The Word in the House 4/23/2012 - The End Game

As the session heads into the last week, it really requires a scorecard to figure out what is happening to some legislation.  Bills passed by the House and sent to the Senate have seen changes to essential elements.  The same has happened to some bills sent to the House by the Senate.  Bills that were passed with different provisions by each body are now in conference committees consisting of three House members and three Senate members to see if the differences can be ironed out to the satisfaction of both.  As we begin the last weeks of the session, some bills may even die for lack of action.  Here are some of the bills that have passed both the House and Senate in recent weeks. 

Conserved land is an important asset for Vermont.  The Conservation Easement bill, S.179, strengthens the ability to protect conserved land from being developed.  When a property owner conveys a perpetual easement for conservation purposes to a town, a conservation group or another entity, that easement persists even if the property changes ownership.  If the terms of the easement are violated, S.179 allows the holder of the easement to take the violator to court with or without the participation of the owner.  Another provision of the bill creates a working group to study the issues around amending a perpetual conservation easement when situations or conditions affecting the easement change over time.  S.179 was passed by the House with amendments and has been sent back to the Senate for its agreement.

Another Senate bill, S.106, increases civil penalties that towns can charge for violations of municipal ordinances and by-laws.  It also repeals an 1876 law making towns responsible for damage done by dogs to livestock.  The House amended the bill by adding a section on embezzlement which asks the State Auditor to design a checklist that will act as a tool to help establish the internal controls for counties, municipalities, and supervisory unions.  This provision also requires Town Treasurers to file quarterly financial reports with their selectboard or city council.  The State Auditor will be required to post on the official website a summary of all financial fraud against any agency of the state.  If the Senate does not approve these amendments, the bill will go to a conference committee. 

A bill that saw some floor debate last week was S.237 relating to the establishment of a Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI).  This is an interesting proposal that has the potential to give policy makers additional information beyond the Gross State Product, which is a measure of goods and services produced statewide.  The GPI adjusts the Gross State Product by quantifying the positive and negative economic, environmental, and social impact of economic activity on the well-being and long-term prosperity of our state's citizens.  S.237 gives approval for the state’s Joint Fiscal Office to cooperate with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at UVM to establish and test a GPI measurement system.  All work will be done by the Gund Institute which will report back to the legislature with its results.  No state monies are involved.

There are several key bills that still need to be finalized by the House and Senate before we can adjourn.  These include the Transportation bill, the Capital Adjustment bill (regarding buildings and services), and the Budget.  We hope to adjourn sometime during the first week of May.

Legislative Report 4/18/2012 - Immunizations Revisited

One of the most controversial bills to come out of the legislature this session has been the Immunization bill, S.199.  The question it addresses is under what circumstances, if any, should a child be allowed to attend a public school or a day care facility without having received the age-appropriate vaccinations required by the Vermont Department of Health. 

On the one hand, there is the issue of protecting the public, especially children, from outbreaks of dangerous communicable illnesses as a result of low vaccination rates.  On the other, there is the concern of many parents that some vaccines present a higher risk for serious illness than the diseases they are meant to prevent.  Another aspect of the debate is whether the statistics showing an increase in the percentage of children who enter school "unvaccinated" accurately portray the situation. 

I have been following the debate on this issue very closely, paying attention to the concerns on both sides of the issue.  I have been fortunate to get input not only from constituents, medical professionals and parent advocates, but also from members of the House Health Care Committee on all aspects of the immunization debate.  They have taken testimony and discussed it in great depth.  I believe the committee came up with alternative language that recognizes the necessity of immunizations for maintaining public health as well as the concerns that some parents have regarding certain vaccines.

The vaccination rates for all the required vaccines except chicken pox are more than 90% statewide.  The chicken pox, or varicella, vaccine is at 87%.  However, while the data may show satisfactory rates of immunization for specific vaccines overall, there are pockets of the state where vaccine rates are critically low and need to be increased to keep both children and immune-compromised adults safe.  The House Health Care Committee, after consultation with school nurses as well as parents and doctors, decided to rely on education rather than a mandate and included a $40,000 appropriation for that purpose.

The committee's amendment will retain the philosophical exemption, but will require parents to consult with their pediatrician and acknowledge that they have been informed of the risks of not having their children immunized by signing a form.  Recognizing that the statistics showing decreased immunization rates do not distinguish between rejection of all vaccines and rejection of one or two, or postponement of a vaccine, the bill requires two more years for reporting of vaccination rates among school-age children.  In addition to K and 7, statistics for 1st and 8th grade will also be reported to the VT Dept of Health by each school.

It is my firm opinion that vaccines are crucial to preserving the public health and that government has a responsibility to promote their use even to the point of requiring them.  Since the main objective is to increase the overall rates of immunization, however, I support S.199 with these modifications because I believe that it addresses the immunization issue with the proper balance.

The Word in the House 4/9/2012 - Working Landscapes

The defining characteristic of Vermont is its rural nature and the connection Vermonters have to their environment.  The Working Lands Enterprise Investment Bill, H.496, passed by the House recently, recognizes this relationship and provides support to stimulate a concerted economic development effort on behalf of Vermont’s agriculture and forest products sectors.  It will assist entrepreneurism, business development, and job creation in these sectors.

Vermont is currently in the midst of an agricultural renaissance and is at the forefront of the local foods movement.  Much of this activity takes place in our own communities of Charlotte, Hinesburg, and surrounding towns.  The conversion of agricultural and forest products into value-added products within Vermont’s borders represents further economic and employment opportunities.  About 7,000 jobs exist in the forest products sector and about 57,000 are related to the food system.

H.496 makes an investment in Vermont’s working landscape by creating the Working Lands Enterprise Fund and a Working Lands Enterprise Board.  The fund, initially appropriated at $2.1 million, will be used for direct investment in working lands enterprises.  Approximately $550,000 will provide grants to entrepreneurs, including grants to leverage private capital, to jump-start new businesses, to help beginning farmers access land, and to support diversification projects to add value to farm and forest commodities.  Another $350,000 is allocated for “wrap-around” services to growth companies, including technical assistance, business planning, and financing required by companies ready to transition to the next stage of growth.  $800,000 is included for state infrastructure investments, including investment in private and non-profit sectors for creative diversification projects and value-added manufacturing, processing, storage and distribution.  Finally, about $382,000 is allocated for administration by the Agency of Agriculture.

The Working Lands Enterprise board would oversee and administer the fund and coordinate the enterprise development efforts throughout the state.  In addition to promoting the activities described above, it would also establish and evaluate criteria and benchmarks for investments and solicit appropriate perspectives and information from experts.  The board will replace the Agriculture Innovation Center which had similar but more limited responsibilities.

The investment in Vermont’s working landscape will ensure that Vermont will retain its rural and natural character and will continue to represent the vision that people associate with our state, contributing to the tourism sector of our economy in the process. 

On the redistricting front, there were changes to both the House and Senate redistricting plans that affect Charlotte and Hinesburg.  After much deliberation and review of the deviations from the ideal district sizes, the House Government Operations committee presented their final version of the redistricting plan.  One of the changes was the expansion of the section of Hinesburg attached to the Charlotte house district.  In this final version the southwestern portion of Hinesburg bordered by Drinkwater Rd, Baldwin Rd, and the Monkton town line with 33 residents will remain in the Charlotte district.  The rest of Hinesburg will comprise the other district.

The Senate finally voted its reapportionment plan out of its Government Operations committee.  In order to balance the population changes, Chittenden County had to cede part of its population to Addison County.  The new plan joins Huntington and Buels Gore to the Addison County senatorial district instead of Charlotte, which will remain in the Chittenden County senatorial district.

Legislative Report 4/5/2012 - An Energy Roadmap

Last year the legislature enacted an energy bill that continued a policy of supporting the renewable energy industry in Vermont.  This year our House Natural Resources & Energy committee spent a good deal of time working on another energy bill (H.468) that creates a roadmap for the next 20 years to extend Vermont's leadership in energy policy in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote job growth in the renewable energy industry.  It sets a goal of achieving 75% of Vermont's total electric energy from renewable sources by 2032 and includes a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of 35% new renewables by 2032, including 10% from small-scale, distributed projects.

Up to now the renewable energy goals were only goals.  Vermont utilities have been making good progress increasing their renewable portfolios so that Vermont can today count almost 50% of the electric energy we consume as renewable.  This includes the energy we get from Hydro Quebec. Two utilities, Burlington Electric and Washington Electric Co-op, are at or near 100% renewable.  By adopting a Renewable Portfolio Standard, each utility will be required to have a percentage of the electricity it sells to be renewable, including the renewable attributes, from a source built since January 1, 2005.  The percentage increases from 4% by 2017 to 35% by 2032.  (Hydro Quebec power does not count toward the 35%.)

Renewable attributes, also known as renewable energy credits or RECs, are tradable commodities associated with renewable energy and have a cash value.  Under the SPEED program, a utility that owns a renewable energy plant can sell its RECs, thereby reducing the cost of the electricity to its customers while still counting them toward their Vermont goals.  Meanwhile, the utilities buying the RECs also counted them in their portfolios.  Vermont happens to be the only state that allows this double-counting to occur.  This has the effect of undermining renewable energy development in the region because other states can satisfy their RPS requirements by buying RECs from Vermont.  The RPS will correct this situation by gradually requiring ownership of the RECs by Vermont utilities.

A key component of the RPS is an expansion of the Standard Offer program, which guarantees long-term, stable prices for renewable energy generation.  The Standard Offer program is currently capped at 50 megawatts (MW) of distributed renewable energy generation but will grow to 150 MW over 10 years. The annualized growth of 10 MW/year for 10 years sets an achievable pace that creates price stability, avoids boom/bust cycles, and benefits from decreasing renewable energy prices over time.

Finally, the bill requires the Department of Public Service to analyze and report on the status of the retail electricity market in Vermont and the effects of the SPEED and Standard Offer programs on the market, on renewable energy generation, and on greenhouse gas emissions, and to make recommendations for changes to the programs if indicated.  The bill passed 91-46 and is now in the Senate.

On another topic, the miscellaneous tax bill passed in the House on a vote of 125-14. The bill includes a repeal of the double counting of interest and dividends for income sensitivity.  However, it maintains the $500,000 cap on homestead property value for income sensitivity.  During the presentation of the bill on the floor I voiced support for the repeal of the income calculation but objected to not repealing the $500,000 cap which affects many Charlotte residents whose home values have risen disproportionately to their incomes.