Legislative Report 5/23/2013 - End of Session

The final weeks of the 2013 session of the Vermont Legislature were, as expected, a constant state of flux.  Bills that had passed the House were taken apart and put back together again by the Senate, sometimes with minor changes and sometimes as complete rewrites.  Bills that had originated in the Senate often suffered the same fate in the House.  Some bounced back and forth between the House and the Senate as amendments were made to amendments. When amendments made by one body were not acceptable to the other, a Committee of Conference consisting of three members of the House and three from the Senate was appointed.  Their task was to resolve the differences in a way that would be acceptable to both chambers.  If they couldn’t come to an agreement, the bill would be dead for the remainder of the session with the possibility of being revived in January.

I did my best to keep track of the bills I considered most important and was glad for the “committee process” that helped me do so.  No legislator can be an expert on everything.  Belonging to one committee allows us to get an in-depth understanding of the issues we deal with in committee.  We then become a resource of information for our colleagues who return the favor when we need to understand the legislation they have worked on.  While dozens of bills were explained, debated and voted on during the final weeks of the session, here are a few that stand out for me.

The Budget.  For the seventh year in a row, the Legislature began the 2014 budget process with a projected gap between estimated revenues and expenditures. Each year, the Legislature has struggled to find the right balance between maintaining necessary services while making investments for the future. As in previous years, the Legislature balanced the state budget and made difficult choices.  The Governor’s budget proposal anticipated raising $34M in new revenues from a variety of non-broad-base sources. The budget originally passed by the House would have raised $23M of new revenue, including $8M to be put in reserve for any federal aid shortfall.  The Senate chose to make further cuts and remove the reserve so that only $10M needed to be raised.  In April we learned that revenues were far above forecast; thus the need for reserves would be filled when the end of the year closeout happened. Given this revised forecast, the House, the Senate and the Governor came together and agreed to build a final version of the $5B budget without raising any new revenue. 

Genetically Engineered Foods. Our food supply has been increasingly infiltrated by genetically engineered (GE) ingredients over the past 25 years. An estimated 80% of all food sold in super markets today contain some GE components.  According to a UVM poll, more than 90% of Vermonters are in favor of labeling foods produced using genetic engineering, and they want this labeling for health, religious, moral, economic opportunity and environmental reasons. On a strong vote, the Vermont House passed H.112 to provide this right to know, moving it on to the Senate for action next year.  Because Vermont faces potential litigation from the biotech industry, the bill was carefully crafted to be legally defensible and have a reasonable possibility of prevailing in court. Should the bill pass the Senate and be signed by the Governor next year, it would go into effect 18 months later as long as two other states passed similar legislation. At that time, Vermont would join 64 countries that already have such labeling requirements in place.

Education Funding.  The Education Committee has made a commitment to review how public education is funded. As a "down payment" on this commitment, the House and Senate passed H.538 that will save $5M in the coming year by restructuring some elements of education policy including excess spending caps, student-teacher ratios, and small schools grants.  We also passed S.130 to provide funding for a dual enrollment program which will enable seniors in high school to take college courses for college and high school credit.  The cost of tuition for the dual enrollment program varies from $99 to $609 for a 3 credit course depending on the college.

This will be the last of my weekly articles, but I expect to write intermittently between now and the end of the year.  I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (425-3960) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).