Town Meeting Report
Representative Kitty Toll
Cabot – Danville – Peacham
It is an honor and a pleasure to serve as your Representative in Montpelier. We are mid-way through the session and included are highlights of legislation that have passed or are being considered.
Amending Act 46 was a priority for legislators returning to Montpelier. The aim of the original bill was to reform education governance, control spending, and to ensure education quality, and equity. Many school districts embraced the provisions in Act 46 as a welcomed move to improving our statewide education system, but this was not the case for all districts. Our area schools – Cabot, Danville, Peacham and Walden – had just started exploring cost-saving measures and future educational models, when they were soon side tracked by the severe spending growth penalties that became clear as budgets developed. Urged by the Governor, Lt Governor, the Speaker, and most importantly local communities, the Legislature was tasked with addressing the penalties by amending Act 46.
An “allowable growth threshold” or “cap” was assigned to each school district to consider as they built their budget. Based on the prior year’s budget, each district worked to stay at or under their threshold in order to avoid a penalty. A district spending above its designated “cap” would have incurred double taxation for every dollar spent over the cap. This penalty was in direct response to Vermonters’ concerns with increasing property taxes. The state’s pre-k through grade 8 educational system is supported by over $1.6 billion through the collection of property taxes, as well as 35% of all sales taxes collected in the state, 33% of purchase and use taxes, all the profits from the Vermont lottery and an annual transfer from the state general fund to the education fund.
In theory this may have seemed like an effective way to slow the growth of property taxes, but the factors making up a district’s prior year spending did not create a level playing field across the state. Hefty penalties were a certainty for some of Vermont’s leanest and lowest spending schools while other schools experienced no penalty and realized equalized per pupil spending above $18,000.
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.
Immediately upon returning to Montpelier, the House and Senate Education Committees heard from school superintendents and school boards from across the state and began its work to make critical adjustments to Act 46.
The House and Senate agreed to the following changes:
- Exempts districts from penalties that were at or below the statewide equalized per pupil spending in fiscal year 2016.
- Imposes a 40% penalty to replace the dollar for dollar for penalty originally passed in Act 46.
- Allows budgets calculations to be based on either the Agency of Education or the Legislative Education Committees interpretations of factors to determine allowable growth thresholds.
- Increases the allowable growth threshold for every district by 0.9%.
- Repeals the allowable growth thresholds for fiscal year 2018.
The House Education Committee has now turned its attention to two policy areas: addressing the cost and delivery of special education and technical education.
Vermonters, including legislators, continue to be frustrated and disappointed by the functionality of Vermont Health Connect. Despite concerted efforts to improve technology and timely response rates, VHC is still failing to meet expectations. Modest improvements continue to be made:
- Change of Circumstance (CoC) requests are being processed in ever increasing numbers.
- The most pressing technological issues are being addressed and remediated.
- Customer service is improving.
The Legislature is exploring alternatives to VHC. Moving to the Federal Exchange does not necessarily solve all problems with VHC. That option presents additional cost and service challenges.
ONLINE VOTER REGISTRATION
This year the Secretary of State rolled out online voter registration. To change your address or register to vote, simply 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. Please remember to vote in the August 9th Primary Election and the November 8th General Election.
Last year the Legislature passed a robust Economic Development Bill that included a first-time homebuyer down payment assistance program. In the first six months of the program, 72 Vermonters were provided up to $5,000 in the form of a 0% interest rate loan from the Vermont Housing Finance Agency. These loans will be repaid when the main mortgage is refinanced or the home is sold. The average age of these new homeowners is 31. Homes were purchased in 11 of our 14 counties, including Caledonia County and Washington County. This program has proven to be successful by enabling more citizens to become homeowners in Vermont. To learn more visit: www.vhfa.org.
H.584 – a bill focusing on timber harvesting, forestry and state lands, with a few identified controversial issues, has been divided into 5 separate bills by the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Each bill will be acted on independently. The first bill focuses on the ever-present problem of timber trespass and the unlawful cutting of trees. This section has heard favorable testimony due to the addition of increased penalties to those who have violated the law and it provides better recourse to the aggrieved landowners. The second bill includes three components to support and protect good forestry in Vermont. It establishes the right of Vermont landowners to conduct forestry operations, establishes that lawful forestry operations are not subject to nuisance lawsuits, and clarifies existing limitations on municipal bylaws to include protection for the processing of wood cut on private lands. The third bill modernizes longstanding statutes relating to forest fire wardens by reflecting prior changes made to air quality regulations, increasing fire warden pay, and clarifies how towns are reimbursed for costs of suppressing forest fires. The fourth bill changes license fees for maple tapping on state lands. The fee will be 75 cents per tap replacing an outdated formula based on maple grades. This bill was agreed to by current licensees. The final bill called for harvest notification and trip tickets. This piece attracted some controversy. The committee heard concerns as well as support and have amended the bill to eliminate the “trip ticket” issue. Harvest notification is likely to become a pilot project and not mandatory.
How much does our state government do? How well is it done? Who is better off because of a given investment? These three questions are the drivers behind a growing effort to make government more effective, more responsive to Vermonters’ current needs, and to account for responsible spending for Vermonters’ tax dollars. Every department is now engaging in Results Based Accountability (RBA) work to track the effectiveness of their work. Committees in the House are evaluating departments’ existing programs and associated outcomes in a much deeper way than ever before. Policy committees are then prioritizing programs so that the budget committee can allocate resources to the most needed and effective policies and programs. This process is yielding productive conversations and good initial results. The goal is to improve program quality and efficiency as well as prioritize programs for investment so that our budget can truly reflect what our state needs most. While this work does not attract attention, it is the backbone of legislators’ jobs to make government work more efficiently and effectively for Vermonters.
EARNED SICK LEAVE
A much debated bill, H.187, providing earned absence from work has passed the House and the Senate. To read the bill in its entirety visit http://legislature.vermont.gov. Highlights of the provisions in the bill include:
- Two year phase-in period with a maximum of 3 earned days per year.
- Following the phase-in, employees can earn a maximum of 5 earned days per year.
- Employers may require a 1 year or 2080 hours waiting period for new hires, whichever comes first.
- Temporary or Seasonal Workers (20 weeks) are excluded.
- Part-time Workers (fewer than 18 hours/week) are excluded.
- New Businesses have a 1-year grace period from the start of the first hire.
- Employers with 5 or fewer employees of no less than 30 hours/week are exempt until January 1, 2018.
- All employers currently offering equal or greater paid time, combined time, sick paid time or any type of paid leave would be unaffected and can determine increments as to how time is used.
- The Department of Labor and the Agency of Commerce and Community Development will conduct a survey on the impact of this bill on Vermont employers with five or fewer employees and report back to the Legislature. Since this benefit becomes effective in 2018, the Legislature can make needed adjustments in 2017.
LEGALIZATION OF MARIJUANA
Last week the Senate passed a bill to legalize marijuana by a narrow margin, 16 – 13. The House has yet to take up this issue. Provisions in the bill include:
- Adults 21 years of age and older would be able to purchase up to 1oz of Marijuana.
- Civil and criminal penalties remain for possession of marijuana by a person under 21 years of age, and for furnishing or selling marijuana to a person under 21 years of age.
- Marijuana would be available at 20-40 retail outlets around the state and grown by 10-20 licensed growers.
- Individuals would not be able to grow their own marijuana without a license. This would remain a criminal offense, as it is under current law, as would possessing over an ounce of marijuana.
- Selling marijuana without a license would also remain a criminal offense.
- Consuming marijuana in public is prohibited. Violators subject to a civil ticket.
- Employers and landlords are not required to accommodate marijuana possession or use and the act does not make any changes to employment law or landlord-tenant law.
- Unlicensed chemical extraction to produce marijuana concentrate will be prohibited and violators subject to criminal penalties.
- The state would tax sales at 25%, collecting $20M in revenue each year.