2015 Legislative Town Meeting Report

It’s hard to believe it’s already Town Meeting Week. Here’s an update of some of the legislation being considered and what we are working on. This legislative session we have some major challenges, but also some exciting opportunities to help working families. It is truly an honor for us to represent you at the State House. Below is a collection of updates on bills or issues. Please contact with me with any questions or feedback you have! Thank you!

State Budget
Five days after the Legislature received the Governor’s budget, which addressed a $94 million budget gap, a revenue downgrade of $18 million was announced. This means we now have a $112 million gap between our revenues and our expenditures – making a tough budget year, a lot tougher. Our expenditures are rising at 5% and our revenues at 3%. We refer to this gap as the alligator mouth – and, it is unsustainable. We are not opposed to certain cuts in the budget, we have actually suggested a few. However, as difficult a challenge as it is, we feel strongly that we must fight for no cuts in the successful, effective programs that address the great income disparity in our economy: food, housing, income and health care.

We believe we should be closing the budget gap with revenues raised from wealthy tax payer’s income tax. Wealthy Vermonters presently pay less than they did when Ronald Reagan left office. This travesty can be corrected, at least at the state level, and we will try to do that.

Cleaning Up our Lakes and Rivers
This year, a comprehensive and far-reaching water quality bill is making its way through the House. We believe the bill, H. 35, develops a clean up plan for Lake Champlain in particular but also for the rest of the State. We believe that it will satisfy the U.S. EPA and also effectively reduce phosphorous in our waters. Phosphorous comes from our farms, dirt roads, brooks and rivers during floods, and impervious surfaces (buildings, paved highways and streets, and parking lots). We are committed to putting a clean-up plan in place with financing this year.

Gun Safety
Last March, the City of Burlington passed three charter changes relating to gun safety. These proposals require safe storage of guns, ban guns from places that serve alcohol, and give law enforcement the authority to remove a gun in a domestic violence situation. This year the charter changes have been introduced as three separate bills. We support these changes and spoke in support of them at the State House.

Some suggest instead of the charter changes there should be a statewide reform.In the Senate, S.31, is an example of that approach. The bill has three main provisions. The first makes it a crime in Vermont for a person convicted of a violent crime to possess a firearm. This is currently federal law, but not state. Adopting this at the state level would allow prosecution by a States Attorney in the Vermont court system. The second provision requires better reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Persons who are judged (in a court of law) to be a danger to themselves or others, were found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity, were declared incompetent to stand trial due to a mental illness, or are found to be a danger to themselves or others would be included in the reporting requirements. Lastly, the third provision requires a background check to be conducted on a buyer of a firearm before it could be sold to that person

Homelessness in Vermont
Due to a whole host of circumstances — a massive decline in Section 8 housing vouchers, the long stretch of extremely cold weather, and our extremely low vacancy rate of affordable housing across the state and especially in Burlington – we
are seeing a continued use of General Assistance emergency housing funds for individuals and families experiencing homelessness this winter. Eight months into the budget year, funds used for this purpose are being used at a higher rate than
last year. We are working to alleviate this emergency by creating 50 new beds in warming shelters opening across the state, including 20 in Burlington. This modest increase will help bend the curve on the use of these emergency funds, and will allow us to focus more clearly on providing more long-term housing solutions for this most vulnerable population.

Renewable Energy Portfolio for Electric Utilities
Under the bill that passed it’s first vote on the House Floor on Friday, H-40, Vermont will finally join the ranks of states that require electric utilities to purchase a certain amount of their power from renewable sources. This can include power from Hydro- Quebec which is renewable power but is so big that much of the mandate can be satisfied by it, which dampens the RPS effectiveness encouraging in-state, small- scale renewables.

Perhaps more importantly, the bill also requires utilities to run efficiency programs like those of Efficiency Vermont and Vermont Gas Systems.

Tax Exemptions
Each year the legislature reviews credits, exemptions, deductions and other ways the tax code gives favorable treatment to certain taxpayers. The uncollected tax revenue is being referred to in the media as the “shadow budget,” but it is really more a form of spending through the tax code. We have spent the last few years working to make these tax expenditures more transparent, identifying the purpose of each and estimating the fiscal impact of each tax expenditure.

While it may seem simple to eliminate some of these exemptions, many tax expenditures are directed at achieving values that we share, such as exempting food from the sales tax and helping low income families with the child care tax credit or the Earned Income Tax Credit. Unlike other states, Vermont has been relatively cautious about tax incentives for economic development.

The Governor has proposed removing the deductibility of a prior year’s state income tax to generate $14.5 million. This is similar to a proposal to cap itemized deductions, which failed in the Legislature two years ago. Also being considered are proposals eliminating certain sales tax exemptions, such as those for candy and soda. Again, we will scrutinize all of these proposals with our values and the present taxing disparity guiding us.

Education Reform
House Education unanimously passed a bill (H.361) to reform education funding, spending and governance. The proposal will improve education quality, promote stability and sustainability, and provide greater equity in student opportunity. The bill maintains a community-supported education system; asserts our deep commitment to public education; and makes our structure more affordable by realizing greater economies of scale. Elements of the bill include:

-Creating Larger Education Districts. Districts will be required to merge with neighboring districts and share responsibility for pre-k to grade 12 for all students. The State Board of Education may approve alternate configurations– so long as the proposal advances specific goals like equitable educational opportunities; stable leadership; the flexible and efficient use of resources; increased student-to-adult ratios; budgetary stability and less volatility for taxpayers; and community engagement. Each integrated education system would have a minimum average daily membership of 1,100, unless granted a waiver.

-Temporarily Cap Local Spending Increases. Districts will not be permitted to increase spending more than 2% until 2019.

-Restructure Grants to Small Schools. Amends current small school grants beginning in FY2020 by limiting grants to districts: with an average grade size of 20 or fewer students, that participated in a merger study committee, and that the State Board of Education determines to be eligible annually due to the school’s high student-to-staff ratios, lengthy driving times or inhospitable routes to the nearest school(s) with excess capacity, and success in meeting educational quality standards.

-Require Explicit Ballot Language. School budget warnings and ballots will include specific disclosure of per pupil spending, percent change, and overall budget amount.

-Moratorium on Spending: Imposes a moratorium through 2016 on any new legislation that would increase property taxes.

-Hold Harmless Provision: Lessens the fiscal protection from rapidly declining enrollment by shortening the permissible period of artificial student count.

-Limit Out-of-State Tuition Payments: Except for payments to out-of-state schools that fall into a small category of exceptions (including location in a community bordering Vermont), public tuition will not be paid to schools that aren’t located in Vermont.

-Universal, Integrated Accounting and Data System. Require the Agency of Education to fully implement an integrated system to maintain financial reporting and accounting data and longitudinal student data that are designed to measure and to compare student outcomes, financial costs, and the quality and variety of educational opportunities.

-Reform Collective Bargaining Process. Creates study to eliminate the power of boards to impose contracts and the power of teachers to strike in favor of an alternate dispute resolution process.

-Restructure Special Education Funding: Requires the Secretary of Education to propose alternative methods of delivery and payment for special education services.

-Seeks to Eliminate the “Lag” in Income-based Calculations and Payment (a.k.a. the “Look Back”). Asks the Commissioner of Taxes to recommend changes so that income adjustments will be calculated on taxpayer’s current year house value, tax rate, and household income.

-Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee: Creates a Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee consisting of three members from the House and three from the Senate, to monitor, evaluate, research, oversee, and provide a continuing review of matters concerning education policy, education funding, and student outcomes and the intersections of each with corrections, economic development, health care, and human services issues.

-Health Care Costs Work Group: Convenes a working group to consider alternatives available to school districts, supervisory unions, and their employees to address the high cost of health care. The working group is required to consider the possibility of transitioning to plans offered through Vermont Health Connect (the Exchange) by 2018.

-Propose 2016 Property Tax Rates: Establish the fiscal year 2016 property tax rates at $1.535 (non-residential) and $1.00 (homestead), the base income amount of 1.94 percent, and base education amount at $9,459.00.

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