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 (

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 (

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 (