Chittenden Democrats Look Ahead to the 2015 Legislative Session

Chittenden County Democrats Treasurer Bob Hooper and Charlotte State Representative Mike Yantachka hosted Legislative leadership candidates on the monthly Chittenden county Democrats Show on December 1st.  Incumbent Senate Majority Leader Phil Baruth and House Majority Leader candidate Representative Kesha Ram of Burlington chatted with Bob and Mike about the roles they hope to play in the Statehouse as well as the issues the legislature will have to tackle starting January 7th.

Thank You!

I am thankful to the voters of Charlotte and Hinesburg for your support of my re-election as your State Representative.  After knocking on hundreds of doors, I have had many good discussions on a lot of issues.  It was valuable to hear what is on voters' minds, and I welcome your continued input via email and personal contact.  I will be working hard with my colleagues during the coming session to reduce the burden of education financing on local property taxes.  As we receive the plans for the single payer health care system, Green Mountain Care, I and my colleagues will be paying close attention to the financing, provider reimbursement, and cost containment with respect to the impact on Vermont's economy as well as on the health of Vermonters.  The upcoming session will be full of difficult challenges which will not lend themselves to easy solutions.  The legislature will undertake these challenges, and we will, we must, find solutions.  I will continue to keep you informed of what is going on in Montpelier through my newspaper articles and my website, and I look forward to hearing from you as we consider the many issues facing Vermont.  Thank you again for your support.


When the Constitution of the United States was ratified 225 years ago, only white men who owned land were allowed to vote. By the time of the Civil War, the property requirement was largely eliminated. In 1870 discrimination by race was prohibited by the 14th Amendment, and in 1920 women were given the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. Further amendments eliminated poll taxes and extended the right to vote to 18 year olds.

 The right to vote is a sacred right that generations have died to protect, and only in the last four years have some states begun to restrict voting by curtailing access and requiring specific forms of ID not easily available to all citizens. Fortunately, here in Vermont we have not taken steps to restrict access because we strongly believe in this fundamental right of all of our eligible citizens. However, because this is not a presidential election year, turnout is expected to be low for this election.

 So, I want to encourage everyone to exercise your right to vote this Tuesday. Whom you vote for is your choice, but don't throw away this precious privilege.

 Your Vote is Your Voice. Use it!

Lt. Governor Candidate Dean Corren Interviewed on Chittenden County Democrats Show

Lt. Gov. candidate Dean Corren, who received both the Progressive and Democratic nominations in the August primary election, the latter through a write-in campaign, was interviewed on the Chittenden County Democrats Show by State Representative Mike Yantachka.  Corren spoke of his background and experience as well as of the objectives he hopes to work for as Lt. Governor.  The half-hour interview featuring questions called in by viewers can be seen here.
This show was recorded on September 29, 2014.
The Chittenden County Democrats Show is a call-in program that is regularly produced by CCTV Channel 17 public access television Live at 5:25 on the first Monday of each month. The show is hosted by Bob Hooper of Burlington and Representative Mike Yantachka of Charlotte.

Meet your State Rep!

Two-way communication with constituents is essential for a legislator to represent them well. Along with conducting my door-to-door campaign throughout Charlotte, I will also be available at Spear's Store in East Charlotte on Tuesday mornings and at the Old Brick Store on Ferry Road on Thursday mornings from 7:30 until 9:00 AM between now and the election on November 4th. Stop by if you would like to chat, or you can give me a call at 425-3960.

For more about my work in the legislature as well as my goals, go to my campaign page.

Yantachka Endorses Cafferty for Sheriff

I would like to take this opportunity to endorse Ed Cafferty for the position of Chittenden County Sheriff

I have known Ed for many years.  He is an honest and straightforward person, a respected member of the Vermont State Police and an adjunct professor of Criminal Justice at Community College of Vermont.  His credentials make him well qualified for the position.

But qualifications are not everything.  Ed has a vision of what the Sheriff's department can be beyond what it is today. The department is responsible for transport of prisoners, for courthouse security, for traffic control and, when contracted by municipalities, for police services.  Ed proposes to expand those responsibilities by actively working with other police agencies in illegal drug enforcement and prevention, creating a Community Advisement Committee, and instituting safe home and business programs.  Also important in my opinion is his strong support for universal background checks for all gun sales, an issue that I also hope to address in the upcoming legislative session.

So, I encourage you to vote for Ed in the Democratic Primary election on August 26th.  If you will not be available to go to the polls then, you can vote by absentee ballot anytime between now and the election by contacting our Town Clerk.  You can find more information about Ed at his website:

Speaker of the House Shap Smith Interviewed on Democrats Show

The Chittenden Count Democrats Show, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured an interview with Rep. Shap Smith (D), Speaker of the House and representing the Lamoille-Washington district.  Smith reflected on the accomplishments of the recently completed session and the outlook for next year.  The interview took place at the Channel 17 CCTV studio in Burlington. 

VTDigger Article about Vermont's Business Climate

Margolis: Despite the kvetching about Vermont being bad for business, the numbers don’t add up
by Jon Margolis

Actual evidence, then, as opposed to impressionistic griping, shows that Vermont is about as good a place to start and run a business as any other state.
Continue reading...

Legislative Report 5/22/2014 - End of Session Report

The 2014 legislative session is finally over, and I am fairly pleased with what we accomplished over the last four months.  Here is a recap of what was accomplished and what opportunities I believe we missed.  I wrote about some of this legislation in previous articles in more detail, and I provide links to those articles in the text below.

The Economy

The $655M Transportation bill marks a heavy investment in Vermont’s transportation infrastructure with support for better roads, safer bridges, and expanded rail without tax increases.  Downtown development was encouraged by loosening Act 250 regulations in designated development centers while discouraging sprawl.  A comprehensive Economic Development bill, S.220, was passed to encourage businesses to be established, to grow, or to stay in Vermont in the face of economic adversity.  It provides up to $3M in lending for entrepreneurial and agricultural investment, establishes a “Made in Vermont” program to increase exports, improves intellectual property safeguards for business, and improves consumer protection from unauthorized lenders.

Working Vermonters

The Minimum Wage bill, H.552, raises the minimum wage in Vermont from $8.73 today in four steps from $9.15 in 2015, to $10.50 in 2018.  Low-earning Vermonters looking to get ahead will be helped by H.790, which addresses the so-called benefits cliff, i.e. the disincentive that occurs when people receiving public benefits go to work and have their benefits reduced by more than their increased earnings. H.790 increases the amount of earned income that will be disregarded from $200/month to $250 for families in Reach Up.  Reach Ahead is the program that provides a continued food benefit to help families sustain themselves after getting off Reach Up. This bill makes the benefit amount in Reach Ahead somewhat smaller but continues it for a longer period of time keeping a family eligible for a full child care subsidy for an additional year, a very important factor in being able to hold a job.  On the other hand, the House failed to pass the Paid Sick Days bill, H.208, which would have guaranteed up to 6 paid sick days or the equivalent time off for all employees. 

Energy and Conservation

The renewable energy sector was given a boost with the expansion of net metering limits.  Vermont is a leader in green jobs per capita and this bill, H.702, insures that the sector will continue to grow at least until 2017 when the federal tax credits end.  In the meantime, the cost of solar generation continues to decline making systems more affordable for the average homeowner.  S.202 made air-to-air and geothermal heat pumps eligible for efficiency credits, recognizing that thermal energy savings will result in reduced green house gas emissions while saving money for homeowners.  It also provided incentives to recycle construction and demolition debris in order to divert these materials from our landfills. A first in the nation battery recycling stewardship program was established by H.695 with the cooperation of the battery industry, and when it takes effect in 2016 it will help keep some of the 10 million batteries sold in Vermont each year out of our landfills.

Water Quality

The value of our lakes and streams to Vermont’s economy, health and quality of life was the subject of two major bills, the Shorelands Protection bill, H.526, which passed and goes into effect on July 1, and the Water Quality bill, H.586, which died in the Senate.  The Shorelands bill seeks to regulate development along the shores of our smaller lakes as well as Lake Champlain to reduce runoff which fosters algae growth and to create more robust fish habitat.  The Water Quality bill addressed issues related to factors throughout watersheds that contribute to phosphorous levels in Lake Champlain and the Connecticut River.  Although H.586 did not pass this year, these problems will have to be addressed next year to comply with EPA Clean Water standards.


With overwhelming support from most Vermonters the GMO Labeling bill, H.112, was passed and signed into law.  This bill supports the right of consumers to know what is in their food.  Local farmers who produce and sell raw milk will now be able to deliver it to their customers at Farmers’ Markets.  There are still strict regulations to ensure that quality, safety and a direct relationship to the customer are maintained.

Health and Safety

 Highway safety will be enhanced with the passage of H.62, which bans the use of hand-held electronic devices while driving except under certain circumstances.  Victims of Lyme disease now have expanded opportunities for treatment with the authorization through H.123 for physicians to use additional treatment protocols.  S.234 provides for reimbursement of the use of telecommunications for remote monitoring of Medicaid patients’ health, helping to reduce Medicaid costs.  Children’s safety and health were improved through two bills. The Child Safety Act, S.239, which requires manufacturers of products sold to or used by children to notify the Department of Health if their product contains chemicals that can harm children.  H.217 bans smoking in a vehicle when a young child is in the vehicle and requires that if smoking occurs on the premises of a child care facility during times children are not present that the provider notifies families that their child will be exposed to an environment in which tobacco products are used.  It also makes it illegal to sell products containing liquid nicotine (e-cigarettes) in Vermont unless it is in child-resistant packaging.  Noticeably absent this session was the report from the Shumlin administration providing detailed information about plans to fund Green Mountain Care. If details cannot be provided early in the 2015 session, the implementation of GMC by the target date of 2017 will be in jeopardy.  And finally, I had introduced a bill four years ago to license precious metal dealers and require them to keep good records of their transactions for the purpose of shutting down avenues for the fencing of stolen goods.  After passing a weaker bill two years ago, and with the help of legislators in both the House and Senate as well as law enforcement, we passed S.308 this year, which puts those requirements firmly in place and authorizes the Department of Public Safety to enforce them.


Educational issues consumed a significant amount of energy during this session with mixed results. On the positive side, opportunities were expanded at both ends of the age spectrum.  The Universal Pre-K Education bill, H.270, provides up to ten hours of pre-Kindergarten education to every 3 or 4 year old who enrolls in a qualified program, creates a simplified payment system, and clarifies oversight in order to give the best chance for success to every child. Research has shown that children who aren’t able to access high-quality early education for whatever reason are more likely to challenge the resources of our education system throughout their K-12 experience.  At the other end of the spectrum Vermont’s great high school graduation rate is not reflected in the number of students that go on to post-secondary education.   The Economic Development bill, S.220, provides for up to two semesters of free college education in the state college system for Vermont students who satisfy certain academic and post-graduation residency criteria.  The legislature was less successful in addressing the costs of K-12 education.  The Education Governance bill, H.883, which would reduce the number of school districts statewide through consolidation, stalled in the Senate.  The financing formula passed by the House was further modified by the Senate which resulted in a higher property tax rate than anyone wanted.   The discussion of the financing issue along with the large number of school budgets that were voted down has increased the importance of revising the financing system next year to reduce the burden on property taxes. 

Now that the session is over, I will begin my campaign for re-election.  I have enjoyed serving you in the legislature and hope you will support me for another term.  I intend to again conduct a person-to-person campaign and look forward to meeting you on the campaign trail.

The Word in the House 5/15/2014 - Constitutional Matters

The debates on the floor during the last two weeks of the session take on a new sense of urgency and can go on for hours on a single bill.  It is an honored tradition to continue the debate until everyone who has a question about a bill or has something to say about it has done so.  That scenario unfolded late one evening, not on a bill, but on a joint resolution of the House and Senate.

You may recall that in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court, on a 5-4 vote, struck down the McCain-Feingold campaign financing bill in a case that became known as the Citizens United decision.  Citizens United was/is a political action committee (PAC) that sued to remove the limits a PAC could spend in elections.  The court ruled that not only was money equivalent to speech, but that putting a limit on such “speech” violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  The Supreme Court extended that concept in a ruling on April 2nd of this year in the McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, which effectively equated corporations to people and struck down any limits on corporate campaign contributions.  (It was like a terrible April Fool’s joke on democracy!) 

If we were to try and reverse these decisions – and I believe we should – we would have two options.  First, the U.S. Congress, by 2/3 vote of each of the House and the Senate, could pass a Constitutional Amendment.  Alternatively, 2/3 of the state legislatures could call for a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution.  Any amendment would then require ratification by ¾ of the states, i.e. 38 states, to take effect.  Both options are established in Article V of the U.S. Constitution.

Several amendments have been proposed in the U.S. Senate since Citizens United to overturn the decision.  However, since the present partisan dysfunction of Congress makes it unlikely that any amendment would get traction, Dr. Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman Professor of Law and Leadership at Harvard Law School, has been advocating the second approach.  Dr. Lessig has visited Vermont several times, including giving a seminar at UVM two years ago.  Most recently, he visited the statehouse last month to support JRS27, a joint resolution sponsored by Senator Ginny Lyons and others, requesting Congress to call a convention for proposing amendments to the U.S. Constitution “that would limit the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process, including … by overturning the Citizens United decision.”

After the resolution passed the Senate on a vote of 25-2, the House took it up on Thursday, May 1st, in the evening after a dinner recess.  During a two hour debate that centered on the wisdom of convening a Constitutional Convention, no one disagreed that the infusion of unlimited sums of money into election campaigns is a threat to our democracy.  If anyone did disagree, they didn’t say it out loud.  The critics of the resolution held that a Constitutional Convention would not be limited to a single issue and could turn into a runaway convention to displace the entire Constitution.  Proponents argued that such a result would not be possible, because any proposal of amendment coming out of the convention would have to be ratified by ¾ of the states.  Many amendments have been proposed under Article V which have never succeeded in gaining the support of enough states to convene a Constitutional Convention.  Since the threshold of passage is so high, one may ask if the resolution merely makes a statement of our discontent with the Supreme Court’s decision.  While it is such a statement, our hope is that either other states over time will pass similar resolutions, or that it will generate enough public support nationwide to encourage Congress to pass an amendment, and Vermont is willing to take the lead in this effort.  By 9:30 PM debate had not yet ended and the Speaker asked for adjournment until the following day.  After the resolution was again taken up and debated briefly, it passed on a vote of 95-43, making Vermont the first state to call for a Constitutional Convention for this purpose.

Chittenden County Democrats Show Focuses on GMO Labeling and Toxic Chemical Legislation

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured guests Matthew Ennis,, and Lauren Heurl,, on legislation regarding Genetically Modified Organizms (GMO's) H.112, and Toxic Chemicals (Bill S.239).   Watch the interview here.

The Word in the House 5/1/2014 - GMOs, Raw Milk, Medical Mj, Telemedicine

The pressure is on in the legislature to tie up loose ends and move bills to the floor for final passage before we adjourn.  Bills that originated in the Senate are now reaching the House floor for a vote.  Some House bills have been sent back from the Senate with changes that have to be approved by the House before proceeding to the Governor’s desk.  Several significant bills were passed last week, and these are a few of them.

The bill that got the most media coverage was H.112, which requires foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients (also known as GMOs), to be labeled as such by producers.  As reported in the 4/27/14 issue of the Burlington Free Press, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 93% of soybeans and 88% of corn grown in the U.S. are genetically modified and are ingredients in more than 70% of food products on store shelves today.  The biotechnology industry as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association opposed the bill, but the Vermont public, including 76% of Charlotte respondents to the Doyle Poll, overwhelmingly supports the right to know what is in their food.  The bill passed overwhelmingly in both the Senate and House.

The House also passed the Raw Milk bill, S.70, which will allow farmers producing up to 280 gallons per week to deliver their product to existing customers at farmers' markets. The raw milk regulations that have been in place for five years are rigorous and prescribe the good practices that producers must follow to ensure public health and safety.  Vermont raw milk dairies have consistently produced a high quality and safe product. The provisions in this bill will ensure that consumers can pick up fresh, safe milk from farmers with whom they have an established relationship at more convenient times and locations.

Changes were also made to the regulations for medical marijuana dispensaries with the passage of S.247 by the House.  The bill eliminates the 6 month waiting period for patients with a terminal illness, with cancer which has metastasized, or with AIDS.  It also adds naturopathic physicians with a special license to prescribe, dispense, and administer prescriptions to the list of medical professionals who can provide a medical verification form to a patient for marijuana therapy.  Recent news reports have profiled children that suffer from intractable seizures and their successful treatment in Colorado with a special marijuana extract called "Charlotte's Web".  Unfortunately, federal law prohibits the extract from being transported outside of Colorado, so another provision in S.247 allows the development of such a product in Vermont to treat these young patients. 

Other bills deserving mention that passed include S.234, which authorizes Medicaid coverage for remote monitoring of data via the internet related to a patient’s health in conjunction with a home health plan of care, and H.356 which prohibits littering on the waters of the state.  The latter bill also establishes September as River Green Up Month, similar to Green Up Day which we are celebrating this weekend. 

Legislative Report 4/24/2014 - Focusing on Water Quality

For more than two decades Vermont has worked to clean up its lakes, streams and rivers with various degrees of success.  Gone are the days when sewage and industrial effluents were discharged directly into streams and rivers.  Yet we still have much further to go to prevent conditions that lead to toxic algae blooms in lakes and ponds and to high nitrogen levels in the Connecticut River that result in oxygen depleted dead zones in Long Island Sound. 

One measure of water quality is the amount of nutrients, i.e. phosphates and nitrogen compounds, in a body of water that contribute to algae growth.  Limits on these nutrients are set by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that water quality is maintained at an acceptable level.  This limit is called the total maximum daily load, or TMDL. Despite the state’s reaching one-third of the TMDL goal in less than 10 years, the EPA revoked approval of the initial TMDL plan for Lake Champlain in 2011 because of ongoing problems such as the algae blooms.  Vermont had until the end of March this year to submit a new plan, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation did so. 

The VDEC issued a report documenting the sources of the nutrients flowing into Lake Champlain.  The report showed that about 3% of the nutrients are coming from municipal sewage treatment facilities, about 10% from impervious surfaces such as roads and parking lots, another 10% from developed land, about 20% from river and streambank erosion during significant storm events, and about 40% from agricultural operations.  VDEC proposed a 20 year implementation plan with an estimated cost of $150M.  In order to accomplish these goals, legislative action is also needed.

Last week the House passed H.586 to address improving the quality of the state’s waters in a comprehensive manner.  Much of the responsibility and cost for meeting the new EPA TMDL may fall on Vermont’s farmers, who likely will be subject to additional requirements under the accepted agricultural practices (AAPs) and other agricultural water quality rules.  Although the AAP rules were adopted in 1995, the legislature found a general lack of awareness in the “small farm” community about the AAPs.  The bill directs the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to educate small farm operators in the State about the requirements of the AAPs.  This will include identifying cost-effective strategies, best management practices and conservation practices of cover cropping, grassed waterways, manure drag lines and injection, no-till production, and contour plowing.  It also establishes a small farm certification program to ensure compliance with AAPs.

While additional state and federal assistance is necessary to help bring farms into compliance, including technical and financial assistance to encourage small farms to adopt and implement nutrient management plans, funding mechanisms were removed from the bill by amendments proposed by the Ways and Means committee.  A quarter percent increase in the Rooms and Meals tax and a one percent increase on the automobile rental tax were stripped from the bill that came out of the Fish Wildlife and Water Resources committee.  The bill now recommends establishing financing mechanisms between now and January 15, 2015, to implement the provisions of the bill.

The bill is now in the hands of the Senate.  Like the Shorelands Protection bill, H.526, which passed the House last year, was modified by the Senate and sent to a conference committee to work out the differences, H.586 is likely to be amended before final passage.  If differences cannot be worked out before the end of the session in May, the bill will die and will have to be reintroduced next year as a new bill.  In the meantime, nutrients will continue to flow into Lake Champlain and we will continue to see toxic algae blooms.

On a lighter note, the Charlotte Whale has a new companion.  The Charlotte Whale was designated as the State Fossil in 1993 and is housed at the Perkins Geology Museum at UVM.  A bill passed last week redesignated the Charlotte Whale as the State “Marine” Fossil and named the Mount Holly Wooly Mammoth as the State “Terrestrial” Fossil.  The Mammoth is on display at the Mount Holly Historical Society Museum.

Legislative Report 4/10/2014 - Education Governance Changes Proposed

When it comes to discussions about Vermont’s education system, the biggest focus has been the effect on property taxes.  How to finance education has been a primary concern these past weeks and the legislature took steps to reduce the increase in the statewide property tax that was projected back in March.  The other big issue is the way the education system is designed, referred to as governance in legislative parlance, and how governance affects performance and costs.  House bill H.883 has been reported out of the Education Committee to deal with this aspect, and it has become just as controversial as the financing issue.

What’s the problem?
The present system of organizing school districts was designed back in 1892.  Vermont has 282 school districts, 80 supervisory unions, and 1500 school board members for about 80,000 students.  There is one school board member for every 53 students.  Because of increasing costs, we have the highest per-pupil spending in the country.  We have the lowest teacher to student ratio, yet our student achievement, as good as it is in comparison with the rest of the country, has not increased at the same rate as our spending.  Furthermore, the governance structure is not conducive to stable educational leadership, resulting in a 30% turnover rate of principals and superintendents.

What is being proposed?
H.883 is a school district consolidation bill.  It proposes to eliminate supervisory unions by the year 2020.  Existing school districts would be realigned into expanded districts responsible for the education of pre-Kindergarten to grade 12 students.   Each expanded district would serve a minimum of 1250 students or four pre-existing districts, although waivers could be requested under certain circumstances.  PreK-12 districts would be formed recognizing historic relationships between communities, existing school districts and potential geographic obstacles.  Existing school districts would have until 2017 to self-determine their alignment in a new or currently existing preK-12 district.

What does it hope to accomplish?
The goals of this legislation include (1) creating more cohesion in curriculum, professional development and accountability, (2) the ability to share resources and create more options for students, (3) opportunities for all students to prepare for the 21st century marketplace, (4) leadership stability throughout the system, and (5) potential savings in education delivery.

What effect will it have on CSSU?
CSSU has already consolidated many functions at the supervisory union level.  This has allowed sharing of resources across the five PreK-8 schools it serves.  It currently operates with 5 PreK-8 school boards, a CVU school board and a supervisory union school board.  Under H.883, all of these boards would be reorganized into a single board with representation from each community unless one or more member districts chose to realign with other districts.  Since some schools have an increasing student enrollment and others a decreasing enrollment, possibilities would exist to share classroom and staff resources as well. 

Some are critical of this plan because they perceive a potential loss of local control over curriculum and budget.  Others doubt that the plan would actually achieve savings.  Everyone, however, seems to agree that the current system is unsustainable.  While some supervisory unions already operate fairly efficiently, there are other parts of the state that are constrained by size, geography, and lack of resources.  There will continue to be debate over this bill in the House during the coming weeks.  Whether it gets to the full House for a vote remains to be seen.  I have received several comments both pro and con about this bill, and I have actively sought the views of current and past school board members I had not heard from.  If the bill is not passed this year, it will probably be reintroduced next year.  In the meantime, we can continue to learn more about the concept.

Interview with Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross in May.  Secretary Ross discussed changes in the grading of Maple Syrup, the proposed efforts to reduce the effects of agricultural practices on Lake Champlain, the growing locavore movement, and the federal Farm Bill and its implications for Vermont dairy farmers.   Watch the interview here.

The Word in the House 4/3/2014 - The Budget

This is the part of the legislative session that becomes the most politically contentious and, for me, the most perplexing because we are dealing with very large sums of money.  Of the three money bills that are must-pass in every session of the legislature, the Transportation bill, the Miscellaneous Tax bill, and the Budget bill, the latter two were debated and passed during this last week in March.  Now they will be considered by the Senate, probably changed, and sent back to the House in the next couple of weeks. 

The revenues raised by the Miscellaneous Tax Bill presented by the Ways and Means Committee must balance with the expenditures in the Budget Bill presented by the Appropriations Committee.  These committees work very hard for three months with input from state government employees, legislators and citizens to craft bills that make investments in strategies that will reduce future costs, address poverty, tackle opiate addiction, spur job growth, fund needed programs for the elderly and the disabled, and drastically reduce Vermont’s reliance on one-time funds.  Not one legislator wants to spend money unnecessarily and everyone wants the money that is spent to benefit Vermont and its citizens.  The problem comes in trying to decide how to accomplish those competing goals. 

When these bills get to the floor they invariably divide the legislature along party lines.  While one side focuses on the size of the budget, the other focuses on what the budget can accomplish with the available resources.  Compounding the problem have been the federal cutbacks to food stamps and low income heating assistance. When the available resources are not sufficient to address the needs, a decision must be made to either find additional revenues or to ignore the needs.  Increasing taxes is always seen as a solution to be avoided unless the need is perceived to be great enough. This, however, can be a subjective judgment colored by political philosophies. 

Representative Martha Heath, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, stated what her committee tried to accomplish.  At the beginning of the session Governor Shumlin proposed a budget to support his goal of providing more effective intervention and treatment for opiate addicts.  He asked for $14M in revenue based on taxing health insurance claims.  This was unacceptable to the legislature because it would drive up health care costs at a time when we are trying to reduce them.  Instead, by making cuts to proposed expenditures and employing alternate funding strategies, the additional revenue needed was reduced to $3.3M. 

This year’s budget addresses the issue of homeless Vermonters by doubling the rental subsidy program, increasing funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and increasing grants for homeless shelters.  It helps those who are living in poverty by increasing support to make high quality child care affordable and available so that parents can go to work.  In addition, substance abuse and mental health issues have been identified as the number one barrier to obtaining jobs for those served by the state’s Reach Up program.  Over $1M is appropriated to address this important issue.

The highly publicized opiate addiction problem facing our state and the toll it takes on our communities and our safety is also addressed. The budget invests over $10M in additional treatment and recovery capacity and expands statewide the successful rapid intervention program that moves addicted offenders into treatment prior to arraignment under certain circumstances because treatment is much more productive than imprisonment. The need is great, and these strategies, along with the efforts of our local communities, will reduce the number of Vermonters struggling with addiction.
While Vermont continues to do relatively well as we come out of the Great Recession, investment in job growth remains critical. The budget increases funding for Regional Development Corporations and Planning Commissions, invests in further capacity for the Employee Ownership Center, increases investments in our transportation infrastructure, and increases funding for the Working Lands Initiative to further spur this rapidly growing part of Vermont’s economy.
One of government’s most important roles is to insure that the disabled and the elderly are able to live with dignity and with as much independence as possible. This budget fully funds the caseload increases in Developmental Services and continues our investment in serving elderly Vermonters in their homes as they age through the Choices in Care program.   
This budget provides less funding than I would prefer for programs like low income weatherization and it fails to make whole the federal cuts to the food stamp program.  There is also a smaller increase in payments to home health care providers and to health care providers for Medicaid patients. But I support this budget because it is the best that could be accomplished at this time.

Legislative Report 3/26/2014 - More on Education Financing

A few days before Town Meeting, I wrote a post in Front Porch Forum explaining what factors go into how the statewide property tax which funds K-12 public education is calculated.  In the post I stated that school budgets, and therefore spending, are determined by local school districts, and the state's role determined by Acts 60 and 68 is to fund the budgets approved by the voters.  The local school districts receive targeted revenues which include Federal Title I money, donations, and some categorical state aid such as Special Education, transportation, technical education, adult education, and Essential Early Education. The amount of the budget that remains comes from the state Education Fund.

The Education Fund has several sources of revenue: a) about 35% of sales tax revenue, b) 100% of the lottery revenue, c) an amount transferred from the General Fund and other sources, and d) the statewide property tax less the Homestead Property Tax Adjustment.   The statewide property tax is calculated based on the projected value of all the property in the state (the Grand List), how the assessments in a town compare to fair market values (the CLA or Common Level of Appraisal), the per pupil spending in the school district, and whether per pupil spending in the district exceeds the state average by more than 23%.  There are two tax rates, the Residential and Non-Residential.  Residential taxpayers may get a tax adjustment based on their household income and house site value. These tax rates have to be set to amounts that provide the revenues needed for the Education Fund disbursements.
This year saw school budgets increase by only a few percent, while property tax rates in some towns went up by several more percent due to decreasing statewide property values, fewer students, and reductions in federal education spending. Based on projected school budget increases, a decrease in federal Special Education funding, and $20M less of one time funds used last year, the Commissioner of Taxes projected an increase of 7 cents in the statewide property tax rate this year.  The defeat of 35 school budgets throughout the state drove home the contention that the formula for state aid to education is not only too complicated to understand but has become unduly burdensome on property taxes.
Since Town Meeting, serious efforts have been made to rebalance the funding methodology by the Ways and Means Committee, and last week they announced that the increase in the Residential rate would be reduced from 7 cents to 4 cents, and the Non-Residential rate increase would go from 7 cents to 8 cents instead.  This will also result in an equivalent decrease of 3 cents in the Residential rate for the CCS District from that published in the Town Meeting school report.   Other suggestions have been considered including adjusting the current use formula and transferring additional money from the General Fund to the Education Fund.  Since the legislature always passes a balanced budget, if new revenues (taxes) cannot be found, then cuts have to be made somewhere else if more money is to be transferred.

The legislature has to address the education funding issue both immediately and strategically.  The reduction of 3 cents is a start, but we have to find a way to depend less on the property tax in the long term.  The Education Committee is also working on a plan to restructure the school system, but there are no guarantees that such a plan would save money.  There are still several weeks before a final budget and tax package will be voted on.  The committees are continuing to work to make the hard decisions that will be acceptable to both the House and Senate as well as to Governor Shumlin.  They will eventually strike a balance, but I predict that no one will be totally satisfied.