Legislative Report 4/22/2015 - Re-forming Our Education System

During last year's elections, candidates across the state heard complaints about property tax increases due to education spending. Decreasing enrollment and the large number of school districts throughout the state (282) present challenges to how our public schools are governed and funded. The House Education Committee was reorganized this year with a new Chair who previously served on the Ways & Means Committee and was the recognized expert on school funding. Rep. Dave Sharpe of Bristol and his committee have made a serious attempt to create policies that would control spending and property tax increases. The resulting Education bill (H.361) reflects a lot of tri-partisan work that will reform education funding, spending and governance. The bill was passed out of committee unanimously and achieved strong support when it was voted on by the full House: 88 to 55.

The bill has as its purpose the improvement of education quality for all Vermont students through greater equity in student opportunity by maintaining a community supported system, asserting Vermont's commitment to public education, and achieving economies of scale. Elements of the bill include:

  • Creating larger education districts of at least 1100 students by 2019 unless a waiver is granted for special circumstances. The larger education districts comprised of existing smaller districts will share responsibility for educating all pre-K to grade 12 students. The State Board of Education may approve alternate configurations, including existing Supervisory Unions, as long as the proposal advances specific goals like equitable educational opportunities, stable leadership, the flexible and efficient use of resources, increased student-to-adult ratios, budgetary stability and less volatility for taxpayers, and community engagement.
  • Financial support for reorganizing districts including access to grants up to $150,000 and temporary local property tax reductions ranging from $.08 in the first year to $.02 by the fourth year after consolidation.
  • A temporary cap on local spending increases ranging from a 1.4% increase to 4.1%, depending on whether the district chooses to base the increase on its total spending amount or its per equalized pupil spending amount. For example, a district that spends exactly the statewide average (roughly $14,100) would be allowed a 2% increase. A district that spent more would have a lower cap; a district that spent less would have a higher cap.
  • A moratorium is imposed on the legislature passing any new unfunded mandates on schools until 2017.
  • For the year 2016 the statewide non-residential education property tax rate will be $1.525 and the residential rate will be $.98, the same as this year.

The bill also reflects the realization that more work needs to be done. It creates a House-Senate Joint Oversight Committee to monitor, evaluate, and provide a continuing review of matters concerning education policy, education funding, and student outcomes and the intersections of each with corrections, economic development, health care, and human services issues. It charges the Office of Health Care Reform to consider the possibility of transitioning health insurance plans for teachers and administrators to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect by 2018 in order to address the impending excise tax on highly beneficial health insurance plans. It also requires the Secretary of Education propose alternative methods of delivery and payment for special education services, including best use of paraprofessionals, ways to reduce administrative burdens, and increase flexibility in the provision of services.

While the bill reflects a lot of good work and compromise to get the tri-partisan support it received, it still relies heavily on the property tax. I will continue working with my colleagues to come up with funding alternatives that decrease reliance on the property tax. I continue to welcome your thoughts and questions and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

A Common Sense Approach to Gun Rights

On Friday, April 17th, the Vermont House of Representatives voted 80 to 62 to pass a bill that makes it illegal under Vermont law for a violent criminal to possess a firearm, and requires that a person judged in a court of law as dangerous to themselves or others be reported to the National Instant Criminal Background Check database.  I was proud to advocate for the bill's passage and to count myself in the majority.  I made the following statement on the floor of the House after my vote:

"Mr. Speaker,
We've heard comments today that reflect a fear that any bill we pass dealing with guns in any capacity will lead to no one being able to own a gun.

This is an irrational fear. It implies that if we move away from one extreme - an absence of regulation - that it will inevitably project us to the other extreme - a total outright ban of all gun ownership.
We are smarter than that. The character of democracy is to hear opinions from all sides and find a middle ground.

We cannot allow convicted violent felons, people who have already shown a propensity for ignoring the basic rights of you, me, our neighbors, to possess deadly weapons.

As far as reporting persons who have been judged in a court of law to be a danger to themselves or others as a result of mental illness, the Executive Vice President of the NRA suggested in 2012 after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that the dangerously mentally ill should be reported to 'an active national database of the mentally ill.'  This is what we are doing.

Let us not fear the measures we take to protect ourselves by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and of those who have been demonstrated to be violently dangerous, so that we can make our communities safer."

The Word in the House 4/15/2015 - Cleaning up the Waters of the State

A lot has happened in the legislature in the two weeks since I wrote my last article on the budget. I took time out from writing to celebrate Easter with my family and friends. Work in Montpelier continued, however, and we passed two major bills dealing with Education and Water Quality, and my committee on Natural Resources & Energy began taking testimony on the siting of electrical energy generation facilities. Any one of these topics would take up an entire article, so let me give you an insight this week on the consideration of the water quality bill by the House.

Recognizing that Lake Champlain and Vermont's other bodies of water are extremely important to our state's economy, the House took a giant step with the water quality bill (H.35) in an effort to reduce the amount of phosphorous and other pollutants entering these waters. It engages all land use sectors - including roads, highways, agricultural operations, developed land in urban areas, waste water treatment plants, and forest lands - to implement the Lake Champlain Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) limits and the impending TMDL for other waters using cost effective strategies. There was not much disagreement on what needs to be done to accomplish this gargantuan task, one that will take years to accomplish. Having heard from pretty much everyone who has an interest in the problem, the Fish Wildlife & Water Resources Committee introduced the bill with the theme “All In”. The disagreements surfaced, however, with how the effort was going to be paid for.

Approximately $8M has to be raised for the effort. This would be done primarily through fees on agriculture operations and through a surcharge on the property transfer tax. A 2 cent surcharge on gasoline was also proposed but did not make the final cut. Small farms, defined as a parcel of land on which 10 or more acres are used for farming and that houses a specified number of animals (e.g., fewer than 200 mature dairy cows) or produces crops for sale, will be assessed $250 - $500 annually. Medium sized farms (200 - 700 mature dairy cows) will be assessed $1500 and large farms (more than 700 mature dairy cows) $2500 annually. Fees will also be assessed on feed and fertilizer. These fees will go into an Agricultural Water Quality Special Fund to assist farmers to comply with Accepted Agricultural Practices set by the Agency of Agriculture and for enforcement.

A 0.2% surcharge will be placed on the value of property subject to the property transfer tax. The surcharge is not assessed on the first $100,000 in value of property used as a principal residence, and is not assessed on the first $110,000 in value of property purchased with VHFA funds. The surcharge will be deposited in the Clean Water Fund and will sunset in 2021.

Because of the broad implications of the bill, which spanned 100 pages in the House Calendar, four committees were involved with its development: Fish Wildlife & Water, Agriculture & Forest Products, Ways & Means, and Appropriations. Of the 40 committee members voting to move the bill for consideration by the full house, only 3 voted against doing so. During the floor debate, a motion was made to vote on the non-funding sections of the bill first and then on the funding sections. The non-funding sections were passed 142 – 0. As Rep. David Deen, Chair of Fish Wildlife & Water, said, “We've done the easy part.” An amendment was offered on the remaining sections to remove the fees and transfer the required amount from the General Fund, which would have thrown the budget that was passed the week before out of whack. That amendment was defeated 100 – 40, and the remaining sections were adopted on a vote of 125 – 16. The final vote to pass the bill the following day was 133 – 11 indicating broad tri-partisan support for the bill. You can find more about the provisions of this bill in the guest posting by Representatives Bob Krebs and Sarah Buxton below.

I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Water Quality Bill (H.35) (by Rep. Bob Krebs and Rep. Sarah Buxton)

Our lakes, rivers and ponds are struggling from pollution as our water management efforts over the decades have not kept pace with the impact of storm water runoff and high water events. A comprehensive and far-reaching water quality bill  (H.35) will be offered early next week that engages all land use sectors - including roads, highways, agricultural operations, developed land in urban areas, wastewater treatment plants, and forestlands. All will be required to improve practices through long-term and sustained efforts. The bill has been reviewed by FWWR, Ag, Ways & Means, Judiciary, and Appropriations.
·         Purpose: This bill improves the quality of the State waters, implements the Lake Champlain TMDL and meets the impending TMDL for other waters, identifies cost effective strategies to address water quality, and engages stakeholders in efforts to achieve cleaner water throughout the state.
·         Small Farms:  “Small Farms” will be defined as a parcel of land on which 10 or more acres are used for farming and that houses no less than a number of animals (to be set by rule) and more than the maximum number of animals for a small farm (e.g. 199 dairy cows), OR produces crops for sale. Small farms will be required to certify compliance with the Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) every 5 years. The Agency of Agriculture (AAFM) is authorized to inspect farms to determine compliance with the AAPs. During inspection, AAFM shall identify areas that could use assistance to improve compliance with the AAPs. Identified areas will be ranked and receive priority assistance to achieve AAP compliance. An annual fee of $250 (beginning in 2016) shall be assessed on farms housing fewer than 100 mature dairy animals and $500 shall be assessed on farms housing 100 to 199 mature dairy animals.
·         Agricultural Water Quality Funding:  An Agricultural Water Quality Special Fund will be established to fund the administration and implementation of water quality programs.  The following fees will be deposited into the fund: $2,500 annual registration fee for large farms, $1,500 annual registration fee for medium farms, annual $100 registration fee for commercial feed $100, $30 a ton fee on nonagricultural fertilizer distributed in the State, annual product registration fee on pesticides of $125. $1,056,000 will be appropriated to AAFM in FY2016 for 7 agricultural water quality positions
·         Farmer Training: Agency of Ag will adopt requirements for training owners or operators of small, medium, and large farms regarding: prevention of discharges to waters; mitigation of stormwater runoff; and land application of manure, nutrients, septage, and sludge – and will require training as a condition of a LFO permit, MFO permit, and SFO certification.
·         Custom Applicators: Custom applicator means the owner of a company engaged in the business of applying manure, nutrients, septage, or sludge to land for compensation. Custom applicators will be required to complete 8 hours of training over each 5 year period to address application methods that minimize runoff and identification of weather or soil conditions that increase risk of runoff.
·         Enforcement: The new enforcement subchapter streamlines and makes consistent the existing enforcement authority, while also providing new authority, including: Emergency assistance orders to protect water quality; Mandatory corrective actions; and Authority to remove livestock when the volume of livestock waste exceeds farm capacity. When a farm is found to be in violation of the LFO, MFO, or AAP requirements, the Agency must provide the farm with a “required corrective action” plan. The Agency will also have civil enforcement authority to enjoin activities, order corrective actions, and levy civil penalties of up to $85,000 for violations.
·         Stream Alteration:  A stream alteration permit will be required for an agricultural practice that moves 10 cubic yards of instream material except for approved streambank stabilization projects.
·         Land Use Conditions: Property Valuation and Review (PVR) shall remove agricultural land or a farm building from use value appraisal (UVA) if the owner/operator is identified by the Agency of Ag as out of compliance with the water quality requirement or not in compliance with an enforcement order for an agricultural water quality violation. If land or a building is removed from UVA, a farmer may not apply for reenrollment until the Agency notifies PVR that the owner or operator is complying with agricultural water quality requirements or the enforcement order for an agricultural water quality violation. Agricultural land or a farm building included in an AAFM notification to PVR would be subject to the land use change tax.
·         ANR Basin Planning: ANR must update the basin plans for the 15 watersheds and conduct certain activities in planning, including: ensuring involvement by municipal officials and interested parties; ensuring local input in planning process; providing education to municipal officials regarding planning and developing a recommendation on conformance of basin plan with applicable regional plans.
·         ANR Stormwater Management: Clarifies activities that require an ANR stormwater permit and activities that are exempted. ANR will issue general permits for stormwater discharges from municipal roads by July 1, 2021. By Jan. 1, 2018, ANR will issue a general permit for discharges of stormwater from impervious surface of 3 or more acres in size that previously were never permitted or were permitted under a pre-2002 permit standard. The general permit shall require retrofitting or redevelopment of old impervious surface. ANR may deny an application for a stormwater permit due to an applicant’s compliance history.
·         Vermont Clean Water Fund: A Clean Water Fund Special Fund will be established to provide funding to programs and projects that address sources of water pollution in impaired waters, projects that address water pollution in critical source areas, and programs or projects to repair riparian conditions that pose a risk of flooding. The Fund shall consist of revenue dedicated to it including a 0.2% surcharge on the property transfer tax.  A Clean Water Fund Board shall administer the Fund, made up of the Secretaries of ANR, AAFM, AOT, and ACCD, and 8 additional members, appointed by the Speaker of the House, the Committee on Committees, and the Governor. The Clean Water Fund Board shall make recommendations to the Secretary of Administration regarding how funds from the Clean Water Fund shall be included in the State budget.
·         Clean Water Surcharge and DEC Fees: A 0.2% surcharge will be placed on the value of property subject to the property transfer tax. The surcharge is not assessed on the first $100,000 in value of property used for the principal residence of the transferee and is not assessed on the first $110,000 in value of property purchased with VHFA funds. The surcharge is deposited in the Clean Water Fund and will sunset in 2021. $1.3 million in DEC fees has already been approved and, combined with a $1.3 million ANR appropriation, will provide funding for 13 water quality staff.
·         Logging: The Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation will revise the Acceptable Management Practices by rule by March 1, 2016 to ensure that all logging jobs are designed to prevent water quality impacts

The Word in the House 4/2/2015 - Creating a Balanced Budget

I'm glad I don't serve on the Appropriations Committee or the Ways & Means Committee. The job that those committees have to do is the most difficult balancing act faced by the legislature. Vermont does not require a balanced budget by Constitution or by statute. However, the legislature has always, as far as I know, matched projected spending and revenues. The challenge this year has been to close a gap of $113M between projected spending and revenues for the next fiscal year beginning in July. The committees closed that gap by a combination of $53M in budget cuts, $35M of new tax revenues, and $25M of one-time funds. More importantly, through the cuts and tax structure changes, they put the state on a more sustainable path that should reduce the reliance on one-time funding for base budget needs, bend the rate of spending growth, and bring the expenditure pressures in line with revenue growth to end the cycle of annual budget gaps.

The two bills dealing with the fiscal responsibilities of the State of Vermont are H.489, the revenue bill, and H.490, the budget, also known as “The Big Bill." While both bills passed the House last week, their passage came with considerable floor debate, numerous amendments and drama. The revenue bill had been voted out of committee on an 8-3 vote, and the budget was voted out unanimously on an 11-0 vote. The latter unanimous vote was unprecedented, with Democrats, Republicans and Progressives in agreement. This reflects the considerable effort on the part of the Appropriations Committee to solicit and review input from everyone, and prioritize the programs and policies, and work with the Ways and Means Committee to determine the revenue capacity of Vermonters. Both committees knew that neither cuts alone nor taxes alone could close the gap.
A critical question in this exercise has been how do we prevent these budget gaps we've been seeing in the last few years from recurring over and over. One element of this fix is addressed by reducing spending on non-essential government programs and redirecting spending to areas with the potential to stimulate economic growth. Another element is to change the tax structure to make revenues more sustainable. I received many emails advocating to preserve various programs and grants, all of which are valuable in themselves. However, weighed against other needs, like the Department of Children and Families, many had to be trimmed or cut altogether.

Some legislators, I among them, felt that raising a little more revenue could save jobs of state employees and restore some of the cuts to the low income heating assistance and weatherization and working lands programs. Two amendments were offered to raise an additional $10M to do that. One would add a $2/night room charge for hotel rooms; the other would have added 0.4% to the top two income tax rates for those making more than $500K and $1M. Several amendments attempted to cut taxes and cut more spending out of the budget. Each amendment was accompanied by lengthy debate, some very passionate; but all of the proposed amendments were defeated. I am comfortable with this result because, even though I would have liked more support for what I consider worthy causes, I know that we have to get spending in line with what Vermonters can afford.

Now both bills go to the Senate. It is likely the Senate will make changes to both bills. If the changes they make are accepted by the House, the bills will then go to governor Shumlin. If the House decides not to concur with the Senate, the differences will be settled by a Committee of Conference. In addition, there will be two more bills dealing with spending and taxes: the Education bill and the Water Quality bill. So, keep your hats on; there's more to come.

Subsequent to the publishing of this article, I interviewed Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle), Chair of the Appropriations Committee, on the Chittenden county Democrats Show to talk about the decisions that the committee made regarding the budget.

 I continue to welcome your feedback on this and other issues. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com)

Legislative Report 3/25/2015 - Win Some, Lose Some

During the past few weeks I have received many emails and phone calls from constituents about budget cuts, taxes, and education.  I have made it a point to pass those messages on to members of the Appropriations and Education committees.  I would like to give you some inside information on what is going to be in the budget or out of the budget and what the final education bill will include,  but at the time of this writing those bills have not been finalized.  Nevertheless, by the time this article is published, we will have a proposed budget in front of us.  We will then know the final decisions that were made, subject to change by amendments from the floor.  It is pretty apparent, however, that no one will be completely satisfied with the result.  The same goes for the education bill.  Provisions regarding teacher strikes and the imposition of a contract by a school board when negotiations fail are still being discussed by more than one House committee, as is the proposed 2% cap on school budgets.  So, until the shifting sands solidify, allow me to instead just write about the fate of two of the bills I introduced this session.

The Natural Burials bill (H.25) was recently passed by the House on a voice vote and is on its way to the Senate.  It had been assigned to the Committee on General, Housing and Military Affairs.  After the Committee spent weeks listening to testimony from funeral directors, cemetery commissioners, advocates and skeptics of natural burials, and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, they made several changes that substantially improved the bill.  They tightened the specifications for creating natural burial grounds, ensuring that they would fit into the current regulatory framework of existing cemeteries.  They also set parameters on how such burial grounds would be located with respect to groundwater sources to ensure that they would pose no risks to public health.  This is the value of the committee process the legislature employs; a good bill is made into better law by careful deliberation taking many points of view into consideration.

The other bill which I introduced to secure the unclaimed bottle deposits for the state, H.140, did not even make it out of my committee.  These unclaimed nickels amount to more than $1 million dollars that have already been paid by Vermonters and remain in the hands of beverage distributors.  The beverage industry mounted a major defense of its claim to the abandoned deposits in their testimony.  They claimed that it would drive the cost of beverages up in Vermont and drive consumers along the Connecticut River to New Hampshire.  While they provided a breakdown of the costs of the bottle deposit program showing that it was a costly and inefficient way to recycle, I was able to use the same information to show that their giving up the unclaimed deposits would add only a half-cent to each container.  Nevertheless, my committee voted 5 to 4 not to approve the bill. 

When a bill comes out of committee, it has been thoroughly examined and discussed and has the support of at least a solid majority of members.  The committee process works, and that is why I usually feel comfortable voting with the committee when a bill I have not been involved with reaches the floor.  I listen to the debate with an open mind and will support amendments if I think they can improve the result.  In the coming weeks there will be a lot of debate on many important and controversial bills.  The decisions I make will be informed by my constituents as well as the committees of jurisdiction.  So, please continue to send me your thoughts and questions.  I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).