House Natural Resource & Energy Committee Members Interviewed

Members of the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee were recently interviewed on CCTV Channel 17's program "Under the Dome".  Representatives Tim Jerman (Essex Jct), Mike Yantachka (Charlotte), and Curt McCormack (Burlington) spoke with host, Rob Reiber, about the legislation that their committee worked on during this session.  Two bills, one regarding net metering (H.702) and another regarding revisions to land use regulations (H.809), were already voted on and passed by the House and are now under consideration by the Senate.  Another bill, H.823, is related to H.809 and revises the permitting regulations in downtown development areas to encourage growth where it is desired and discourage sprawl.  This bill and another one, H.695, a battery recycling bill, are expected to be voted on by the House when legislators return to Montpelier after their town Meeting break.  You can watch the program here.

2014 Legislative Town Meeting Report - 3/4/2014

There are 14 committees in the House of Representatives.  Of the 869 bills that have been introduced in the House last year and this year, about 125 have been considered in committee and passed by the House and sent on to the Senate. Another 30 introduced in and passed by the Senate were sent to the House. Of these, 108 were passed by both and sent to the Governor for his signature.  Each committee is still working on many bills we hope to complete during the remainder of this session.  Here are some of the results of our work so far this year.

Energy and the Environment

Our renewable energy sector is growing at a significant rate with Vermont having the highest rate of jobs in the solar industry on a per capita basis, tripling the state’s solar jobs since 2012.  The net-metering expansion bill, H.702, that my committee, Natural Resources & Energy, worked on and which was passed by the House and sent to the Senate, will continue this growth through 2016 when the federal renewable energy tax credits expire.  The industry is now approaching a point where solar energy is becoming an affordable commodity for average homeowners.  We also have the battery recycling bill, H.695, ready to be voted on by the House when we come back from Town Meeting break.  I have written about both of these bills in more detail in my weekly articles, and they can be found on my website.  We have also worked on a pair of land use bills, H.809 and H.823, that will encourage development in designated downtowns and growth centers by streamlining the permitting process while discouraging sprawl and strip development.  H.809 has passed the House already and is now in the Senate.

The Corrections & Institutions Committee has also been looking at ways for state government to save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  The State of Vermont spent $14 million on energy in FY12, emitting millions of tons of carbon dioxide.  Over the past six years the legislature has worked to provide a strategy and the necessary tools for the State to reduce its energy consumption annually by 5%.  Past action of the Legislature has required the incorporation of energy efficiency and thermal conservation in any new state building or any renovation over $250,000 and to include renewable energy resources as appropriate.  It has required the Department of Buildings and General Services to analyze energy consumption in each property and to conduct energy audits in 20% of its properties annually so that it may understand how to strategically improve its buildings. The first group of properties was completed in 2013. This year we are moving forward to add the final tool necessary to accomplish the goals of saving money and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by creating an Energy Revolving Loan Fund of up to $8 million, using a credit facility the State Treasurer will make available.  With the creation of this fund, the State of Vermont will now be able to make a significant difference in its energy consumption, reduce its carbon footprint, and provide leadership in building management.

Health Care

The Health Care committee continues to keep close watch on the enrollment updates and the technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect. The good news in Vermont is that our insurance carriers, our navigators and our health care providers are working very closely together to be sure that Vermonters don't see a lapse in coverage because of the technical glitches. The value of this cooperation really can't be overlooked. Although there are still technical problems with the VHC web site, the insurers are working very hard to do what is right by Vermonters. As we come to the end of the open enrollment period, it is very important for Vermonters who are uninsured or were on VHAP or Catamount to get on the Vermont Health Connect website and enroll by March 15 for coverage beginning on April 1. If you have insurance now that renews later in the year, you will still be able to enroll on your enrollment anniversary. If you need help resolving an application that is in process, or if you need to enroll please contact me and I can help you get connected with an enrollment navigator.

The Lyme Disease bill, H.123, has just been voted out of committee and will be voted on by the House.  Lyme disease is on the increase in Vermont, and many Vermonters who have contracted the disease have experienced frustrating and lingering symptoms. The Health Care committee has heard extensive testimony from Vermonters whose lives have been significantly impacted by this disease. There is disagreement in the medical community about the best way to treat people whose symptoms don't clear up with the standard course of treatment, and many physicians have been reluctant to treat the symptoms beyond what is recommended by the CDC. H.123 is modeled after what New York did in 2005 to assure physicians that if they follow treatment guidelines from the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Infectious Disease Society of America, they will not be subject to disciplinary action regarding those treatments.


Highway safety is a long-standing priority of the Legislature. Hand held cell phone use, like drunk and drugged driving, poses a significant threat. The committee heard testimony about studies that compared the distractions associated with holding a cell phone to that of driving intoxicated.  This year, the House passed a bill, H.62, that prohibits the handheld use of portable electronic devices on Vermont highways while a vehicle is in motion. Portable electronic devices include cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, GPS and other mobile electronics. The bill allows the use of these devices in hands-free mode. It also allows drivers to activate or deactivate a device if it is mounted in a cradle or otherwise fixed to the vehicle. There are several other exceptions to the handheld prohibition. They include: 

·         Law enforcement may use handheld devices in the course of their duties.

·         Agricultural vehicle operators may use a handheld device to receive a dispatch.

·         Anyone may make a call in an emergency to law enforcement or other emergency personnel.   

·         Commercial drivers fall under the commercial motor vehicle laws, which mirror federal regulations, including prohibition of the use of handheld mobile phones and other devices.

Penalties for violating the provisions of H.62 would be the same as texting while driving. A $100 fine and 2 points would be assessed for a first offense. H.62 is an important step toward promoting highway safety. 

Opportunities for Improving Our Education System

Last year, Vermont students ranked second in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests. Similar test scores showed that, if Vermont was its own country, our students would rank seventh in the world in academic performance. Our commitment to education at the state and community level is strong and yields exemplary results.  Our education financing system, established under Act 60 in 1997 and refined under Act 68 in 2003, is regarded as one of the most equitable in the nation. The Education Committee heard multiple reports from national education policy expert Lawrence Picus and statewide leaders. Equity remains an important value that we should uphold when making any modifications to the system.  While we are proud of our education system, there are opportunities for bringing it into the 21st century and creating a more transparent, sustainable funding method. We have heard from constituents about the burden of escalating property taxes, losing vital programs in our schools due to funding and scale, a desire for measuring student outcomes against our spending, and maintaining local control while increasing budget transparency. The legislature has made education governance and financing a top priority for this session.  I will continue to provide information about this as it develops.

The Word in the House 2/19/2014 - Going for Gold

Like most Americans, I’ve been watching the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and cheering for our athletes.  While they have won a fair number of medals, it was unfortunate to see so many close finishes that were just short of making the podium.   My admiration for every athlete, however, has not been diminished by the fact that they didn’t win a medal.  I admire each and every one of them for having achieved the right to compete on this world stage.   They got there because they pushed themselves to the limit over and over until, by sheer determination as well as skill, they overcame their unique obstacles to make the U.S. Olympic team.  More often than not, it was because they challenged their limits that they either medaled or fell short.

In sports, you can’t excel unless you get out of your comfort zone.  The same is true in just about any other aspect of life.   A lot of the issues we deal with in the legislature are not earthshaking, but it is not unusual for the legislature to tackle major problems that don’t have simple solutions.  Some of those problems include drug abuse, climate change, education funding, and health care.  Since Vermont Health Connect has been in the national spotlight with a critical article in Newsweek recently, let me say a few words about it. 

The article was very critical about a status update by contracted software developer CGI last July that purported to demonstrate an actual connection between the Vermont Health Connect website and the federal database.  It was eventually revealed that the so-called “live” screens were actually pre-programmed with the results.  The author of the article, based on an anonymous interview, claimed that the Vermont Health Connect staff knew that the demo was not “live”.  However, Vermont Health Connect Commissioner Mark Larson retorted that the Vermont Health Connect staff believed that what they were seeing was a live demo.

Admittedly, the Vermont Health Connect website had a terrible start out of the gate in October, but it has steadily improved and was successfully processing applications since late November.  It is still having a problem interfacing with federal databases, and the capability to process payments electronically is not yet active.*  However, these problems will be resolved in time, and health insurance options for families previously unable to afford insurance are now available.
The problems with Vermont Health Connect have raised concerns about Vermont’s track toward universal health care coverage, called Green Mountain Care, that is scheduled to become operational in 2017.  The Green Mountain Care Board has been working with financial consultants, hospitals, health care providers, and state economists to determine realistic funding options that will decrease the rate of health care cost increases.  While everyone would like to know today what these funding options will be, it is necessary to take the time to do a thorough analysis to get it right.  The Vermont legislature gave that time to the Green Mountain Care Board for that reason and, through its relevant committees, is following the progress of the Green Mountain Care Board closely and taking the experience with Vermont Health Connect into consideration.  While there were voices that said controlling the cost of health care was too difficult a problem to solve, Vermont decided to step up to the challenge, to go for the gold, because all Vermonters should have access to good health care.

* After this article was published in The Citizen, I was informed that the system has been interacting with the federal databases since October.

Interview with VT Health Connect Commissioner Mark Larson

Vermont Health Connect Commissioner Mark Larson appeared on the Chittenden county Democrats Show in February to discuss the progress of Vermont Health Connect.  He talked about the startup problems the web site experienced in October and November and how the department responded.  He also talked about recent criticism of the development process and the demonstration that was allegedly faked by the CGI contractor.  The Chittenden County Democrats Show is a call-in program that is 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.