Seven Days VT (March, 2017): “Sisters Act: Siblings Kitty Toll and Jane Kitchel Hold Vermont’s Purse Strings”
Caledonian Record, January 2017
Local Sisters Make History: Kitchel, Toll To Head Senate, House Appropriations Committees
Sisters, Sen. Jane Kitchel and Rep. Kitty Toll, are making history this legislative term by each being named to chair their branch of the state government’s appropriations committees.
There have been other sibling legislators, and familial connections at the Vermont Statehouse, they point out, including when Gov. Madeline Kunin’s brother, then Sen. Edgar May, chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee under his sister’s leadership of the state.
But to their knowledge, they said, this is the first time two members of the same family have chaired the House and Senate committees where the money decisions are made.
The committee announcements were made official at the General Assembly on Friday.
Some at the capital have questioned having two sisters from the same town serve as chairs of the influential committees in the House and Senate, said Toll, but she and Kitchel stressed they are not committees of one; that they do not speak for one another; or tell one another what to say, or how to vote.
Still, they do talk a lot, on their commutes to and from Montpelier every day… and at big Sunday family dinners.
Talking politics around the dinner table is not new for these powerful women.
Their mother, aunt and grandmother all were politically minded, and conversations around the table connected the family to Montpelier and Washington. They drove home the lesson that public service and concern for all community members was a family ethic and responsibility.
It was often the women in the family who were politically engaged, they said.
“My grandmother used to read the Congressional Journal,” said Kitchel.
Their mother Catherine, who died in the fall of 2014 at the age of 93, served in the Vermont House of Representatives in the mid-1960s. She was the fiscal-minded one in the family, taking care of the bills, taxes, and helping other farms with their bookkeeping.
Kitchel became vice-chair of appropriations in her first Senate term – more than a decade ago. That, she said, is unusual.
She brought decades of service to the state, joining the Senate after retiring as secretary of the Agency of Human Services. That experience was the reason her fellow senators propelled her immediately to a leadership role. She also serves on the Senate Transportation Committee.
Toll was recently vice-chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The chair was previously held by Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, who was voted in as the Speaker of the House.
Kitchel said she wanted to be on appropriations because the committee reviews every piece of state government from an operational, fiscal and outcome perspective – both to ensure programs are serving Vermonters and that people are getting their money’s worth.
Members of both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees are responsible for poring over the myriad puzzle pieces that make up agencies and departments. They look at each piece to ensure it’s working and it still fits, or propose ways to improve problems, the sisters explained.
With the opening of the biennium this week, department heads and other public servants come before the committees to explain and justify every facet of their budgets.
Always, Kitchel stressed, “The question is: are the people getting the benefits they should?”
As the complex state budget tower is analyzed, it is up to the members of the appropriations committees to reconfigure things to see that the people’s best interests are served, said Kitchel.
Toll said she was pleased to be named to the House Appropriations Committee when she became a legislator, and had a good idea of what she was in for, thanks to Jane.
“Jane is very good at filling us in,” said Toll.
Much of the work done in appropriations – like the other legislative committees – goes unpublicized, Toll said. Unless there are cuts… or a program is being under-funded and then it often gets attention, said Toll.
Priorities in the last session included using one-time funds for expenses, working to deliver a budget which spends less than anticipated revenues, and which builds reserves, said Kitchel and Toll.
Federal Landscape Shift; 2017 Legislative Agenda
Both legislators said there are many questions about how the shifting political landscape in Washington, D.C. will affect Vermont. The state depends on federal aid for approximately a third of its budget – the fourth highest in the nation.
They are especially concerned about how federal health care policy may hit Vermonters. More than 30,000 Vermonters could see their health care directly impacted, said the legislators.
From children’s health to nursing home care, many people rely on the state and federal government programs for help, they said.
Going into the new session, the mental health care system is also a major concern, with the state having a lack of beds, said Kitchel.
Act 46, the state education law, also needs work. Its rollout has caused concern in the Northeast Kingdom, and more flexibility is needed to accommodate school choice in regions like this one, said Kitchel.
Another major issue going into the session will be how to bring economic development to rural regions of the state.
“We have to take a hard look at that,” said Kitchel. “The old economic base is eroding.”
Tourism and bringing people to enjoy the beauty of the region and its recreational opportunities, such as the mountain biking success of Kingdom Trails in East Burke, are models, they said.
“We’ve got some beautiful areas, and natural resources and a good work force,” said Kitchel.
Caledonian Record, October 2016
Rep. Kitty Toll: Committed to Sustainable Budgeting
It is an honor to serve the residents of Cabot, Danville and Peacham in the Vermont House of Representatives. As a local representative in Montpelier, it is my priority to listen to the thoughts and concerns of my constituents and to be responsive to those issues.
Over the past several months, I have stopped at over 1,500 homes and spoken with hundreds of residents to provide an update on Legislative activities and to have the opportunity to hear directly from individuals. Frustration and concern over the Presidential election, the impact of ACT 46 on small schools, increasing property taxes and the proposed “carbon” tax are the topics that have been most notably voiced.
My experience with the legislative process, my ability to work across party lines and my reputation of being fair and informed enables me to be a strong voice for our area. Last year I worked diligently to ensure modifications were made to ACT 46 that led to reducing penalties on towns and to shortening the period of time that these penalties were to be applied. I will continue to be a strong advocate for additional changes to this legislation that will provide more flexibility and options to our small, rural schools. The impact of declining school enrollment is particularly acute in the rural areas of Vermont which makes it even more important to recognize that a “one size fits all” approach does not make sense in all regions of the state. Declining enrollment is a trend that can be expected to continue; in 2015 the number of births statewide was 5,903, the lowest in over a century, compared to the 1970s when births averaged approximately 7,000 per year.
Property taxes, which provide the majority of funding for public education, continue to be a major concern for many Vermonters. These concerns persist in spite of Vermont being one of a few states that provides property tax relief to thousands of households with annual incomes below $137,500 by basing property tax payments on income rather the value of the homestead. ACT 46 was an effort to constrain the growth in school spending and to reduce pressure on the property tax. However, to date the evidence of cost containment is not convincing in the towns I represent.
The property tax is only one of several sources of revenue supporting our education system. Vermont schools also receive about 25% of all state revenues including all lottery profits, 35% of sales tax and 33.3% of the purchase and use tax. Unlike any other area of spending in the State Budget, school spending is the decision of local towns and not the Legislature. Local control over school budgets is very important to the majority of Vermonters. I often hear that property taxes should be lowered. To do this would either require substantially reducing existing school budgets or increasing other revenues paid for by Vermonters to support our schools – neither is particularly attractive to most voters. The challenge before us is to continue to thoughtfully adapt our education system to meet the demands of the 21st century while achieving excellent educational outcomes at a cost that is affordable.
I anticipate that a bill will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session to revise our tax base to replace some existing taxes with a carbon tax. Many proponents of this legislation acknowledge that for a single state to undertake such a tax would be extremely difficult to implement without significant economic impact. In our area of the state, it could move more business to New Hampshire and compound an already challenging economic environment. The tax impacts would be disproportionately felt by elderly and lower-income Vermonters. Global warming is a critical issue that must be addressed not only by Vermont but regionally and nationally in order to make a significant impact.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, comprised of both Democrats and Republicans, I am fully committed to continuing our committee’s work on sustainable budgeting and making decisions based on results. The budget bill is a “must pass bill” and encompasses all state spending. Vermont maintains a long history of passing a balanced budget and making the needed adjustments to keep the budget balanced without a Constitutional requirement to do so, unlike other states. The committee has been solid in its commitment to asking, “How much are we spending?” “Are Vermonters better off?” and “Is there a better way?” The Committee has also started the process of moving toward a 2-year budgeting cycle that would provide for better planning and would create savings in both time and money. The state budget is a thoughtful document balancing the needs of the state with available revenue. Many legislators protest that the budget does not provide enough investments, while others claim it provides too much. Creating a balance is difficult work and there will never be consensus on every line item which makes the budget a perpetual target for great criticism.
Legislators must be committed to working together, regardless of party, to get things done. A willingness to listen to others, to openly discuss ideas and concerns and to be prepared to compromise will create a faster and smoother path to solutions. I look forward to this work.
Rep. Kitty Toll, of Danville, is running for re-election in the Caledonia Washington Vermont House district. It is comprised of Cabot, Danville and Peacham.
Cabot Chronicle, October 2016
Campaign Finance Reports
All states require political candidates to report details regarding campaign contributions and expenditures. These reports, called campaign finance reports, list all funds used to support political candidates, political action committees (PACs) and political parties. Public disclosure through these reports are intended to provide transparency of a candidate’s campaign contributions and expenditures in order to ensure all activity follows state laws. In Vermont, all political candidates must register with the office of the Secretary of State and provide regular updates regarding financial activity to one’s campaign.
Campaign finance reports for 2016 legislative and statewide candidates, as well as for PACs and political parties were first due on March 15. Subsequent reports were due on July 15, August 15, September 1 and October 1. In the event of “no activity” a report must still be filed to ensure transparency. Prior to the General Election on Tuesday, November 8 additional campaign finance reports must be filed on October 15 and November 4. Two weeks after the election, on November 22, all candidates are required to submit an updated report. A final report is due on December 15. Also on December 15, PACs and political parties must file an End of Cycle Report.
Contributions to Vermont State Representative Candidates are limited to $1,000 per election cycle from a single source or PAC and contributions from political parties are unlimited. Contributions to State Senate and County Office Candidates are limited to $1,500 per election cycle from a single source or PAC and again unlimited for political parties. Statewide candidates may receive up to $4,000 per election cycle from a single source or PAC and unlimited contributions from political parties. Contributions to Political Committees (PACs) may receive up to $4,000 per election cycle from a single source or PAC and $4,000 per election cycle from a political party. Finally, contributions to political parties are limited to $10,000 per election cycle from a single source or PAC and $60,000 from a political party.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court rulings in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, states cannot limit how much an individual or group (such as a PAC) can spend if they are not directly related to a campaign. However most states, including Vermont, require these groups to report where the money is being spent. To access these reports as well as the reports filed by candidates and political parties visit the Vermont Secretary of State website at https://www.sec.state.vt.us/elections.aspx. Additionally, campaign finance law can be researched at this site as well as a accessing a Campaign Finance Guide.
Early voting for the November 8th General Election is available now through November 7. Just stop by your town clerk’s office and vote early or take your ballot with you. You can also contact your town clerk and request a ballot to be mailed to you. The last day one can register to vote in the General Election is November 2. Register at your Town Clerk’s office or on-line at https://olvr.sec.state.vt.us/
It was a pleasure to participate in Cabot Connects ‘Ride the Ridges’ fundraiser to support Cabot’s Youth Mentoring Program. Congratulations and thank you to the organizers and the riders! It is an honor to represent our communities at the State House. I always appreciate hearing from you and look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.
PO Box 192 Danville, VT 05828
Cabot Chronicle, September 2016
Vermont Voter Registration
Vermont has passed a number of measures that makes voter registration more accessible to eligible Vermont citizens. In today’s world work schedules, family commitments, travel and access to transportation are often barriers to becoming a registered voter and to voting. This year, the legislature passed H.458, a bill that automatically registers eligible Vermonters to vote when applying for a state driver’s license. Vermont is now the fourth state with such a law. Passed with virtually unanimous support, the law will streamline voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) with a system that identifies eligible Vermonters and automatically sends their information to the town or city clerk for addition to the checklist. This law also enables license applicants to “opt-out” of voter registration. It is estimated that automatic voter registration could add between 30,000 and 50,000 new voters within the first four years of implementation. As of July 31, there are 449,772 registered Vermont voters.
Last year Vermont became the 14th state to allow same-day voter registration. This law expands access to voting by enabling Vermonters to register to vote on the same day of the election. This law goes into effect for the 2018 Election Cycle.
Additionally, Secretary of State Jim Condos has launched a new on-line voter registration system that enables voters to update personal information and to conveniently register to vote. To register to vote on-line visit: olvr.sec.state.vt.us. I encourage all who are eligible and are not registered to vote to take advantage of these new initiatives or to register in person at your local town clerk’s office. Early voting for the November 8th General Election begins September 23 and runs through November 7 at your town clerk’s office. Just stop by your clerk’s office and vote early or take your ballot with you.You can also contact your town clerk and request a ballot to be mailed to you. The last day one can register to vote in the General Election is November 2. Election Day is Tuesday, November 8.
It is an honor to represent our communities at the State House. I always appreciate hearing from you and look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.
PO Box 192 Danville, VT 05828
Cabot Chronicle, August 2016
Transparency in Prescription Drug Pricing
Prescription drug costs have increased significantly in recent years. A decade ago prescription drug inflation rates grew approximately 5% – 6% annually and in recent years that inflation rate has increased to 11% – 12% annually. Data illustrates that four of the top-10 selling prescription drugs have more than doubled in price since 2011. The remaining six top-10 selling prescription drugs have seen price increases between 54% and 96%. The Department of Vermont Health Access (DVHA) reported a 19% increase in spending on prescription drugs in fiscal year 2015.
S.216 – An Act Relating to Prescriptions Drugs, passed by the Vermont Legislature and signed into law by the Governor demands more transparency regarding the pricing of prescription drugs. The Green Mountain Care Board, in consultation with the Department of Vermont Health Access, is directed to annually identify up to 15 prescription drugs for which the price has increased more than 50% over five years or 15% in the prior 12 months. The Attorney General’s office will require the manufacturer to disclose all factors that contributed to the price increases, including the percentage each factor contributed to this increase.
The information collected by the Attorney General’s office will be provided to the legislature and published on the Attorney General’s website. The Attorney General may bring civil action against any manufacturer that fails to provide information. S. 216 passed the House on a unanimous vote. Several other states have introduced similar legislation, however Vermont is the first state to pass a prescription drug pricing transparency law.
To research actions of the legislature visit www.leg.state.vt.us or contact me for information. I can be reached at:
PO Box 192 Danville, VT 05828
Cabot Chronicle, July 2016
Response to the Governor’s Veto of S.230
During the 2016 Legislative session, a priority for many members of the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate was to pass an energy bill giving Vermont towns more say in the siting of renewable energy projects. The Senate and House both passed S.230 –An Act Related to the Improving the Siting of Energy Projects and as originally presented by the Senate and House Energy Committees passed the Senate on a roll call vote of 23-3 and passed on a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives. Due to amendments made to the bill when it was acted on in the House, a Committee of Conference comprised of members from both the House and Senate, was appointed to reconcile the differences. The final version of the bill included critical language allowing communities with approved town plans be given “substantial deference” before the Public Service Board in the permitting process of renewable energy projects – including scope and location and would provide funding to Regional Planning Commissions to support the development of these plans. Also included were steps for the Public Service Board (PSB) to develop rules regarding sound from wind generation. This provision was of particular interest to many Vermonters. Additional provisions in the bill included:
- Creating a one-year pilot within the Standard Offer program to site renewable energy projects in locations such as rooftops, brownfields, closed landfills, gravel pits, and town designated areas;
- Developing rules to address the ongoing maintenance of plantings used to screen energy facilities;
- Planning for the decommissioning of energy facilities;
- Enhancing notice provisions to neighboring towns and regions when applications for new energy generation facilities are initiated;
- Requiring radar-controlled lights on new wind generation facility with four or more turbines to minimize visual impact at night;
- Simplifying the permitting process for group net metered systems that are majority-owned by customers;
- Creating a working group to develop increased citizen participation in energy permitting proceedings.
In June, the Governor vetoed S.230 identifying four areas of concern. The first concern was associated with the use of the Emergency Rule-making Process. This process was intended to provide a expedited development of rules related to sound standards until the PSB could develop and adopt final rules. The Governor had been advised that this process would deem there was an imminent threat to public health or safety and it was not the intent of this bill to make such a statement. To correct this section of the bill, the rule-making process would be disconnected from the emergency standard.
Secondly, the legislation states that during the temporary rule-making process the PSB was limited to approving projects with sound levels no greater than the lowest maximum decibel level in a currently issued Certificate of Public Good (CPG). Conference Committee members were not aware of an approved project in Vergennes with a sound level 10 decibels below ambient sound. To address this issue a correction was needed to create two classes of sound levels for wind.
The third concern was associated with the requirement that any CPG for a renewable generation facility must be recorded as part of the deed and land record within 45 days of the issuance of the CPG. This provision, possibly creating burden and expense for residential homeowners, was added during the Committee of Conference process and was not in any of the original bills that the House voted on.
Finally, the $300,000 in planning funding critical to assisting with the development of regional and town plans, required to grant them “substantial deference” before the PSB in its consideration of a project application, was inadvertently omitted in the drafting of the final bill. This funding was essential in order for many Regional Planning Commissions to complete regional plans as well as having the ability to provide assistance to communities developing town plans.
On June 9, the Legislature went back into session for one day to consider the Governor’s veto. Members could sustain the Governor’s veto, override the Governor’s veto or introduce a new bill for consideration. The Senate introduced and passed S.260, a new bill that added only clarifying language to what was in S.230 and was subsequently passed by the House with no change. This language addressed the four areas of concerns identified by the Governor. First, a statement was added to make it clear that the use of emergency rule-making was solely for the purpose of using an existing procedure to adopt temporary rules in a short time frame and that the imminent peril to public health, safety or welfare did not apply. Second, additional language to specifically create two categories of wind generation facilities, 500 kilowatts or less and greater than 500 kilowatts, was added. Third, language was added to specify that only a facility with a capacity greater than 15 kilowatts would be subject to the deed and land recording requirement and finally, $300,000 in funding to support the development of town and regional plans was included.
The Senate was still required to vote on the veto of S.230. This vote, which was taken after the passage of S. 260 by the Senate and House, was to sustain the Governor’s veto because the bill had been replaced by earlier action. The Governor signed S.260 into law on June 13. To read the bill in full visit: http://legislature.vermont.gov/bill/status/2016/S.260.
Cabot Chronicle, May 2016
The final days of the 2016 Legislative session are rapidly approaching. The Speaker of the House has estimated Saturday, May 7 as the latest possible date for adjournment. It is difficult at this time to provide a complete update on bills because many of the major pieces of legislation are still being debated and negotiated. As of this writing, the Senate Appropriations Committee and Senate Finance Committee are continuing their work on the state budget and the revenue plan. Once these two bills are passed out of the Senate, the House will consider the proposed changes. It is most likely these two major pieces of legislation will be settled in a Committee of Conference; it is the responsibility of the Committee of Conference, made up of members from both the Senate and the House, to discuss differences, find agreement, and recommend a bill to the House and Senate for passage.
The House Education Committee and the Committee on House Ways and Means worked together to present recommendations regarding the statewide education tax rates and other education finance and tax measures. As passed by the House H.853 and now being considered in the Senate the bill includes the following:
- Sets nonresidential property tax rate at $1.53 (down .005 over last year) and the average statewide homestead property tax rate at $1.52 (up .002 over last year).
- Maintains the current excess spending threshold at 121% of the state wide average. In 2020 the excess spending threshold will be lowered to 119%.
- Creates a process to address “unfunded Mandates” making future legislative decisions to become the state’s fiscal responsibility.
- Convenes a study group to examine the viability of moving merged districts to an aggregate common level of appraisal (CLA).
- Requires the Joint Fiscal Office to provide an Education Fund Outlook at least twice a year to the Emergency Board.
- Requires the Joint Fiscal Office to analyze and report on two different proposed changes to education tax calculations. One is for the purpose of moving the state to an income tax based system and the second focuses on cost containment using a base spending amount.
- Requires the Agency of Education to recommend a process to examine how “equalized per pupil” are counted – the process for determining student count and the homestead tax rate.
H.859 – and act relating to special education creates a pilot for 10 school districts to develop innovative special education work leading to better results at reduced costs. Districts that are chosen to participate through an application process will receive a 50% match. The bill tasks the University of Vermont with studying and recommending changes to special education funding. This bill is under consideration in the Senate Education Committee.
H.865 – a bill to promote the development of workforce housing for middle income Vermonters passed the house and is now being considered by the Senate. The bill creates a pilot program to develop housing for working families. Two workforce housing projects would be developed, each comprising of 12 independent dwelling units; one located in an area with a population of 10,000 or less and the other in a municipality whose population exceeds 10,000. The bill also extends a first-time home buyer down payment assistance program, first passed in 2015 and proven to be very successful in enabling more citizens to become homeowners in Vermont. These loans are repaid when the main mortgage is refinanced or the home is sold. The average age of these new homeowners is 31 and homes thus far have been purchased in 11 of Vermont’s 14 counties, including Caledonia County and Washington County. To learn more visit: www.vhfa.org.
Cabot Chronicle, April 2016
Several large bills will be debated by legislators in late March and early April including the 2017 budget bill, the revenue bill to support state appropriations and a fee bill which aligns fees to the actual cost of the services provided. Below are some highlights, but a full report on the outcome of these bills will be included in the May edition of The Cabot Chronicle.
On March 21, the House Appropriations Committee passed out the fiscal year 2017 budget. This year’s budget addressed a $23 million gap between state expenses and revenues. Revenue growth continues to be out paced by expenditures. This trend is expected to continue into future years. A priority of the House Appropriations Committee is to create structural sustainability of the state’s finances. The 2017 budget bill uses no “one-time” money for on-going expenses. The committee continues to scrutinize all new expenses to determine the impact of costs into future years. Additionally, on-going state expenditures have been fully reviewed by House Appropriations and also by House policy committees. Moreover, all legislators have been asked to carefully study and prioritize state spending. Medicaid, salaries and benefits, education costs and reduced federal dollars continue to create significant pressure on the state budget. In February, to ensure a transparent budgeting process, five public hearings were held across the state as well as three hearings at the State House to hear concerns and requests from Vermonters. Furthermore, all legislators had the opportunity to testify in House Appropriations to outline budget concerns and requests, provide solutions to pressures and to present viable budget alternatives.
Highlights of the 2017 budget bill as passed includes increased funding to the judicial system and funding for additional DCF caseworkers to support child well-being and safety initiatives; increased rates to designated agencies providing critical services to Vermonters statewide; funding for anticipated contractual obligations for state employees; increased base funding to the Vermont State Colleges to provide scholarships to Vermont students; continued funding for the Veteran’s Home; and additional funding for child care caseload increases. Importantly, the Appropriations Committee proposed to return over $1.2 million to the Ways and Means committee to reduce the committee’s tax proposal.
Highlights of the House Ways and Means Committee proposal to fund the state budget include aligning the registration fee for Mutual Fund providers with neighboring states; making an adjustment to the employer assessment for businesses with over 20 employees that offer no health insurance; subjecting room rental entities, like Air BnB, to existing rooms and meals taxes to be consistent with the tax placed on similar Vermont businesses; and adjusting the gross receipts tax to support the weatherization program.
H.458, an act relating to automatic voter registration through motor vehicle driver’s license applications, passed the House in March on a vote of 137 – 0. The purpose of this bill is to make voter registration an easier process for eligible Vermonters. California and Oregon have passed similar bills and have experienced significant increases to the number of registered voters. Additionally, this year the Secretary of State rolled out online voter registration. To change your address or register to vote, visit https://olvr.sec.state.vt.us. Vermonters who are seventeen years old and turning eighteen before a General Election, are eligible to vote in primary elections. Vermont’s Primary Election date is August 9th and the date of the General Election is November 8th.
For additional information on any bill or actions in the House or Senate or standing committees please visit www.leg.state.vt.us. These are live pages and are updated regularly. Please contact me directly with your questions and concerns. As always, it is an honor to represent our communities at the State House.
Cabot Chronicle, February 2016
The 2016 Legislative session is off to a fast start. Topping the list of priorities for many Legislators are changes to Act 46 – the Education Governance Bill – passed last session. Discussions throughout the state addressing consolidation of school governance, strategies to create efficiencies, ideas to reduce costs and plans to increase educational opportunities have been thoughtful and encouraging. However, the established threshold spending provision based on equalized per pupil spending, commonly referred to as “caps”, has created burdensome pressure on many school budgets. Cabot, Walden, Peacham and Danville are all feeling the impact of harsh penalties due to spending above designated thresholds. Early in the session the House Education Committee voted 11-0 to increase the statewide threshold spending 0.9% to help struggling districts find relief, while the Senate Education Committee voted to completely repeal the threshold spending provision. To complicate matters, in mid-January the Agency of Education and the Education Committees discovered they had different interpretations of the language in Act 46 that determined districts’ threshold spending. It is my hope that legislators will vote to repeal the caps, not only because of continued deep confusion, but also due to the fact that the caps appear to unfairly penalize Vermont’s small schools. There are instances where districts with a high equalized per pupil spending rate are not incurring a penalty, but Walden for example, if Act 46 remains unchanged, with one of the lowest equalized per pupil spending in the state, will be hit with a substantial tax penalty. Knowing that the calculation does not affect every school the same way brings into question the fairness of the penalty. I am actively working to make a change in this legislation prior to town meeting. I will support a bill that addresses education quality and develops a fair and affordable method of paying for our state’s educational system.
In his final State of the State address, the Governor outlined an ambitious agenda to accomplish before the fall of the gavel in the spring. Governor Shumlin highlighted a myriad of problems our state continues to face due to drug addiction. Vermont towns are experiencing more criminal activity including more violent crimes, our court system is stressed and families are in crisis. The Governor has asked for additional DCF employees to be hired to reduce the number of families per caseworker to 16. At present, the average number of families per caseworker is 17 and some have been assigned up to 20 families. The recommended number is 12 families per caseworker. Vermont is experiencing more than ever children in state custody under the age of 6. This pressure is directly related to increased drug usage. Additionally in his address, the Governor stated his position on the legalization of marijuana – one he supports if legislation keeps marijuana out of the hands of children, rids the black market and eliminates drug dealers, assigns revenue to addiction prevention efforts, strengthens law enforcement’s ability to respond to impaired drivers and bans the sale of all edible products. He also highlighted good news in the business sector including existing businesses with plans to expand and the relocation of businesses to Vermont including one in St. Johnsbury that will create 75 new jobs.
On January 21, the Governor presented the 2017 Vermont State Budget to a joint session of the House and Senate. The House Appropriations Committee began its work immediately following the budget address. Complete details of the Governor’s proposed budget as well as other important legislation being considered will be outlined in my annual Town Meeting Day Report. The session promises to be full of challenges and I am committed to working hard to find solutions. To follow actions of the legislature or research the status of a bill visit www.leg.state.vt.us. Each legislative committee has an online information page. This tool enables Vermonters to follow the work of the legislature and key in on issues of interest. These are live pages and are updated regularly. Please contact me directly with your questions, concerns and comments. It is an honor to represent our communities at the State House and I always appreciate hearing from you.
Cabot Chronicle, January 2016
The 2016 Legislative session will begin on Tuesday, January 5. Priorities that will top the list for the for the new year include ensuring the safety of Vermont’s children, balancing the 2017 budget, considering possible revisions to Act 46 – last year’s education governance bill, determining the security needs of state buildings, and continuing work on the serious drug epidemic that is significantly impacting our state.
The House Appropriations Committee met in mid-December to begin work on making needed adjustments to the 2016 budget in order to keep expenses in line with revenues. Increased Medicaid utilization and caseload as well as the costs of new drugs and changing federal reimbursements rates are creating pressure on the current year budget. Additionally, the Governor has proposed within the Budget Adjustment Bill adding 35 positions to the Department of Children and Families to support growing caseloads. When the Legislature reconvenes policy committees will provide feedback on the Governor’s recommendations and House Appropriations will pass a budget adjustment bill out of committee to be brought to the floor of the House for full consideration.
Once the budget adjustment bill has been passed, and the Governor has given his budget addressed scheduled for Thursday, January 21, the House Appropriations Committee will begin its work on the fiscal year 2017 budget. This budgeting cycle will prove to be as challenging as others in recent years. Revenues continue to be outpaced by projected expenditures and very difficult choices will have to be made in order to pass a responsibly constructed, balanced budget. Programs and policies will be carefully reviewed and priorities will have to be determined. It is critical that Vermonters’ tax dollars are spent wisely. Legislators will continue to ask key questions to ensure prudent expenditures are made. Data will be thoroughly studied to support spending.
Many school districts have expressed serious concern regarding the spending caps and associated penalties established last year in Act 46 and are finding it more than challenging to craft budgets that fall under designated caps. Expenses that cannot be controlled by districts, such as negotiated salaries and benefits – including rising insurance costs – and unforeseen special education expenses, are creating pressure on budgets. The House Education Committee met in December to hear testimony on the challenges and successes of Act 46 and the committee will use the information heard to determine what changes, if any, will be recommended to the Legislature.
Following the tragic murder of DCF employee Laura Sobel, securing state buildings to ensure safety will be a priority of the legislature. Some measures have already been taken, such as moving some workers to a new location and adding safer entry measures, but a more comprehensive statewide plan will be discussed and developed.
The opioid crisis has continued to plague Vermont long after the Governor highlighted the problem in his 2014 State of the State address. This epidemic is being experienced across the entire country and is challenging law makers and public safety officials in every state. Even with the expansion of methadone and buprenorphine treatment capabilities in Vermont, the number of addicts and the availability of dangerous drugs continue to negatively impact our communities. Combating drug abuse is a priority in Vermont and legislators will continue to address this serious problem in the upcoming session. The Governor recently announced a new pilot program to be implemented in the Vermont Corrections system. The drug, Naltrexone, which blocks the receptors that enable an individual to feel a high from opioids or alcohol, will be another tool to help recovering addicts. Unlike methadone or buprenorphine, both opiate based and taken daily, Naltrexone is not an opiate and is administered by a monthly injection.
I would like to thank the organizers and those who came out to the public forum at the Willey Building in November to ask questions, express concerns and offer opinions regarding state policies, programs and upcoming issues facing the Legislature. We live in a small state where individual voices are valued and heard. I truly appreciated the opportunity to hear from you. If you were unable to attend and would like to share your thoughts, I can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 684.3671. To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website: www.leg.state.vt.us
Wishing all a Happy and Healthy New Year!