduce their carbon footprint.

So, how does this strengthen the state's economy? First of all, it makes Vermont more affordable. While electric rates themselves won't be affected, the carbon rebates, itemized on consumers' electric bills, will significantly decrease the net cost of electricity. Vermont's already low rates relative to our neighboring states will be even more attractive to businesses. Secondly, Vermont is not a source of fossil fuels, so 80 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuels leaves Vermont. On the other hand, Vermont's electricity is increasingly sourced within the state or region, keeping millions of dollars of energy spending in Vermont. Third, transitioning from fossil fuels to electricity will add more well-paying green jobs to the 17,500 already created in Vermont. Finally, we are not alone. Vermont's New England neighbors and New York are poised to introduce their own carbon pricing legislation in the coming weeks making this a regional effort.

This method of carbon pricing is innovative and environmentally and economically beneficial. I look forward to a productive dialog about this plan and will host an informational forum on the topic at the Charlotte Senior Center on February 12 at 7:00 PM. I hope to see you there.

As always, I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).