The Word in the House 1/21/2015 - Setting the Stage for Environmental Action

Many observers were disappointed when Governor Shumlin's inaugural speech barely mentioned the three issues that were foremost in Vermonters' minds in 2014: property taxes, education spending and health care. Instead, his inaugural speech focused primarily on the environment. He began by laying out his "agenda for progress" emphasizing the positive accomplishments in the growth of the renewable energy industry in Vermont with an accompanying 15,000 new jobs, "pioneering the development and deployment of locally generated, low carbon energy, creating jobs and putting money in Vermonter’s pockets while we do it.” He noted that while neighboring New England states are seeing double-digit increases in electric rates, Green Mountain Power, Vermont's largest utility has reduced rates by more than 2%. He is proposing a new Energy Innovation Program (EIP) to replace the SPEED (Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development) program which was responsible for the strong growth of Vermont's renewable energy industry and which expires in 2017. If implemented, the EIP is projected to: Create over 1,000 new jobs; Save Vermonters hundreds of millions of dollars on their energy bills; and Cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 15 million metric tons, nearly a quarter of the reduction needed for Vermont to be on track to meet its 2050 climate goal. To this end the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee on which I serve will be taking up a bill this week to create the new renewable energy standard for the future.

The second part of his agenda focused on the cleanup of Vermont's waterways, especially Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain is a critical part of our economy and its protection is vital to keeping Vermont the place we know, enjoy and love. We all know of the problems with blue-green algae blooms in the northern part of the lake and in Lake Memphremagog. This is due to excess phosphorus loading that originates primarily as a result of runoff from farms and impervious surfaces like roads and parking lots. Together these sources are responsible for 70% of the phosphorus that flows into Lake Champlain from its streams and tributaries. The EPA has put Vermont on notice that it is in violation of clean water standards and we have to move now to clean it up. As Governor Shumlin said in his speech, "If we don't do it, it will be done to us." The Administration will work to implement the Lake Champlain restoration plan submitted to the EPA last spring, the most comprehensive and strategic effort yet undertaken by Vermont to protect and restore the state’s waters. It will include assistance to farmers and municipalities as well as provide strong regulatory enforcement. The Natural Resources and Energy Committee will be working in tandem with the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee and the Agriculture and Forestry Committee to address this issue.

A week after his inaugural address, Governor Shumlin delivered his budget address and did put a spotlight on property taxes, education spending and health care. In addition to a balanced budget that closes a $94 million budget gap, the Governor laid out the rest of his aggressive agenda that includes proposals to cut in half the Medicaid cost shift, reduce private health insurance premiums, help get school spending under control, eliminate the cost of an associate’s degree for some Vermont students to provide Vermont employers a pipeline of skilled workers, and increase economic development incentives. I plan to address this part of his agenda in a future article.

Legislative Report 1/15/2015 - Peculiar Beginnings

The 2015 legislative session began with a lot of drama. Since none of the gubernatorial candidates got at least 50% of the total votes cast, the Vermont Constitution required the legislature to elect the governor by Australian ballot from the top three vote recipients, namely Peter Shumlin, Scott Milne and Dan Feliciano. TV ads ran for weeks before the session urging legislators to vote for Scott Milne, and I received about 20 emails and phone calls urging me to do so.

However, since Peter Shumlin received the most votes of the three, as well as a solid majority of the votes in my district, I cast my vote for him. I explained my decision at length here.
Governor Shumlin's announcement in December that the financial analysis of the planned “single-payer” health care system determined that it would not be economically feasible at this time caught its supporters both in and outside the legislature by surprise. This disappointment led to a very disruptive demonstration by an advocacy group during the inauguration ceremony on the second day of the session. As a supporter who voted for the universal health care plan, I have always felt that the analysis had to be well-founded and feasible before we could proceed with it. While I am disappointed that the analysis did not support the state's ability to implement the plan as envisioned within the time frame we hoped, I was also disappointed at the lack of respect shown by the demonstrators for the very people they want to support their cause.
Health care is like a maze, and if you're familiar with mazes, there can be dead ends sometimes. The trick is not to give up, but to backtrack and see what other paths might be available. I think that although the analysis took longer than expected, the Green Mountain Care Board took the necessary time to make sure they had the best data available. Governor Shumlin has shown courage, in my opinion, to swallow his pride and admit that his premier program is not realistic in today's economic climate with the data available. This does not mean that we are giving up on providing coverage to all Vermonters. We just have to figure out how to do it better. And that means doing better than our experience with Vermont Health Connect.

The new biennium is also a time when committee assignments are made. This year Speaker Shap Smith really shuffled the deck. A large percentage of returning members found themselves on new committees. While I was retained on the Natural Resources & Energy Committee where I've served for the last four years, our 11 member committee has 7 new members including 4 freshman legislators. Since a large part of Governor Shumlin's inaugural speech focused on renewable energy policy, we will be looking forward to some interesting and productive work again, which will be the focus of future articles. Our first couple of weeks will involve bringing new members up to speed on terminology, scope, process, and relevant government agencies and non-government organizations.

Besides his focus on energy, green jobs and climate change in his inaugural speech, Governor Shumlin also announced major goals to improve the water quality of Lake Champlain including assistance for farmers and municipalities to prevent runoff from fields and roadways. What he did not talk about was property taxes and health care. However, I expect him to include these issues when he delivers his budget address on January 15th.
I look forward to providing you with my perspective from the statehouse. I welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

Attorney Bill Sorrell Discusses Consumer Advocacy

Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell appeared on the January 5th segment of the Chittenden county Democrats Show to discuss what his office has been doing on behalf of Vermonters.  The show, which features interviews with office holders and others airs on CCTV Channel 17, Burlington's community access television station on the first Monday of the month unless pre-empted by other programs.  Hosted by Chittenden County Democratic Treasurer Bob Hooper and State Representative Mike Yantachka of Charlotte, the show offers an opportunity for callers to question guests on topics of current interest.  This segment can be viewed online here.

My Vote for Governor

Today was the start of the 2015 session of the Vermont Legislature.  Tomorrow, Thursday, the House and Senate together is tasked with electing the governor since no candidate received at least 50% of the vote.  I have received about a dozen emails and phone calls asking me to vote for Scott Milne.  I responded to all in essentially the same way as follows.

I realize that there is a lot of discontent on many fronts among Vermonters.  Property taxes have been increasing at an unsustainable rate.  There has been a lot of concern about the plan for universal health care.  The problems with the VT Health Connect website and support have been frustrating for many folks.  While the economy has been improving, most people have not yet gotten back to where they were in 2008 before the bank failures drove us into the recession. 
However, the economy is coming back.  We have grown a strong renewable energy industry in Vermont that has created more than 15,000 good paying jobs. We have expanded opportunities for our high school students to obtain college credit for courses they take in their senior year, thereby reducing college expenses for them.  We have a 95% high school graduation rate.  We have pioneered model legislation to prevent patent trolling that has been adopted by 17 other states since our action.  We are making progress in treating people who are suffering from addiction by timely intervention when they are apprehended for related crimes.  We have built out broadband access to the internet and wireless phone capability across 94% of Vermont.  We raised the minimum wage for hardworking Vermonters. These and many others are not accomplishments to be overlooked.
So, I will vote for Gov. Shumlin because, despite the close election, 1) he got the most votes statewide, 2) he got 52% of the votes in Charlotte versus 41% for Milne, and 3) in my opinion he has done a good job overall for Vermont during his tenure. 
Democracy means that the top vote getter wins.  Speculation as to what might have happened if a circumstance was different, e.g. Feliciano didn't run or the single payer numbers were released earlier, is just that: speculation.  There have been differences of opinion between Gov. Shumlin and the legislature (including me) on some policy issues, and there still are.  However, I have not heard anything substantial from Scott Milne to persuade me that he would do a better job than Peter Shumlin.
I will assure you that I and my colleagues have already committed to revising the education funding mechanism to reduce the burden on property taxes.  We will get this done during this session.  Also, although the plan for a single payer health care system envisioned by Act 48 has been put on hold by Gov. Shumlin, the legislature will continue to look at alternative steps we can take to insure that all Vermonters have access to health insurance.  This includes controlling costs, promoting preventative care, and eliminating the cost-shift that we are already paying for in our insurance premiums.  I'm looking forward to the hard work on these and other issues in the months ahead.