Legislative Report 6/4/2015 - 2015 Legislative Session Wrap-Up

As a final installment in my Legislative Reports, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the best work the legislature did as well as point out some areas where we need to do more.

Water Quality
With cooperation and input from Vermont's agricultural community, we passed legislation that will help prevent agricultural runoff from small farms by controlling discharges that could violate our water quality standards. New farmer education and training requirements have been adopted. Accepted Agricultural Practices (AAPs) will become Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) that all farms must follow. The Agency of Agriculture will provide technical assistance to help farmers comply and access financial resources to support necessary alterations.

Public Safety
The Legislature made considerable progress in fortifying the safety of our citizens this year. We strengthened the sex offender registry requirements, ensuring that convicted sex offenders report updated information to the Department of Public Safety prior to release from a correctional facility. Our groundbreaking “Revenge Porn” bill made it a crime to disseminate sexually explicit photographs or videos of individuals without their consent and with the intent to harm. We helped law enforcement combat drug trafficking by modifying rules related to the forfeiture of assets used in perpetrating certain crimes. While we failed to require background checks for all firearms purchases in Vermont, we did manage to prohibit under Vermont law violent felons from owning firearms and we required courts to submit the names of those whom a judge has deemed to be a danger to themselves or others due to mental illness to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Child Protection
The deaths of two children because of abuse last year required an effective response by both the administrative and legislative branches. In the past year, prosecutors and the judiciary have seen an increase in the number of petitions filed for both children in need of supervision and termination of parental rights. No single agency or system can keep all children safe from harm. Child protection is a community responsibility requiring collaboration among the various departments within DCF, families, the courts, treatment providers, other stakeholders, and the public. Legislation that we passed this session requires better communication between these stakeholders, clarifies and strengthens the mandatory child abuse reporting law, focuses on the best interests of children rather than a rigid placement hierarchy, and enhances the penalties for those who harm children with death or serious bodily injury resulting.

Energy Transformation
Over the past decade, Vermont has led the nation with its energy efficiency programs, lowering both electricity costs and rates. With this year’s Renewable Energy Standard law, we will help Vermonters transform their energy use in the heating and transportation sectors. The law will encourage a shift in these sectors from fossil fuels to clean electricity, reduce carbon emissions, and save Vermonters money. As envisioned under this law, homes will be well insulated and tightly sealed; appliances and heat sources, such as air source heat pumps, will be highly efficient; electric vehicles will harness local sources of clean energy and reduce carbon-emissions in transportation. Solar and other forms of renewable electricity will provide the clean power to replace fossil fuel energy and reduce transmission and distribution costs for all Vermonters.

Vermont’s public schools enrollment has declined for nearly two decades. Since 1997, public schools in Vermont are down more than 24,000 pupils, but staffing levels have remained relatively constant, and education spending and taxes have continued to climb. The Education System Reform legislation passed this year attempts to address the problem of student population decline and rising costs by promoting district consolidation while improving student access to the education they need to succeed in tomorrow's economy. Another focus of cost reduction is teacher health insurance. A working group led by the Director of Health Care Reform will be formed to consider alternatives available to school districts, supervisory unions, and their employees to address the high cost of health care and recommend options that will avoid triggering the federal tax on high-cost, employer-sponsored insurance plans (referred to as the “Cadillac Tax”). Among other options, the Director is required to consider the possibility of transitioning to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect, the Vermont Education Health Initiative, and other means. While these moves are in the positive direction, the property tax burden of funding education has not changed. Several proposals for alternative funding are still being considered, but they will have to wait until next year.

Budget Reform
While the legislature always passes a balanced budget, the approach the budget committee took this year was a significant step toward bending the growth in state spending and creating long-term budget sustainability. This session, we made significant progress in reducing the rate of increase in Corrections, Buildings and General Services, and Public Safety budgets. Continuing reductions in federal support, growing demand for services and investment in public infrastructure, and slower economic growth has spurred the Legislature to adopt five new fiscal goals:

1. Reduce reliance on the use of “onetime” money.
2. Move toward budgeting less than 100% of projected revenue.
3. Include assessment of future year costs as part of assessing programs and budget proposals.
4. Explore moving to a two-year budget process.
5. Expand the use of Results Based Accountability measurements throughout state government.

I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).