By Angelo Lynn
It wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day, this Legislature and the Shumlin administration passed a couple major pieces of legislation, and overcame several significant budget hurdles in crafting a reasonable budget in tough times.
The major legislation focused on cleaning up the state’s waterways (particularly Lake Champlain, but also Bomoseen and many others) and passing a major reform of school governance and cost containment. Both pieces of legislation were introduced early in the session, were thoroughly discussed and rehashed over and over, before being passed by large majorities.
The House took the lead on the $7.5 million landmark water quality bill, H.35, that is funded in part by a 0.2 percent surcharge on the state’s property transfer tax, as well as on pollution permits, medium and large farm registrations and the sale of non-agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. The bill spends $2.6 million next year to support eight new positions at the Agency of Agriculture, and 13 new positions at the Department of Environmental Conservation for education and outreach, as well as enforcement of water quality regulations. Down the road, the bill expands the state’s authority to regulate stormwater runoff from farms, roads, cities and wastewater treatment plans. After decades of ignoring the problem, this Legislature and Gov. Shumlin made a concentrated effort to tackle the issue and begin the process of cleaning up our lakes and waterways. Getting a bill passed by large majorities in both houses of the Legislature in a year of tight spending was a huge achievement.
On education reform, the Legislature responded to taxpayers’ admonitions to slow down the rate of spending. The result was H.361, the education governance reform bill, which encourages the state’s 277 school districts to merge into larger, 900-pupil Pre-K-12 education districts. Those districts, supporters say, are designed to produce economies of scale and improve educational opportunities for students. A variation on the 2 percent statewide spending cap was added back into the bill on Friday before final passage, allowing the Legislature to claim that the measure will save $12 million a year in spending during 2017-18. More important are the longer-term measures set in motion that will hopefully bring savings and better academic outcomes across the state.
Other significant bills included measures that would: protect children from domestic abuse; institute same-day voter registration on election day; eliminate the philosophical exemption for childhood vaccinations; impose minor restriction on gun ownership based on a person’s criminal record and mental health history; set into motion measures to reduce fossil fuel consumption, via H.40, by increasing renewable energy targets for the state. While the bill also introduced some questionable setback minimums toward the end of the session, in the end, more control was ceded to towns than was previously allowed, and a future solar citing task-force was put into place to hopefully establish sustainable siting practices in the upcoming year.
But nothing came easy in what many are saying was a very difficult session.
It started with a close gubernatorial election last November as Gov. Peter Shumlin narrowly edged political neophyte Scott Milne, who refused to concede. Even though Shumlin clearly won by a couple percentage points and several thousand votes, his victory was less than a 50 percent majority and Milne’s decision forced the Legislature to hold a vote. While the Legislature voted solidly for Shumlin, the ordeal weakened his authority and his ability to successfully promote his agenda.
That was most clearly seen in the governor’s health care reform initiative. Shortly after the election, he surprised many in the state when he pulled his single-payer proposal off the table, saying the state couldn’t afford the high price tag. He proposed, instead, an aggressive effort to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates by implementing a tax on payroll that would have raised $90 million and drawn down another $100 million from the federal government. It was too much for the Legislature, however, which eventually whittled it down to about $11 million a week ago, before it was reduced to $3.2 million on Saturday in an deal made to pass the budget. Without a doubt, it was the administration’s biggest failure of the session.
The driving factor of the session, however, was the $113 budget gap that started the session. Lawmakers spent the session trying to close that gap, and did so with $53 million in reductions to budgeted expenses, raising about $30 million in revenue (about $8 million for a tax on soda, though the tax on candy and bottled water was eliminated) and $15 million from the elimination of income tax deductions, a cap on itemized deductions and a 3 percent alternative minimum income tax for those who earn more than $150,000 — the last three of which are items that tax wealthier Vermonters.
Criticize the process if you want, but this Legislature and the governor tackled some very tough issues this session and in four months time finished with a fairly impressive scorecard.
Angelo S. Lynn is the co-owner of the Champlain Valley News Group and the publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister paper of The Mountain Times.