Legislative Report 3/22/2017 - The Doyle Poll 2017

The Doyle Poll, created and still conducted by former Senator Bill Doyle, has been a tradition of Town Meetings in Vermont for decades. Only 109 Charlotte voters shared their opinions this year, about half of last year's number. Of the fifteen questions, ten seemed to me to be either obvious or too ambiguous to allow a clear interpretation of the results.

Clearly, most people think we need to do a lot more to address the opiate crisis, abuse and neglect of children, and identification of water pollution sources. Identifying pollution sources is important, but what is the willingness of people to spend tax dollars on cleanup? Whether or not one is satisfied with Vermont's health care does not address why. Is the price too high? Does VT Health Connect still not work?

The questions and answers I found helpful were numbers 3, 5, 8, 10, and 11. 60% of respondents felt that Vermont should increase funding for state colleges (#3). This is a worthy goal which I share. However increasing funding for college means cutting back somewhere else or raising taxes. If we were to follow Governor Scott's recommendation, the increase would come from the Education Fund which would raise property taxes. Transferring money from the General Fund would mean shortchanging other needed programs because the Governor wants to hold the line on taxes.

There also seems to be overwhelming support for affordable housing (#5). This is an area where the state and municipalities and the business community can work and are working together to increase affordable housing. Legislation passed in previous years has made it easier to permit and build housing in designated downtowns and village centers. The business community in Chittenden County has joined with municipalities in housing planning as part of the Building Homes Together campaign.

Pretty much everyone, myself included, feels that we rely too heavily on property taxes to fund education. While there do not seem to be a lot of other alternatives to funding, controlling costs will be key to slowing the growth of property taxes. Consolidation under Act 46 has had an immediate positive effect on Charlotte's education property tax rate this year since our cost per pupil has gone down and the 10 cent property tax reduction incentive has kicked in.

Last year the legislature took steps to give towns more say in renewable energy siting (#10). The Regional Planning Commissions are working hard to generate the guidelines that towns can comply with to get “substantial deference”, which means that the Public Service Board would have to comply with the town's land use regulations if they meet the criteria in the guidelines.

Question 11 is closely related to question 5 discussed above. Vermont clearly needs to focus on improving its housing stock so that young people seeking to move to Vermont can afford to do so. Another key factor in this equation that was not addressed by the poll is the need for child care resources. Both of these critical needs are recognized by the Democratic majority in the legislature, and we hope with our Republican colleagues to move legislation addressing them in this session.
Here are all the results of the poll in Charlotte.

Not Sure
Do you think Vermont is having success with the opiate crisis?
Are you satisfied with Vermont's health care?
Should Vermont increase funding for our state colleges?
Does generating energy from renewable sources lead to economic development?
Should we encourage affordable housing in Vermont?
Should Vermont schools be applauded for advances in creative initiatives?
Are you satisfied with the quality of education in your local school district?
Does Vermont rely too heavily on property taxes to fund education?
Are you optimistic about Vermont's economy?
Should Vermont's communities have a voice in siting industrial energy projects?
Should Vermont find ways to expand availability of homes for working families and young professionals?
Do you think that Vermont values is a reason that many people live in Vermont?
Should Vermont continue to address the issue of abuse and neglect of children?
Do you support regulations that help to identify major sources of water pollution?
Should Vermont create a lending program to provide capital for start-up businesses?

As your representative in Montpelier, I appreciate your input on these and other issues. Your comments help me look at issues from several perspectives, and that is a valuable opportunity for me. You can always contact me by phone at 802-425-3960 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

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).