Legislative Report 10/29/2016 - Looking Ahead

As we approach the election, I want to thank my Charlotte and Hinesburg constituents for your confidence in me and the work I have been doing for the last six years in the Legislature.  I want you to know that I do not take your support for granted and will continue to keep you apprised of what is transpiring in the Vermont House on a regular basis during the session through my weekly columns in our local newspapers. Two-way communication is essential, so I welcome your input as well.

The campaign rhetoric at the national level is very disconcerting to me and, I’m sure, to you as well. The strength of our great nation – and it continues to be Great – is our ability to engage in civil discourse despite our disagreements and work collectively for solutions to the problems affecting our society, economy and environment.  Here in Vermont we still seem to be able to accomplish that feat.  While everyone may not be perfectly satisfied with an outcome, all voices will be heard and acknowledged, and compromises will be reached.  A good example of that is the energy project siting bill that we passed last session, which includes taking wind turbine generated noise into consideration for future projects.  On the most controversial issues, such as marijuana legalization, gun regulation, and vaccine requirements, the legislature holds extensive public hearings and takes this input into consideration as legislation is developed.

There are always controversial issues that confront the Legislature, and the upcoming session will be no different.  Marijuana legalization will again be considered.  We now have more data coming from Colorado and other states that have already legalized marijuana.  According to a report cited by Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen, teen use of marijuana in Vermont is already twice as high as tobacco use.  Frequent marijuana use by teens and young adults harms brain development and has a strong correlation with poor academic performance. With public input and recommendations from the Health Department, we will hopefully be able to come up with reasonable regulations as well as increase efforts to discourage its use among teens. 

I also expect a strong push to pass legislation requiring background checks for all firearm purchases, which I support.  With or without the support of the new Governor, this legislation will be introduced for consideration in 2017. While Vermont may not see the same amount of gun violence as other states, our lax gun regulations make it easy for criminals to buy guns here and take them back to Massachusetts, Connecticut, or New York.  According to New York’s Attorney General, 1% (489) of the 52,000 traceable guns involved in crimes in New York alone came from Vermont (ref. https://targettrafficking.ag.ny.gov/tool/).  I-91 on the other side of Vermont is known by law enforcement as the “Iron Highway” because of the exchange of drugs for guns by out-of-state criminals along this corridor. Background checks will also provide additional protection for victims of domestic violence.

While refugee resettlement is not an area over which the State of Vermont has jurisdiction, it did become an item of discussion late in the 2016 session. The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Center in Colchester coordinates the resettlement program for all of Vermont. Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announced in April that Rutland was willing to accept 100 Syrian refugee families for resettlement in Vermont.  Because his announcement caught City Council members as well as the general public by surprise, a negative reaction resulted in dividing residents of Rutland.  The greater Burlington area, including Charlotte, has been host to refugees from many trouble spots across the world, including Bosnia, the Congo, Somalia and Bhutan. I recently had the occasion to speak with Mr. Puspa Luitel, a Charlotte resident and member of our Planning Commission, about his experience.  As a result of that conversation I have arranged with the Resettlement Center to sponsor a public forum on November 15th at the Charlotte Senior Center from 7:00 to 8:30 PM. It will feature some of Vermont's newest residents, including Mr. Luitel, who will share their experiences both before and after their arrival.  I hope you will consider attending what should be a very informative event. 

As always I want to hear from you.  I can be reached on my cell phone at 233-5238 or via email at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

Thank You for Your Support!

I want to express my thanks to the voters of Charlotte and Hinesburg for giving me a strong re-election endorsement. I have always tried to represent all of you well with the understanding that there are some issues on which consensus will be hard to reach. I will continue to do so. I appreciate your input and want you to always feel free to contact me anytime by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com) or phone (802-233-5238).

With a little help from my Grandsons, Reid, Evan and Guthrie.

Let's Grow Kids on Chittenden County Democrats Show

Vermont is facing a crisis of insufficient affordable child care. Let's Grow Kids is a non-profit that is seeking to call attention and seek solutions to this problem. On Monday, November 7th, 2016, Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte/Hinesburg) sat down with LGK Campaign Director Robyn Freedner-Maguire to discuss the state of child care access in Vermont. Watch the interview below.  You can find more information at www.letsgrowkids.org.

Happy Labor Day!

Today we celebrate all American workers and the Labor Movement that has achieved the greatest standard of living in the world.  The labor movement grew over the past century largely as a result of immigrant workers who fought for a living wage and safer working conditions.  They could not have accomplished their goals without banding together in labor unions and presenting a solid front to those who controlled the economy.

The Labor Movement brought us the minimum wage, a 40 hour work week, social security, paid vacation and sick time, and, by working with management, employer-sponsored health insurance. During WW II workers and industry stepped up together to accomplish a miracle which saved the world from totalitarianism, and afterword to build a society that rivals all others.

The Democratic Party continues to stand with Labor to build on the progress of the past which has been eroded over time.  The federal minimum wage of $7.50/hour is no longer adequate to support a family with both parents working 40 hours per week. While Vermont's minimum wage ($10.50/hour) is substantially better, it is still not a living wage.  Employer-sponsored health insurance still plays an important part in our economy, but is not universal.  The Affordable Care Act has extended health care insurance to 90% of Americans, but Vermont Health Connect has had major problems that still must be fixed. And as a result of years of effort, Vermont now requires employers to provide earned sick leave to all employees working more than 18 hours per week.

These are key family values that are essential for a healthy society.  I will continue to support these values in my work as a State Legislator.  I wish everyone a happy Labor Day.

Mike Yantachka and Bob Hooper speak with Jim Dean, Director of Democracy for America in South Burlington.

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on August 1st had the privilege of speaking with Democracy For America (DFA) Director Jim Dean about the Presidential election and the efforts of DFA to elect progressive candidates in November.  DFA endorsed Bernie Sanders for President, even though its founder, Gov. Howard Dean, endorsed Hillary Clinton in the primary elections.  Jim Dean gave viewers some insight into DFA efforts to support candidates nationwide going forward. Watch the show below, and mark your calendar for the next 2 shows which will take place on September 29th and October 3rd featuring the Democratic candidates for Governor and Lt. Governor, Sue Minter and David Zuckerman, respectively.

I'm with Hillary! Thank you, Bernie Sanders!

I hope my #BernieOrBust friends tuned into the Republican convention last week and are comparing it to the Democratic convention this week. There are 4 roads into the future of America from here. One is to continue to insist that Bernie is the only candidate that deserves your vote. This is a dead end, because such idealism, while feeling good personally, is not based in the real world. 
Another is to vote for a fringe candidate like Jill Stein. Another dead end because it has no hope of success. I voted for John Anderson in 1980 because I felt Jimmy Carter let us down. Anderson got 7% of the vote and Ronald Reagan became President. I learned my lesson then. 
 A third road is to vote for con-man, charlatan Donald Trump. If you supported Bernie for his policies, then voting for Trump is equivalent to deliberately driving off a cliff! 
 The fourth and best road is to elect Hillary Clinton President because she will fight for the same goals as Bernie. She is our only hope of accomplishing what Bernie fought for - a living wage, a fair tax system that requires the wealthiest people to pay their fair share, a health care system that is a human right, a program to effectively address climate change, respect for all people regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, religion or heritage, protecting Social Security, access to higher education without overwhelming debt, reversing the Citizens United decision, reasonable gun safety regulations, and security without forfeiting our constitutional rights. 
Bernie paid a "yuge" role in making sure these issues will be priorities in a Clinton administration.  His unprecedented success in mobilizing popular support for the issues focused all Democrats on what is immensely important in this year's election. We owe him an enormous debt and our thanks for all of his past service, a great campaign, and the work he will continue to do for us in the Senate.

House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor Candidate Shap Smith Interview.

The Chittenden County Democrats Show conducted the third of the Lieutenant Governor candidate interviews with House Speaker Shap Smith in July.  The show is hosted monthly by Charlotte State Representative Mike Yantachka and Chittenden County Democratic Treasurer Bob Hooper.  Smith discussed his role as Speaker of the House and the goals he would pursue as Lt. Governor if elected. Smith served 14 years in the Vermont House of Representatives and as Speaker for the last 8 years. The interview can be seen here.

The other two Democratic candidates for Lt. Governor, Rep. Kesha Ram and Sen. David Zuckerman, were interviewed earlier in the year. The interview with Ram can be seen at http://www.mikeyantachka.com/2016/03/as-we-did-with-democratic-candidates.html, and the interview with Zuckerman can be seen at http://www.mikeyantachka.com/2016/06/lt-gov-candidate-david-zuckerman.html.

Building Homes Together Seeks More Affordable Housing

Brenda Torpy, chief executive officer of Champlain Housing Trust, answers questions from reporters at Monday’s announcement.  - Photo by Alicia Freese/Seven Days

A group of housing advocates, elected officials, developers and other local leaders are banding together to get 3,500 homes built in Chittenden County over the next five years.
[Read more]

Lt. Gov. Candidate David Zuckerman Appears on the Chittenden County Democrats Show

Chittenden County Senator David Zuckerman (P/D) is running in the Democratic Primary for Lt. Governor.  Zuckerman was recently interviewed on the June 6, 20116, Chittenden County Democrats Show by host Bob Hooper. The show is running a series on the Democratic Lt. Governor's race and featured Rep.. Kesha Ram in March and will feature Speaker of the House Shap Smith in July. Senator Zuckerman talked about his experience in the House and the Senate during his political career as well as his farming business and his goals as Lt. Governor.  The interview can be seen here.

Legislative Report 6/11/2016 - The Veto-Override Session

When the Legislature adjourns at the end of the session it sets a date for a return, if needed, to consider any vetoes the Governor might make. The decision to consider overriding a veto is at the Legislature’s discretion. This year Governor Shumlin vetoed two bills, H.518, which added 4 members to the Clean Water Fund Board, and S.230, which provided a process for towns to obtain “substantial deference” for siting energy projects and tasked the Public Service Board to develop sound standards for large wind projects and use emergency rule making to set temporary standards in the interim. The governor had four reasons for vetoing S.230, based in part on legal opinions from the PSB and his staff regarding several parts of the bill:

  • Emergency rule making is only used when there is imminent threat to public health or safety. The original intent of the language was to create an expedited rule making process, but it was never intended as a statement regarding a threat to public health or safety.
  • The criteria specified for the temporary sound standards stated that they should be no higher than the lowest level in any existing Certificate of Public Good. We believed the Lowell standard of 30dba indoors and 45 dba outdoors to be the lowest level. However, a backyard 100 kw turbine in Vergennes has a sound level limit in its CPG that no larger turbine could ever meet, effectively creating a moratorium on all wind projects in Vermont.
  • The CPG for each renewable energy project would need to be filed with the municipal clerk as part of the deed to the property. This would require municipalities as well as thousands of property owners with small solar to incur an unnecessary expense.
  • Finally, $300,000 had originally been in the bill to be used to assist Regional Planning Commissions and towns to implement the planning process to get their "substantial deference" by the PSB for energy projects. This section was inadvertently left out of the final bill during negotiations between the House and Senate on the last day of the session.
Senator Chris Bray, Chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, quickly drafted a substitute bill that addressed the Governor’s objections.  This bill, S.260, kept the expedited rule-making process but disconnected it from the “emergency” standard. It also created two classes for wind projects - one below 500kw and one above - and made the “no higher than” requirement based on the lowest level set for each class. Third, it limited the requirement for recording the CPG with the deed to systems greater than 15 kw.  Finally, it restored the missing $300,000 for energy planning purposes. The Senate quickly passed S.260 on a bipartisan vote of 27 to 2. After a very long day and many failed attempts to suspend rules and take action, the bill passed on a voice vote in the House just after 9 PM.
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).
Have a great summer!

Legislative Report 5/16/2016 - End of Session Summary

As the final installment of my Legislative Reports this year, I thought it would be good to highlight some of the important work the Legislature did over the two years of the biennium.
Water Quality
In 2015 legislation was passed that will help prevent agricultural runoff from farms, roads and other impervious surfaces by controlling discharges that could violate our water quality standards. The Required Agricultural Practices (RAPs) that all farms must follow are in the final stages of development and should be released in September, 2016. The Agency of Agriculture will provide technical and financial assistance to help farmers comply and there is funding in the budget to help towns comply with water treatment and road runoff mitigation.
Legislation was passed this year that will allow voluntary regional collaboration by municipalities around a range of services, including ambulance, solid waste, fire protection, and land use planning to achieve economies of scale. The law promotes transparency, local municipal voice, and treatment of municipalities as equal partners. The Legislature relaxed the requirement on how often municipal plans need to be updated from every five years to every eight years to allow more time for plan implementation. We also passed a bill that automatically registers eligible Vermonters to vote when they apply for a state driver’s license making it easier for our citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Human Services
The Legislature continues to focus on efforts to keep our children safe. At the end of 2015, there were 1052 children in state custody placed in foster or adoptive foster homes or in foster homes of relatives. In the past two years, reports of child abuse and neglect have surged and the state has experienced an 82% increase in the number of children under six who are in the state’s custody. In 80% of these cases, families are struggling with problems related to opioid addiction or other serious substance abuse. In addition, the tragic death of a DCF social worker allegedly by a parent this past summer has continued to place our state’s child protection system under pressure. The number of case workers added last year has not kept pace with the increase in cases, and more social workers will be hired along with substance abuse screeners to address this ongoing problem. More is being done to address the opioid addiction problem as well, including treatment, education, prevention, and increased market-constraints such as increased fees on pharmaceutical manufactures to help fund mitigation programs. A key provision is a requirement for health care providers and pharmacists to register with the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) and to query the system upon prescribing or dispensing a controlled substance to help eliminate prescription fraud and the diversion of controlled substances.
Natural Resources & Energy
Over the past decade, Vermont has led the nation with its energy efficiency programs, lowering both electricity costs and rates. In 2015 the Renewable Energy Standard Act was passed which will eliminate the double-counting or Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) and is helping Vermonters transform their energy use in the heating and transportation sectors. This year we recognized Vermonters’ concerns over the proper siting of solar and wind projects and passed legislation that will give municipalities a greater voice in these decisions if they develop energy plans to address the state’s goals for renewable energy in collaboration with their Regional Planning Commissions. We also required the Public Service Board to develop noise standards for wind projects in recognition of complaints about existing projects. We passed legislation this year that will preserve and maintain the health of Vermont’s forests, and we ensured that conservation easements that were always meant to be perpetual will continue to be so by removing the 40 year renewal requirement and ensuring that the easement remains with the property if a tax sale of the property occurs.
Working Vermonters
Legislation passed this year guarantees working Vermonters the right to earn paid sick leave up to three days per year, increasing to five days in subsequent years. We also increased subsidies for child care facilities to provide high-quality, affordable child care for working families. Because of Act 176 of 2014, the minimum wage in Vermont is $9.60/hour and is scheduled to increase to $10/hour on January 1, 2017. 
The Legislature continued to address the increasing cost of education by encouraging school district consolidation under Act 46 passed in 2015 and made some changes early in 2016 to address budgeting issues being faced by school boards. Several districts across the state have already voted to merge and more, including Chittenden South, are expected to vote in the next couple of months. Chittenden South will hold its vote on June 7th, and I encourage everyone in Charlotte to take the time to vote in person or by absentee ballot. You can find information about the proposal at act46.cssu.org. I strongly recommend reading the Final Report to inform your vote.
I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).  I wish you all a wonderful summer and hope to see you around town.

Legislative Report 5/2/2016 - Persistence Pays

If you’re old enough to remember the 80’s TV show “The A-Team”, you might remember what their leader, Hannibal Smith (George Peppard), used to say after a successful mission: “I love it when a plan comes together!” That’s how I felt last week when a bill that I’ve been working on for the last five years passed overwhelmingly.
Between my first and second years as State Rep, I was talking with Lambert Lussier, proprietor of Spear Street Mowers. He was telling me about a bill that Rep. Martha Heath had introduced a couple of years before that would have helped small equipment dealers like himself to obtain fair reimbursement for warranty work they had to perform under contract with their product distributors. Often he had to work on equipment that was purchased somewhere else, including big box stores. It was common for the manufacturer to set the reimbursement, usually below his normal labor rate, as well as dictate the amount of time expected to do the diagnosis and repair. I told him I’d try to help and introduced the bill the following session. Nothing happened to the bill, and I had to reintroduce it the following year in the new biennium. Working with the Northeast Equipment Dealers Association (NEDA), we pushed hard to get it through the House Commerce Committee. However, in the process the scope of the bill grew to include snowmobile and ATV dealers, and the manufacturers pushed back hard. Again, it failed to get out of committee.
I introduced the bill again in 2015 with a Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Harvey Smith of New Haven. Again there didn’t seem to be a lot of interest in taking it up until three things happened. Last autumn, I invited the Chair of the Commerce Committee, Rep. Bill Botzow, to visit Charlotte, and I in turn visited his town of Pownal. One of the stops we made was to Spear Street Mowers. Lambert told his story and Bill promised that the warranty bill would be considered. Then, as the session approached, NEDA hired a good lobbyist to shepherd the bill through. A companion bill was introduced in the Senate by Sen. John Rogers of Orleans County, and was taken up by the Senate Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Although the manufacturers pushed back and even tried to delay work on the bill, the Senate passed it as S.224. Since the House Commerce Committee was already familiar with it, they made some tweaks and passed it out unanimously, 11-0. It subsequently passed the House on a voice vote with no opposition. I expect the Senate to concur with the changes made by the House and send it to the Governor. This bill recognizes the value of Vermont's small equipment dealers to our local economies and agricultural communities and provides much needed protections for them as they negotiate contracts with large manufacturers who have the resources to dictate terms that can be detrimental to small dealers. I love it when a plan comes together - even if it does take five years!
On another note, the Charter language creating a two-step approval process for the town budget, which passed by an 1148 to 403 vote at Town Meeting in March, became House bill H.881. After testimony from myself, Selectboard Chair Lane Morrison, Town Meeting Solutions Committee member Lynne Jaunich, and Town Clerk Mary Mead via email, the House Government Operations Committee voted 9 to 1 for it, and it was subsequently passed by the House on a voice vote. It should get through the Senate before adjournment and then signed into law shortly afterward.
I would like to take this opportunity to announce that I will be running for re-election in the Democratic Primary on August 27th and hope that you will support me. I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/25/2016 - Towns Get More Say in Energy Siting

2015 saw an increase in solar arrays springing up across the Vermont countryside. This was occurring as developers and landowners became more active in seeking opportunities to take advantage of Vermont's incentives for net metering of renewable energy. These incentives promote Vermont's goal of obtaining 90% of its energy needs from non-fossil fuel sources by 2050 and have been successful in creating thousands of jobs and keeping Vermont's electricity rates the lowest in New England except for Maine. However, the sight of large arrays along the Route 7 corridor in New Haven as well as other places has become controversial. A letter initiated by Rutland Town and signed by more than 140 municipalities including Charlotte requests that towns be given more input to the Public Service Board's decision-making process.
As a result, the Senate Judiciary committee, chaired by Senator Chris Bray of Addison County, took up the task of addressing this issue and, after months of testimony, passed S.230, the Energy Development Improvement Act. For the past month, the House Natural Resources & Energy Committee has been reviewing S.230 and, after taking several weeks of testimony, made some substantive changes, and voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Every energy project requires a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) to be issued by the Public Service Board (PSB) before it can be constructed. Act 56 of 2015, the Renewable Energy Standards Act, gave towns the automatic right of intervention in CPG hearings for projects in their communities. The PSB currently is required to give “due consideration” to the input of testimony provided by the town. This means that the PSB would take the testimony under advisement, but could effectively give it less weight than it gives to the benefits of the project. This is the situation that led people to believe their concerns were not being heard. S.230 would now require the PSB to give “substantial deference” to a town if the town plan meets certain standards. “Substantial deference” means that the project would have to align with the town plan to get PSB approval unless there is a clear and convincing demonstration that other factors affecting the general good of the State outweigh the limitations in the plan.
In order to get substantial deference the town plan would have to meet certain standards in conjunction with a regional plan. The standards would be set by the Department of Public Service in consultation with other state agencies, Regional Planning Commissions (RPCs), the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and other interested parties, and would have to address energy conservation, efficiency, fuel-switching, and use of renewable energy for transportation, heating, and electricity. These standards have to be completed by November 1, 2016. Subsequently, RPCs would develop regional plans using these standards to identify areas suitable for various types of renewable energy generation. If the standards are met the regional plan would be approved by the Department. A town plan would then get approval from the RPC if the town plan adequately addresses the same criteria with regard to identifying sites within the town where renewable energy technologies would be suitable as well as unsuitable. The goal is to give municipalities a role in determining locations as opposed to blanket rejection of any renewable energy siting. In case a town wants to move faster than its RPC to get substantial deference, it would be able to apply directly to the Department up until July 1, 2018, when all RPCs are expected to have plans in place.
From the time the Lowell, Sheffield and Georgia Mountain wind projects have been operational, complaints from nearby residents about noise and associated health effects have persisted. While hundreds of complaints were recorded, the vast majority came from a few of the nearest neighbors to the projects. During its consideration of S.230, our Committee heard the concerns from many private citizens and audiologists regarding noise issues. As part of the revisions to S.230, the PSB will be required to open a docket to review the noise issue, develop standards for acceptable noise levels, and make recommendations for methods of noise mitigation with respect to the nearby residences. S.230 also included provisions addressing some hydroelectric facilities and radar-controlled lighting on wind turbines.
I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 4/18/2016 - Highs and Lows of Marijuana Legislation

Every session seems to have its own highly controversial issue – end of life, vaccines, gun control.  This year it's marijuana legalization. The Vermont Senate passed S.241 in March on a vote of 17-12. Under this measure the state would regulate cannabis from seed to sale and legalize its use by adults. The Health Department would establish prevention and education programs, and the Department of Public Safety would regulate licensed marijuana businesses. Retail sales would be taxed at 25% and proceeds would fund substance abuse prevention, education, treatment and law enforcement. Selling or giving marijuana to and possession and use of marijuana by anyone under age 21 would be prohibited as would driving under the influence of marijuana. Unlicensed growing, selling and possession of more than one ounce of marijuana would be prohibited and current penalties would still apply.

After leaving the Senate, S.241 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee. After four weeks of testimony and discussion, including joint hearings with the Government Operations Committee and the Human Services Committee and a two-hour public hearing in the well of the House, the Judiciary Committee voted out a rewritten S.241 on April 8. With this amendment the Judiciary Committee recognizes that Vermont must address public health and safety issues from marijuana use that currently confront the state. It stops short of legalization, but allows the state to prepare for the eventuality that legal marijuana use will come to our region, while also addressing current concerns. It retains certain provisions of the Senate bill, including an education and prevention program including drugged driving prevention, creating a crime for certain dangerous chemical extraction processes, prohibiting the consumption or possession of marijuana in a motor vehicle, requiring additional training for law enforcement, and establishing a workforce study committee. Last week the House Ways and Means Committee took the Judiciary version and restored the legalization of up to one ounce of marijuana and cultivation of up to two plants with a license from the Health Department. They also stripped appropriations for the Department of Public Safety for enforcement and lab testing while retaining those requirements.
According to the Rand Corporation report commissioned by the Legislature, 80,000 Vermonters currently use marijuana. With the legalization issue gaining momentum throughout the country, it is likely that Vermont will also do so at some point. If we do, we must do it carefully and with our eyes wide open. Proponents point to increased revenue from taxation, displacing the current black market, and the benign effects of marijuana compared to alcohol consumption. However, data out of Colorado indicates that there was an 8% increase in the number of 12 to 17 year olds using marijuana in the first year of legalization, and a 32% increase in marijuana-related traffic fatalities during the first year. Moreover, the revenues from taxing marijuana sales will likely be significantly diminished by the costs of regulation and enforcement. If we are concerned with the safety and welfare of the general population, we need more time to assess the long term effects of legalization. We should also have at least as much control over sales as we have over alcohol. Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska and the District of Columbia are the laboratories of this experiment. Before potentially endangering our youth further by this addictive substance or experiencing increased road fatalities resulting from an influx of out-of-state drivers or Vermonters driving under the influence, waiting for a careful assessment of the results from those jurisdictions before we become a laboratory ourselves may be a more prudent path.
I always welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

The Word in the House 4/11/2016 - Education Funding and Property Taxes

A little over a month ago at Town Meeting we voted for our town budget, our local CCS school budget and our CVU budget. Together these budgets will determine the amount of spending that our property taxes will be based on. By far, the largest portion of those taxes will go to the school budgets. How our taxes get to the school districts is not a direct path, however, because we pay those school taxes to the State, which then allocates them to every budget voted in Vermont. This is because our Constitution requires every student to have an equal educational opportunity which cannot depend on how rich or poor their community is. This article seeks to explain this process and the effect it has on our local tax rates.

Our education property taxes along with 35% of the sales and use tax, proceeds from the Vermont Lottery and a transfer from the General Fund go into the Education Fund from which the school districts are financed. Every year the Vermont Legislature has to pass an education funding bill which sets the statewide property tax rate. This requires knowing the total amount of all school budgets, the total value of the statewide property grandlist, and the number of students. These variables determine how much $1.00 of property taxes or 2% of household income will yield in revenues and, consequently, the base yield per pupil. The income-based rate is for homeowners with household incomes less than $135,000. All these factors work together to determine what tax rates are required in order to fund all the school budgets in the state.

This year's education funding bill, H.853, sets the statewide residential homestead property tax base rate to $1.00 per $100.00 of valuation, up from $0.99 last year. This is called the “penny tax rate” and is applied to homesteads with incomes above $135,000. Also, the base income rate for households with income of $135,000 or less is set to 2% of household income, up from 1.8%. This may look like a tax increase, but we're not finished. The yield per equalized pupil for the penny tax rate this year is $9701, up from $9459, and the yield per equalized pupil for the income tax rate is $10,870, up from $9459.

To compute the local tax rates, the tax rates in the bill are multiplied by the ratio of the local spending per equalized pupil to the statewide per pupil yield. For Charlotte the CCS and CVU per pupil amounts are used to come up with a blended average of $15,477, up from $15,203 last year, so this year's ratio is 15477/9701 = 1.595. This is a slightly lower penny tax rate than last year's 1.607. Likewise, the income rate of 2% is multiplied by the ratio of the local spending to the income rate yield, or
2% x 15477/10870 = 2.848% compared to last year's 3.215%. Both of these rates are lower than last year.

However, another local factor, Charlotte's Common Level of Appraisal (CLA), has decreased from 105% to 102% year over year because the prices for homes that sold in Charlotte over the last three years are closer to their assessed values than before. The penny rate is divided by this factor causing the CLA adjusted penny tax rate to increase from $1.53 per $100 valuation last year to $1.56. The CLA has no effect on the income tax rate.

With per pupil spending up and the number of students dropping both locally and statewide from last year, we might ask why property tax rates didn't increase. There are 2 reasons for this. First, there was an increase in the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund by $2M above the $27M scheduled transfer. Second, statewide school spending increased less than expected and allowed $20M collected in the Education Fund last year to be carried forward to this year's budget. Act 46 will continue to improve the school funding situation as more districts consolidate.

Taxation is the most unpleasant responsibility of a legislator, but it is also necessary. When the legislature votes on an education funding bill, we are voting to pay for the education of the children of Vermont as determined by local school boards across the state. We have taken measures to control those costs with Act 46 and with measures we took in this year's budget, and the results we see this year have begun to move us in the right direction.

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

The Word in the House 4/4/2016 - Dental Therapists, Permitting and Marijuana

The 2016 legislative session is now two-thirds finished and is projected to end by the first week in May. Several bills have been sent to the House from the Senate and are now being considered by various committees. Here is a brief description of a few of them.
One bill, S.20, would create a new licensed professional category of Dental Therapist. This is a level of training between a Dental Hygienist and Dentist. A Dental Therapist would be required to have all the training of a Dental Hygienist as well as graduate from an accredited dental therapist educational program. They would be licensed to provides oral health care services, including prevention, evaluation and assessment, education, palliative therapy, and restoration under the general supervision of a dentist. They would only be allowed to practice in settings or areas with a significant volume of low-income, uninsured, or under-served patients. The impetus for this legislation has been the lack of sufficient and affordable dental services in many rural communities of Vermont. The bill is currently under review by the House Human Services Committee.
Another bill, S.123, seeks to streamline the permitting of projects under the jurisdiction of the Department of Environmental Conservation in the Agency of Natural Resources. The bill consolidates 85 current processes into five processes and standardizes the procedures for notifications and approvals, including

• requiring pre-application public participation for large or complex permit applications,

• requiring notice of the application for all permits except emergency permits,

• providing interested persons (other than the applicant) an opportunity to provide expert or detailed opinion to ANR technical staff prior to a public comment period,

• requiring administrative records for all DEC acts or decisions, and

• requiring fact sheets for all individual permits.

The bill also requires ANR to develop one web-based portal that is searchable for projects that are on notice by project name, permit type (e.g., stormwater), or geographic location. Interested persons would be able to "subscribe" to be notified when key project milestones take place. It also creates two standardized notice periods, 30 days for major permits, 10 days for minor permits, and allows emergency permits to be issued without notice. The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee is in the process of reviewing this bill.
Finally, S.241, the marijuana legalization bill, has been assigned to the Judiciary Committee. Additionally, it is undergoing a thorough evaluation by several other committees, including Government Operations, Human Services, Health Care, and Agriculture. Judiciary and Government Operations held an evening public hearing last week in the House chamber for one and a half hours, taking testimony from both advocates and opponents. Deliberations are expected to continue for several weeks as the potential benefits and consequences are evaluated.
I welcome your thoughts and can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (myantachka.dfa@gmail.com).

Legislative Report 4/4/2016 - House Passes Budget – Round 1

The past two weeks saw the introduction of all the money bills the House has constitutional responsibility for developing. These include the Budget, the Miscellaneous Tax Bill, the Fee Bill, the Transportation Bill, the Education Funding Bill, and the Capital Construction Bill. Taken together, they constitute the plan for all the state spending in the next fiscal year from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017 (FY17) and the means to implement the laws and policies enacted by the Legislature. Indeed, they reflect in a concrete way the responsibilities of state government to provide for the safety, health, and general welfare of Vermonters. This article will focus on the Budget, the keystone of all of these bills, which encompasses all of state spending included in the others.

The FY17 budget fulfills the intent of last year’s budget bill by reducing state spending growth, eliminating dependence on one-time funds for ongoing programs, engaging in multi-year planning, and improving program accountability. The Appropriations Committee scrutinized programs to determine their impact over many years. They took testimony on program results and performance measurements from every department and agency and codified reporting of performance measures in Agency of Human Services grants. They invited input from every committee, from agencies and departments, and from individual legislators. The result is a budget that grew 2.7% this year, down from the five-year growth rate of 3.9% and last year's growth of 4.2%. So, what were the reasons and justifications for this spending growth?

The increased spending is not the result of adding new programs but of stabilizing existing programs. For example, it includes an increase in support for Vermont State Colleges ($800K), an additional transfer from the General fund to the Education Fund of $2.6M to help with property taxes, adds $1M to child care subsidies, and provides an additional $1.4M long-term to stabilize the Vermont Veteran’s Home. Other factors in spending growth are the increased number of children in the care of the Department of Children and Families (DCF) requiring an additional $1.8M, a net $71M increase in Medicaid caseload, and $13M for caseload increases in Choices for Care, Developmental Services and Public Safety. Finally, the budget makes investments for the future by increasing the Working Lands funding by almost $200K and providing $11.2M for the Weatherization program, both of which are job creation as well as environmental programs.

This budget addresses the problem of expenditures outpacing revenues that Vermont has been experiencing for the last several years since the budget growth is less than the projected revenues for FY17 by about 0.4%. Moreover, the Miscellaneous Tax bill identified new funding sources to help:
  • assessment of Rooms & Meals tax on private rentals of property, such as AirBNB;
  • an increase in the Bank Franchise tax on average monthly deposits exceeding $750M from 0.000096 to 0.000121; and
  • a 0.25% increase in the fuels Gross Receipts excise tax from 0.50% to 0.75%.

The increase in the Bank Franchise tax brings Vermont in line with other New England states. The increase in the gross receipts tax is dedicated to the Weatherization program, and at a fuel oil price of $2.00/gallon will cost the average homeowner using 700 gallons of fuel oil per year an extra $3.50/year.

No one likes to pay taxes. But taxes are necessary for government to function and provide those services we expect from government. Cutting services too much just leads to greater costs down the road. The Appropriations Committee took great pains to keep spending as efficient and limited to necessity as possible while fulfilling our obligation to protect our environment, to promote our economic growth, and to provide for the safety, health and general welfare of all Vermonters. These bills now go to the Senate for round two.

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

An Interview with VT Treasurer Beth Pearce

In an appearance on the Chittenden County Democrats Show, Vermont Treasurer Beth Pearce discussed the fiscal state of Vermont, the call for divestment of coal and ExxonMobil investments from the state's pension funds, and several programs being run by her office.  State Representative Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte) hosted the show which was recorded on Monday, April 4, 2016.  The Chittenden County Democrats Show is produced by CCTV Community Access Television, Channel 17, in Burlington, VT, as a live broadcast on the first Monday of each month at 5:25 PM.


Legislative Report 3/21/2016 - The Doyle Poll 2016

Once again the Doyle Poll proved to be popular at Town Meeting with 213 voters taking the time to fill out the survey. Here are the results for your consideration.




Not Sure

Should cities and towns have a voice in siting industrial energy projects in their communities?
Is it important for Vermont to encourage people and jobs to move to Vermont in light of the population loss?
Do you believe water quality is a major issue in Vermont?
Should Vermont legalize marijuana?
Are you concerned about the increased use of opiates in Vermont?
Should Vermont require paid sick leave?
Are you satisfied with Vermont's health care?
Are statewide cell service and broadband important to the future of Vermont’s economy?
Does Vermont have too many school districts relative to our declining student population?
Do you believe that Vermont's political campaigns are too costly?
Should Vermont have a 4 year term for governor?
Does Vermont rely too heavily on property taxes for funding education?
Should we reduce Vermont's prison population by using alternatives for non-violent offenders?
Is Vermont a business friendly state?

There were five questions that appeared in last year's survey (Q3. water quality, Q4. marijuana, Q5. opiates, Q8. cell service and Q9. school districts). The opinion favoring marijuana legalization fluctuated from 48% to 42% to the current 47% over the last three years, while the opinion against moved from 42% to 45% down to 34% indicating a significant shift to undecided. While still an overwhelming majority, a smaller percentage of respondents felt that broadband is important (84% last year). Water quality, concern about opiates and the opinion that Vermont has too many school districts remained nearly the same year-to-year.

Vermont's handling of the health care issue remains in a negative light as problems persist with the Vermont Health Connect system. The slow progress made in addressing the problem of the “change of circumstance” function has been less than satisfactory in the eyes of both the public and the Legislature which is continuing to monitor the situation and consider alternatives. Likewise, high property taxes as the major source of education funding continue to be a general concern.

The overwhelming consensus is that municipalities should have a greater say than they do now in siting renewable energy projects. A lot of work has been done by the Senate in their bill S.230, which has now been assigned to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. We have already begun to review the bill which has great potential to provide a path forward to make the siting process more transparent. It will give towns more influence as they develop local renewable energy plans in conjunction with Regional Planning Commissions, while continuing to move Vermont away from fossil fuels and toward a stronger renewable energy economy.

As your representative in Montpelier, I appreciate your input on these and other issues. Your comments help me look at issues from several perspectives, and that is a valuable opportunity for me. You can always contact me by phone at 802-425-3960 or email me at myantachka.dfa@gmail.com.

The Word in the House 3/14/2016 - Managing Our Forests

Vermont's forests are vital for humans and the ecosystem. They protect water, soil and air quality and provide rural jobs and a multitude of useful forest products, as well as flood protection. When European settlers first came to Vermont, the land was almost completely forested. Settlement led to clearing 80% of the forests until the 20th century when they began to grow back. As recently as 2011 Vermont's landscape was back to 80% forested, but latest measurements have shown a decline to 75%. Furthermore, significant parts of existing forests are becoming fragmented, that is, disconnected islands of forests which isolate or exclude wildlife.

Vermont's Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (FPR) has focused on developing policies to promote and protect forest health and maintain the value of Vermont's working forestlands. For the last month, my colleagues and I on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee have been working on several bills to achieve the objectives stated by FPR. Weeks of testimony from FPR, foresters, loggers, landowners, environmental organizations and our Legislative Council, have allowed us to craft legislation with unanimous committee support. As of this writing, two of the bills, H.857 and H.852, have won passage by the House and three others are being reviewed by other committees.*

H.857 allows FPR to collect timber harvest data and assist landowners with proper forestry practices and fair payment for harvested timber. It sets up a voluntary program that encourages landowners to notify FPR when a timber harvest will take place. Upon notification FPR can provide advice on the value of the timber as well as information on proper harvest management and best practices for logging operations to protect the landowner from substandard work. Proper harvesting can provide lasting value to the landowner by maintaining a healthy forest well into the future.

H.852 updates regulations and fees for maple sap collection on State lands. The current fee schedule is based on the quality of the syrup produced based on the obsolete grading system. H.852 simplifies the fee schedule by charging a per tap fee set by the Commissioner of FPR. The bill also exempts land acquired by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) from the land use change tax which is assessed when privately held land is taken out of "current use." Without this exemption, the state would be taxing itself. Finally, the bill sets up a study committee to develop recommendations for a statewide program to encourage succession planning by forestland owners. As the landowner population ages, we want to encourage keeping forestland intact well into the future through conservation incentives.

H.851 provides a right to conduct forestry just as there is a right to conduct agriculture in State law. It provides a list of specific forestry operations that are presumed not to create a public or private nuisance if the activity complies with the Accepted Management Practices for water quality on logging jobs as well as other applicable law such as the heavy cut law. It allows the operation to be contested by showing that it has a substantial adverse impact on health, safety or welfare, or significantly interferes with the use and enjoyment of neighboring properties. The bill also provides that municipalities cannot regulate forestry operations with certain exceptions related to land development.**

H.854, another landowner protection bill, relates to "timber trespass" or stealing timber. It clarifies the civil penalties for the unlawful removal of timber and makes it a crime for someone to knowingly and deliberately cut timber without the owner's permission. Under current law, such theft is considered a misdemeanor and is subject only to civil action brought by the landowner.

Finally, H.855 amends how town Forest Fire Wardens are appointed and updates their compensation from FPR, how towns are reimbursed by the State for the costs of forest fire suppression, and how permits are issued for open burning. Forest fires on land owned by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) will have all costs incurred by a town reimbursed at a rate determined by the Commissioner. Fires solely on town land will be reimbursed at the discretion of the Commissioner who is directed to establish a policy for reimbursement. Fires partially on town land and ANR land will be reimbursed proportionately.

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

*As of 3/18/16 all of these bills were passed by the House.
** H.851 was amended as recommended by the Judiciary Committee to remove all but the provision that municipalities cannot regulate forestry operations with certain exceptions related to land development. The Judiciary Committee wants to take a deeper look into the "rebuttable presumption" provision.