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Columns Through April 2014

These are columns I have written that have been published in the Waterbury Record, the Times Ink, the Times Argus or other newspapers.

TIMES INK, APRIL 14, 2014

Can you live on $8.73 an hour? That is the current minimum wage, and on April 9, the House passed H.552, which proposes to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 in January 2015. $10.10 is the current level proposed by legislation at the federal level, but it, and a proposal by Governor Shumlin, is to phase this in over three years.

My committee, the General, Housing and Military Affairs committee, passed this bill out of committee on a 6-2 vote, and we shaped the legislation this way for a number of reasons. First, our current minimum wage has an inflation rise built into it, and so it rises every year at a rate between 5% and, on the lower side, the rate of inflation. Since it went into effect, inflation has been less than 5% every year. Nevertheless, if we did nothing with the minimum wage, it would be about $9.35 in 2017, meaning that the minimum wage increase would be a net of 75 cents over three years for Vermonters. (It would be larger in parts of the country where they adhere to the federal minimum, $7.25.) Conversely, a wage of $10.10 raised in 2015 but in effect in 2017, when adjusted for inflation, has a buying power of about $9.60 in 2015 dollars, meaning that the net effect is a 25 cent raise over three years. We chose to propose raising the minimum wage in 2015 because it would represent real dollars in real time.

The minimum wage, however, is not a living wage. We contemplated raising the minimum wage to $12.50 (the current estimated living wage for one person in a two person household with no children), and the State of Vermont, in its most recent contract with VSEA, will be paying most of its employees, temporary or permanent, that same wage. This would be a radical change, and it was clear that asking businesses across Vermont, but especially the smaller businesses, to bring nearly 50,000 workers up to that level immediately would be very disruptive.

Our work relied on the research done by the economist we use in the state for many different forecasts, Tom Kavet, and by Deb Brighton. Both worked on a similar study in 1999. Their work showed that an increase to $10 would make a negligible negative impact on Vermont businesses, and would raise income for nearly 20,000 workers who currently make between $8.73 and $10. They estimate that only 250 jobs may disappear, and that the state may save nearly $3 million in benefits. We found their work compelling enough to feel confident that the $10.10 level in January is appropriate.

Opposition to the minimum wage started by advocating a zero cent increase, and by the time passed, most people agreed it should be raised, perhaps over three years. The House voted against on amendment that matched the governor’s proposal, and it was defeated.

No one can live on $8.73 an hour, simply on salary. And very few people who make this wage work for 40 hours a week in one job, at a level where benefits may be offered. $10.10 an hour may add $40 to a person’s weekly paycheck(s), which is roughly the amount of a week’s worth of food stamp benefits for an individual. It may not sound like much, but if you could earn that much more, it makes a large impact on a person’s wallet.

H. 552 is now in the Senate, and there is a feeling that they may make a compromise closer to the governor’s three year phase-in. If you have any opinions about this bill, or any other, please feel free to contact us.

MOUNTAIN GAZETTE, TIMES INK, FEBRUARY 27, 2014

Ever been in a restaurant and had your server sneeze or cough while putting food in front of you? The server probably didn’t have time off to get better. Have you ever sent your child to school sick because you couldn’t take time off to take care of her? You probably feared that you would lose your job if you did. If you’ve missed a couple of days without pay because of illness, you know you won’t be able to afford groceries next week.

 The General, Housing & Military Affairs committee has picked up where it left off last year on labor issues, and we have been working full-time on passing H.208, Earned Sick Days. The bill passed out of committee on a very strong 6-1-1 vote and is sitting in the Appropriations committee, as it will have an effect on state expenditures.

Why is this bill important? Well, for starters, nearly 60,000 working Vermonters do not have access to any paid time off at all, never mind sick days. This is nearly 20% of our workforce, and most of these folks work for minimum wage, or just above, and, according to numerous studies, up to two-thirds of them are women. They work in our restaurants, our schools, our hospitality industry and, to bring it home for legislators, in the State House. Most of the folks who work in our cafeteria, and most of the folks hired to be our committee assistants, are contract temps and have no benefits. When they are sick, or when their children or parents are sick, they cannot take a day off without the penalty of losing a day’s pay. This means they go to work sick, or they send their kid to school sick, or they wait until much later to take care of their illness.

Going to work sick, or “presenteeism,” lowers a worker’s productivity and risks getting co-workers sick, just as sending a child to school sick will spread the illness. This cycle is taking its toll on the workers, their families, their schools, their employees and our whole health care and benefit system. If an employee fears losing wages or their job because they are sick, we all suffer. This, perhaps, is most clear when we consider having lunch or dinner served by an ill waiter, or prepared by an ill cook.

H.208 proposes that employees who currently do not have access to sick days be allowed to earn one hour for every 30 worked, up to a maximum of 56. The uses of these hours are prescribed: for care of self, or family, or to make court dates relating to domestic violence and other family matters. The hours have no monetary value until used, and if the employee abuses this time, an employer may refuse payment with cause.

We took testimony this year from over 85 witnesses, including from a long list of supporters in the Vermont business community, from large businesses to small, from teachers and guidance counselors, from public health officials and from communities where this bill is in effect. We heard from opponents, who voiced their fears, and the fears promulgated from national groups that have long been opposed to employee rights.

The road to passage of H.208 is not going to be easy. Many people fear the impact on small businesses, which we have addressed by exempting nearly 60% of all Vermont businesses (those with 4 or less employees, which will impact approximately 12,000 employees who do not have access to paid time off). In the municipalities where a version of this law has passed, we have found no evidence of damage to small business, and, in fact, have noticed no effect on the bottom line, positive or negative.

Where we may see benefits are in the workplace, with increased worker morale, and in the emergency room, with less visits for lesser illnesses that grow larger due to neglect, and in productivity both in schools and in business. One study estimates that within a couple of years, we may see savings in our statewide budget of $5 million. That’s not nothing!

We celebrate the 75% of Vermont businesses that offer their employees the dignity of time off to deal with personal issues, or to take a vacation. Those that do are, in the light of this bill, doing the right thing. But there are hundreds of businesses who either choose not to offer this benefit or feel they cannot afford it. H.208 takes a sympathetic view to the fact that law, in the end, must deal with people. Money, yes, with respect to the budget, and nature, yes, with respect to human impact on our lakes, rivers and forests, and so on. In the end, no matter what political party we choose to belong to, our focus while making law should be on people, and the effect of our laws on them.

H.208 is a business friendly bill that will reduce illness in the workplace, increase productivity and will effect up to 60,000 working Vermonters. We’re being asked in the State House to craft legislation that can be measured under a method called “Results Based Accountability.” Applied to H.208, we find that we can measure this bill successfully — a low cost act that will help more people per dollar than anything else we will pass this year. We’re very proud of that and hope our peers in the State House find their way to support this important bill to working Vermonters.

WATERBURY RECORD, JUNE 20. 2013

In the days and weeks after Tropical Storm Irene, people from all over the State of Vermont — and from all over the United States — descended on Waterbury to help us muck out our basements, to help us to start to put our lives back together, to feed us, and to make donations to our community. Our Good Neighbor fund raised over hundreds of thousands of dollars from various sources, most of it in small donations. A church community from a town in Illinois — a town literally wiped off the map by flooding and relocated in the early 1990’s — sent a case of work gloves, cards of support and a donation they raised in their congregation.

Here in Waterbury, caught unawares, our community did what it did best: it reached out to help, no matter the cost, no matter the commitment, and no matter the risk. The State of Vermont came in and provided help, from the National Guard providing water to the State Treasurer forwarding important funds or delaying tax collections so we could meet our immediate needs, to the Governor and General Assembly providing tax relief to communities whose infrastructure damages were excessive. The Red Cross came, the Salvation Army came, Life Force came. FEMA came to provide federal guidance and, later, to sponsor a Long Term Flood Recovery process that asked the community to come forward to help themselves heal by discussing what the future of our town could be after the crisis. NECI came and cook meals for the affected and the volunteers. So called “big box” stores came and donated tools and supplies. A car dealership invested in a video about our recovery efforts and made a substantial donation to our recovery.

Amid the chaos, Revitalizing Waterbury and local volunteers formed Rebuild Waterbury, which raised over $1 million to help families and individuals pay for renovations they could not otherwise afford. Local business groups from Central Vermont and the Mad River Valley raised funds and disbursed them to the local small businesses who needed emergency cash waiting for exceedingly slow insurance companies to issue timely settlements.

Eventually, the State of Vermont announced it was going to rebuild the Waterbury Complex and return up to 1,000 employees. The historic structures will be saved and repurposed, and the new structure will be a gem made of local materials and energy efficient. They have designed flood mitigation in a way that will contribute to protecting our downtown. They funnelled grants to us to help us plan our recovery with respect to our municipal functions. Senator Leahy visited Waterbury this winter to announce a $900,000 grant to the Central Vermont Community Land Trust to help turn Ladd Hall into affordable housing for up to 27 families. The Vermont General Assembly passed legislation funding the reconstruction of the state office buildings, to be subsidized by FEMA and insurance money, and they have expedited construction of a new state hospital and mental health care system.

Is this, then, the time to help ourselves? We are recovering. We are tired of recovering, of worrying, of struggling. And yet there is an electricity in the air in Waterbury. All around us, people are amazed at how far we have come, how resilient we are. This bond vote is, in a way, a referendum on our recovery. We have invested so much time, energy, good will, and sweat equity to get to where we are today. This project is made possible by the generosity and foresight and hard work of so many people. It is now up to us to take advantage of this generosity and to make our local investment to a project that will solidify Waterbury’s municipal infrastructure for generations to come.

The words, frustration and anger coming from the opposition to the bond is curious. It is based on a pre-Irene balkanization of viewpoints on the size and function of government. Virtually none of the civic projects, from the school to the fire stations to merger were supported by this same opposition and made the road to completion more difficult and more expensive — exactly the opposite of their stated aim. In the buildup to this week’s vote, they have been denigrating the hard work done by the Select Board, the Trustees, the Library Commissioners, our town staff and, for that matter, the hundreds of community members who participated in the many long term recovery meetings over the course of eighteen months. In the end, they have not presented one option that has not been studied and put aside for one of many reasons, not the least of which is their own opposition to the same projects over the past ten years.

Water, mud, volunteers, courage, cash and compassion, along with dedication, planning and hard, hard work have brought us to this decision. That is what we are voting on this month. Please join me in supporting the bond, and for believing in a town that will always rise to the occasion. Our Town.

WATERBURY RECORD, FEBRUARY 28, 2013

In response to Peter Hack’s letter asking about how a rehabilitation project like Ladd Hall can be considered “affordable,” let me try to explain how these projects are done. Much of my work in the legislature has had to do with protecting and saving affordable housing projects in the state, and promoting the work of the many nonprofit groups and commercial entities that participate in these projects.

When discussing what is considered “affordable,” we must distinguish between what that term means for a developer of market-based housing and what it means for a developer of affordable housing, as defined by the many laws and regulations that exist. Like private developers, the nonprofits that build and maintain these properties need to get permits and have their zoning approved and, when finished, the projects pay the same property taxes. Where the projects diverge is in funding and goals.

The goal of a private developer is to build a quality property. To do so, they must take out commercial loans, keeping a close eye on the expenses, finish the units and either sell them for a profit, or operate them at market rent in order to carry their mortgage, taxes, expenses and so on. The key here is cost expended versus price sold. This is market housing, available to anyone who can afford it within the market it resides.The goal of a nonprofit developer is to build quality housing that remains perpetually affordable for all people by renting for no more than 30% of their income. They, too, must keep a close eye on expenses and develop a business plan so they can ay their mortgage, taxes and expenses.

To do this, the developers (Central Vermont Community Land Trust and Housing Vermont) need to make their project as debt-free as possible in order to allow for “affordable” housing. This requires financial planning that has been developed over 30 years, and has allowed for several thousand of these units to be built across the state. The expense of the project lies in the fact that rehabilitation of existing buildings is always more than building new, and this project has both. Buildings will be taken down and the core historical structure will be retained. The developers must budget their project, in this case just over $6 million, and find investors, grants and loans that will create a higher equity and a lower debt. In the case of the Ladd Hall project, the federal government just granted $950,000 through disaster recovery funds, the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board granted over $600,000, the developers borrowed existing CDBG money from the village and town of Waterbury, as well as some of the revolving loan funds, and, under a process overseen by the state, has applied for tax credits they can sell to investors who provide funds that create equity in return for set number of tax benefits to be used over ten years.  They will also borrow money from commercial lenders and hire local construction firms. All of this work to develop a consortium provides the developers with enough equity to build a high-quality building that will, in all probability, never be sold on the market, which will allow for housing that remains perpetually affordable to a distinct population. And once completed, the building is added to the tax rolls.

This was a similar funding mechanism that rebuilt the Stimson and Graves Building, and the Seminary Building in Waterbury Center. Both of these projects are gems in our community, and when finished, the Ladd Hall project will be as well, giving our village an attractive building where up to 27 families will populate our downtown. Affordable housing has shown in community after community to bring positive results, both for the residents of the town and the new housing, not to mention to having more people downtown to shop in our stores. I am grateful for the coordination of this project, a major component of our long term recovery process, by the municipalities, the state, our federal delegation and the local partnerships. Without their help, the large hole left by Irene would be unfilled. This project is just the start.

WATERBURY RECORD, FEBRUARY 7, 2013

With the release of the Governor’s budget proposals, the Legislature has been parsing out the dichotomies found in policy choices and funding mechanisms. The Governor laid out some ambitious ideas, most of which are in line with his core principles, but suggested funding from sources that, quite frankly, cannot be cut without a negative impact on those folks who currently benefit from them, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. While the bulk of testimony surrounding money issues will be handled in the Appropriations and Ways & Means committees, the policy choices will be debated in the relevant committees. And that is where the fireworks will be found.

The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, is, in the opinions of many, one of the most successful tools created in recent memory to help low income Vermonters climb out of poverty (and reliance on Reach Up or other government programs) by providing a credit to help them climb over the benefit cliff that exists between Reach Up and a newly found self-reliance. The credit is only giving to individuals who have found work, and work that falls under a certain level. This credit is both state and federal, and the Governor’s proposal is to cut the state contribution by 75% percent (equalling 16% overall) and use those savings to fund increased child care subsidies for families in lower income brackets. The goal is laudable, but the funding mechanism, on the face of it, seems to penalize the folks who need it most — those just getting their heads above water. The House Human Services committee is investigating exactly who will benefit and who will not in the coming weeks and make recommendations to the Appropriations and Ways & Means committees.

In another policy choice, the Governor is seeking to increase funding for renewable energy and thermal efficiency programs. You will have probably received literature in your oil or propane bills denouncing proposals outlined in a thermal efficiency report. These proposals have not found their way into legislation (yet), and the one the Governor chose to highlight is the taxation of “break open” or “rip off” tickets. Not many people knew what they were on the day of the Governor’s address, but some of us did. These tickets are sold in service organizations, or at bingo nights, or sometimes in bars. The premise is that the tickets, designed to have winning combinations of symbols look like a slot machine (three lemons or cherries, for instance), would be taxed at 10%, and the estimated proceeds would reach $17 million. As I have sat on the committee that deals with both liquor control and the lottery, I can say that we have no idea how many tickets are sold, and all numbers are only anecdotal. The tickets are not managed by either the Department of Liquor Control or the Lottery Commission, but by the Tax Department, and their records on the wholesale receipts of these tickets are incomplete. A cursory study of the numbers that do exist show that these mostly unregulated tickets, the profits of which are supposed to benefit nonprofit organizations or help the service organizations provide scholarships, are sold at many places they shouldn’t, and the sales total will come nowhere close to be enough to net $17 million.

As the weeks of the new biennium pass, new bills are introduced at a quick pace. By the end of February there should be over 700 new bills for us to consider (or not) during the next two years. One of the most controversial will be H.124, which contemplates several gun safety issues.

I co-sponsored the bill because it is primarily focused on firearms safety – making sure that we do criminal background checks on firearms purchases, prohibiting felons and domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms (and giving our state and local law enforcement the ability to hold and charge these offenders under state law), requiring Vermont to report for the purposes of background checks those adjudicated mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. These are, to me, common sense measures that address some of the inadequacies of our current law and do not threaten legal gun ownership in Vermont.

The section of the bill that has generated the most debate is the prohibition on large capacity magazines.  Many people believe that these large capacity magazines are a public safety hazard and we will thoroughly explore the proposal with law enforcement and ask Vermonters to weigh in, especially responsible gun owners. The bill sponsors are not opposed to removing this section if we decide that it is unnecessary but the remainder of the bill is focused on making sure that firearms do not get in to the hands of people who are a danger to our citizens. By introducing the bill, we are giving a voice to all Vermonters, and it is my belief that we should not dismiss the entire bill because of concerns about one section.

And finally, on a different note, I recommend the movie “Lincoln.” If you are at all interested in how bills become law, and how difficult it is at times, especially with a controversial effort like the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, you should see this film. Concentrating on the effort to pass the 13th Amendment in January 1865, “Lincoln” shows the efforts, deals and compromises legislators have to make in order to see legislation pass. Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal is definitive and makes Lincoln human in a way I’ve not seen previously on film.

WATERBURY RECORD, DECEMBER 11, 2012

A Preview of the Upcoming Legislative Session

On January 9, the legislature will convene its new biennium, and I am anxious to get back to work representing Waterbury, Bolton, Huntington and Buels Gore in the House. Thank you to everyone who supported me during this election — I remain honored to be your representative, and I will continue to do what is important for our district: to listen to each of your concerns, and to help you make your way through our sometimes confusing bureaucratic services.

The new biennium will find us tackling many of the same issues we saw over the past four years, not the least of which will be our budget shortfall, our efforts to institute the health care exchange and the continued reformation of the health care delivery system, climate change and the development of alternative and renewable fuel and energy sources, and, last but never last, the need to develop better jobs while maintaining a consistent educational base. Specifically for Waterbury, I will continue to monitor the rebuilding of the Waterbury State Office Complex and the State Hospital, and to make sure the overhaul of Main Street continues on schedule. These projects remain important to the immediate future of Waterbury.

In November, legislators were invited to the State House in order to get a financial update, as well as an update on the state’s dealings with FEMA as they relate to the state complex. The financial news was much better than in years past, but also showed that we continue to experience a sluggish recovery. We are recovering from the Great Recession faster than our neighbors, and we are seeing some warming when it comes to increased wages, but we are not satisfied and will seek to improve those numbers with the help of smart policy.

Vermont remains near the top in job creation, but the one sector that has not seen as big a return is in construction. This sector was among the hardest hit in 2009-2010, and reviewing those numbers last month was sobering. It will still be a few years before the construction industry rebounds, and that fact is the impetus behind trying to create larger opportunities in the renewable energy sector, high tech and agriculture.

Our budget shortfall is predicted to be about $50-60 million dollars. This number may change, depending on what happens in Washington this month. If sequestration is allowed to happen, programs across the board will need to be cut, and the effects will be felt in our social service programs and in our basic economy. On the other hand, if we receive what we feel is appropriate from FEMA, that number may drop and the gap will be far less significant. I take solace in the numbers we have seen for this fiscal year. Our projections are pretty much on track, and that stability will benefit us as we try to make ends meet this year.

Health care will see some significant movement this year. We are scheduled to implement our heath insurance exchange, which will simplify the purchase of insurance and make it available to more people. It will also bring in nearly $400 million in subsidies from the federal government to make insurance more affordable for the vast majority of Vermonters. This exchange is the next step in our reform movement, but it is not the final goal of universal or single payer health care. Our initial hopes that we would be able to receive a waiver from the federal government to institute universal health care in 2014, but the gridlock in Washington will, more than likely, deny us that opportunity. This simply means we have more time to insure that this next step, the exchange, is implemented smoothly and that our ongoing evolution of Green Mountain Care can be designed to be affordable and competitive.

This new biennium will see an increase in focus on the development of renewable energy in Vermont, permit reform, and, locally, the fate of the Moretown Landfill. Each of these are tied together, and promise to be very difficult to untangle.

And, finally, I expect demolition of the State Office Complex buildings deemed uninhabitable will start in January. We have experienced many delays due to negotiations with FEMA, and if the financial numbers published recently in the Record are any indication, we remain far apart. The Shumlin Administration has been straightforward about their desire to rebuild the office complex into a facility that will be special, regardless of the FEMA decisions. They recognize that these buildings will be the face of our state government, and, much like our beautiful state house, should be welcoming and well designed, so that we can provide the services Vermonters expect in a positive and efficient way. They also recognize the importance of returning workers to the downtown, and the positive impact that will have on our shops and restaurants. I think we will witness a certain slowness at times, as we get permits and funding and perform the necessary work in order to build, but once the ball gets rolling, change will come fast. I can’t wait, nor can Waterbury.

As always, please feel free to contact me with your cares and concerns. I enjoyed hearing them this fall while on the campaign trail, and I look forward to hearing them this winter, while we are in session. Please enjoy the holiday season, and be safe!

WATERBURY RECORD, JULY 30, 2012

The news of two weeks ago, where it was announced that FEMA was reconsidering what it will consider for reimbursement for the State Hospital and the State Complex, was, in essence, another test of our patience. Anyone severely affected by the flood knows well the seemingly ephemeral and inconsistent interpretations of what qualifies for reimbursement. Now it is the State of Vermont’s turn at dealing with the shifting sands and it is uncomfortable for the state as it was (and remains) for those dealing with it individually.

This turn of events is particularly frustrating because the state has invested over eight months of effort working in a thoughtful and bona fide manner with FEMA and made decisions and wrote legislation believing that FEMA’s participation was also bona fide, or in good faith. They will argue (and have) that they made no promises and therefore cannot be held to our assumptions. We believe that, short of a hand shake, they told us which paths to follow and how to follow them, and if we did so there would be the pot of gold we needed to make sure Vermont did not suffer financially in the replacement of the essential service provided by the State Hospital and the State Complex.

News of FEMA’s recent decision spread like wild fire and led to much fear that if the state is not reimbursed for these projects then these projects will have to be rethought and revisited, as if they were optional expenses. Given our town’s general weariness and wariness when it comes to recovery projects, our reaction was fair and it deserves an answer.

Rep. Ellis and I, as well as other town officials, have met with several members of the Shumlin Administration over the past two weeks, and we have been told, in essence, that replacing the State Hospital and rebuilding the State Complex remain high priorities and that getting FEMA to fund their share is the focus of the next two or three weeks. According to their interpretation of the ongoing meetings, just because FEMA is reevaluating which projects may receive reimbursements and at what level, it does not mean we will not be reimbursed at all. There are only several parts of these projects that are at question, but they are big ones: the permanent replacement of the State Hospital, the replacement of the power plant at the State Complex, and the demolition costs associated with rebuilding. The total reimbursements for those projects were expected to be $45 million.

Without these reimbursements, will we be able to rebuild at all. The short answer is yes. The design and concept we have been working on since early this year is still the one the administration has worked on. They are continuing to design and plan within the confines defined by need and affordability. How it is paid for is a different, mostly parallel track and is dependent on decisions to be made by FEMA.

Working with FEMA is never easy. Four years ago, Iowa flooded. Still, today, they are working with this difficult decision making process, receiving notification that they are now eligible for one large project while receiving another that FEMA will be “clawing back” substantial funds for projects that were not built to the strict adherence required by FEMA. Vermont is trying to avoid projects that will be vulnerable to “claw backs,” while at the same time fighting for every penny due it so we can rebuild and be stronger for it.

FEMA has created a video that you can see on YouTube touting its success in Vermont, and for the most part they are not wrong. Tens of millions of dollars of FEMA money will be spent in Vermont and the recovery process they sponsored has benefitted Waterbury, Wilmington and other communities, creating and cultivating a vital engagement needed by these communities to get on the road to fully recovering. But it is not all peaches and cream. They have allowed us to go down a path we thought was going to be beneficial for all of Vermont, for the mental health care community and for the state bureaucracy infrastructure. We think that path is still viable, and now we must wait for FEMA to review and revise their estimates.

We will continue to monitor the work being done on our behalf. We expect the next decision to land in mid-August. As I have been saying for months, many miles to go…

TIMES INK, MAY 13, 2012

At the Finish Line

As always, the legislative session rushed to the finish, and I am just now coming up for air. Due to the fact that the Governor and the Legislature are held by the same party, the usual end-of-session energy was a bit different than in years past. Previously, when the Governor was from the opposition party, much of the last minute negotiating centered around the budget and the miscellaneous tax bill–our expenditures and revenue. This is no surprise, given the differences in opinion about programs and policies, and in 2009 and 2010, there was the drastic reduction in revenue due to the recession, creating budget gaps that had to be filled. In my four years alone, we have had gaps totaling nearly $500 million dollars–and the results have been noticed in the ways we are able to deliver services to you, whether it was unemployment insurance in 2010 or low income weatherization this year.

This year, the budget and tax bills were passed with little excitement or disagreement. We closed a smaller budget gap this year, perhaps $60 million, and we started on the road back from the disasters relating to flooding in May and August of last year without raising broad based taxes. Given what we face in rebuilding our roads, bridges and state complex, and the relief offered by the state to communities severely damaged by the flooding, our work on the big money bills was as smooth as I have experienced it.

Other issues that effected Huntington, however, did not go though as easily, or without controversy. In terms of communications I had with constituents in Huntington, the proposed elimination of the philosophic exemption for childhood immunizations ranked highest, followed by discussions about the proposed changes in the merging of school districts and reapportionment.

By the end of the session, a compromise had been reached about immunizations. In short, the philosophic exemption remains, but it must be declared annually. As important, if not more so, data collection on the use of exemptions–medical, religious or philosophic–must be done in a way that shows correlation between expansion of diseases and exemptions. For many legislators, it was disappointing to have this conversation without data that tracked what the legislation proposed. We have had a philosophic exemption since 1979, and our immunization numbers were historically high until the past several years. Why? Our high numbers were attained with the exemption, but do the lower numbers establish causation with the philosophic exemption? No, not as they are collected now. The schools and the state will collect more accurate numbers, and families will have to address their differences with their doctors on immunizations annually. No one wants to see an uncontrolled outbreak of any of these childhood diseases. Nor does anyone want to remove a right granted by the state without knowing that it is responsible for this rise in cases. I approved of the compromise, and will continue to monitor the balance between these two important aspects of the issue.

This year’s discussion of voluntary school district mergers took a turn that affected Huntington. By refusing to vote to approve last year’s proposal made by the Chittenden East Supervisory Union, Huntington made it known that it was uncomfortable with several of the provisions in the merger proposal, not the least of which was ownership of the Brewster-Pierce School. This year’s legislation will allow schools who wish to have their schools become part of a regional educational district to do so, and to essentially have one supervisory union for Pre-K to 12. If towns, such as Huntington, do not wish to join this RED, they do not have to, and they do not have to renounce their membership in the middle and high school supervisory union. This allows Huntington to retain ownership of their building and of their traditional school meeting that follows town meeting.

And regarding reapportionment, the final i’s were not dotted until the last week of the session, and Huntington did not escape unscathed. The House district, Washington-Chittenden 1, will now become just Washington-Chittenden, and, as discussed earlier this spring, Huntington will remain in a district with Waterbury. Bolton will join this district and Duxbury will join a two member district comprised of Moretown, Fayston, Waitsfield and Warren. This was a remarkably hard discussion to have in each town, as each town had its expressed needs. For Huntington, it was a desire to have an opportunity to elect its own representative. Duxbury wanted to stay with Waterbury, Waterbury wanted to stay with Duxbury and Huntington, but if there were to be a proposal for a one person district that would split Waterbury, Waterbury didn’t want to be split. In the end, the district is now more Chittenden County oriented, but the main population center remains Waterbury. I’m comfortable with this compromise, because in the end, it did no damage to Huntington. Serving Vermonters is a privilege, no matter what towns are in a district, and I look forward to getting to know Bolton as I have gotten to know Huntington.

In the Senate, Huntington was moved from Chittenden County and will now be represented by senators in Addison County. This was done because the Senate was unable to truly recalibrate the Burlington-heavy representation that exists now for a more even representation that gave outlying towns, such as Huntington, a bigger voice in the Senate. Given the rural nature of Addison County, it is possible that representation in this senate district may accomplish that for Huntington in the coming years.

Rep. Ellis and I will be putting together a full End of Session report for you. There are many issues I did not address here, including health care, fracking and recycling, all of which were important steps forward. Please do not hesitate to call with questions at anytime.

WATERBURY RECORD, APRIL 23, 2012

Nearly End-of-Session Report!

Originally scheduled to end on April 27, it looks as if this year’s session will be extended until May 5. This is no big surprise, given the enormity and intensity of the work the Legislature has tackled this year. And while the current wrangling between the House and Senate is holding things up, I don’t think it is out of line given our distinct differences and ways of working.

This is what was on our plate, especially from a local perspective:

  1. Committing to rebuilding the State Office Buildings. This has been a lengthy but orderly process. The state hired Freeman French Freeman and Goody Clancy to study the buildings and the campus. By the middle of March, it was clear that Option B–a partial renovation and new construction–was the first choice of the designers, the Legislature and the administration.
  2. Redesigning the state’s mental health care system. Home to the Vermont State Hospital since 1891, the State Office Complex will no longer host patients at a hospital. Services will be decentralized, long a goal of the mental health care advocates, and the state will build at least one permanent standalone medical facility in Central Vermont.
  3. Continued health care reform. H.559 brought us closer to establishing our state health care exchange. This exchange, required by the Affordable Care Act, will provide businesses and individuals a transparent way to purchase health insurance. It will make it more affordable for many of us to buy private health insurance due to the tax benefits and federal subsidies.
  4. The working landscape bill. This will promote job creation in businesses related to keeping our working landscape as vital as possible. Whether it is value added production for dairy or including lumber in our agricultural planning, this bill, when signed into law and funded, will jump start the work many businesses have started.
  5. Closing a $70 million budget gap after a natural disaster. Nearly lost in the shuffle is the annual exercise of closing a substantial budget gap, made especially complex by the funding needed to address damages from the flooding due to Tropical Storm Irene. FEMA funding will help address much of the true payments related to the storm, but we must cover at least 10% of the payments, while still dealing with an ongoing drop in revenues. The House passed a responsible budget that increased our spending by 6% (half of which due directly to Irene) and in line with our funding priorities. The budget is in the Senate now, and of all the issues that will keep us a little longer, this is the big one.
  6. Redistricting. This was a hot button issue for our district, as we were directly affected by the changes needed to happen due to population increases in Chittenden and Washington counties. We were disappointed to lose Duxbury in the process, but the numbers were against us. We will welcome Bolton to our district, and we will make sure our friends in Duxbury receive the representation from their new representatives they have come to expect.

Many of these issues have passed the House and are not quite finished in the Senate. From here on out Rep. Ellis and I will be tracking the most important legislation for our district. At the end of the session, anything can happen and if it does, it can happen quickly (remember Pete the Moose?). Conference committees are extremely difficult to follow, but we have our focus and I believe we will help usher legislation through that will be of enduring benefit to us all.

As always, please do not hesitate to call with your questions and concerns. We are always happy to help get you the answers you need. We will have a full end-of-session report for your reading in the weeks that follow the close of the session.

TIMES INK, APRIL 12, 2012

On Vaccinations and the Philosophical Exemption

One of the more controversial bills of the year hit the floor this past week: S.199, an act to remove the philosophic exemption from vaccination choice. The bill proposed to strip our current law of a parent’s right to claim a philosophic exemption when deciding  the use of certain childhood vaccines. This bill was brought forward as a reaction to a rise in certain childhood diseases, mostly pertussis (whooping cough), in the recent past, and to a drop in vaccination rates statewide.

It was a curiously timed bill and for many of us in the House, we were unclear if the proposed diagnosis to a particular symptom was going to lead to a proper treatment. Proponents of the bill were concerned about the risk of increasing exposure to treatable and avoidable diseases, and supporters of the philosophic exemption were concerned about the state removing a right bestowed upon them in 1979 that let them make choices about their child’s care.

Between these two viewpoints lay a wide canyon of issues that exposed a lot of raw emotions on either side of the issue.

One of the most striking emotional issues was the discussion surrounding seeming correlation between the growth of new pertussis cases and the increase in the use of the philosophic exemption. Parents of vaccinated children were rightfully concerned about the health of their children when a growing number of children were exiting what the doctors called the “herd immunity” effect. Vaccinations, no matter their ubiquity, are not 100% effective and are no guarantee that one is completely immune to a disease. Up until about 2009, however, our excellent vaccination rates were achieved with the philosophic exemption in place, and supporters of this exemption felt they were being demonized for using a right given to them by the state.

So why the sudden rise in the use of the exemption? There has always been a low-grade distrust of the vaccinations, or any governmental mandate, which flared up fifteen years ago with the publication of a report that linked vaccinations with autism. This particular report has since been discredited, but that in no way diminishes the possibility that some children react negatively to vaccinations, and some worse than others. Even with this report, our records show that only 2% of the children were not vaccinated, or partially vaccinated, until about 2009. Since then, the numbers have risen to 6%. What happened that coincided with that rise? The mandate that children be vaccinated for chicken pox–long considered a malady best treated by natural immunization, and one where a vaccine was available if a child didn’t get chicken pox at a young age.

But we were not sure that this mandate, along with one for Hepatitis B (more of a high school-related disease), could be correlated to the rise in pertussis. This connection, however, was not fully discussed to many’s satisfaction. Nor was the original basis for allowing the philosophic exemption along with the constitutionally-protected religious exemption. And, understanding how the vaccination rates were counted was difficult, as a family could vaccinate for all but one vaccine, and that child would be recorded as “unvaccinated.”

On the flip side of that, we needed to consider the children who could not receive immunizations due to health concerns and their vulnerability if their immune systems were compromised. We also wrestled with the notion of what a philosophic exemption was, especially compared to a religious exemption.

And so where did this leave us? Between the rock of public health and the hard place of individual rights.

The House Health Care Committee took copious amounts of testimony and I received as much email on this subject as any since civil marriage in 2009. In a deeply divided committee vote (6-4-1), the Health Care Committee passed a bill that kept the philosophic exemption and tightened up the requirements for utilizing it. Parents will now have to declare their exemption annually and will be provided more information and education. Schools will need to report immunization rates more transparently. And the health department will need to analyze the cause and effect of the use of exemptions more closely than they have.

In the end, I joined 92 of my colleagues in retaining the philosophic exemption as strengthened by the committee. I was uncomfortable with removing rights the state had granted once long ago without a completely compelling reason, and I feel the proponents of removing the exemption were relyting too heavily on fear and not enough, strangely, on scientific analysis of the situation. I have a lot of respect for the medical community, and it was hard to vote against them, but in the end, I believe the retention of the exemption was the right thing to do at this time.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with your thoughts, comments and concerns. As always, I will do my best to provide you with the service you expect from your representatives.

WATERBURY RECORD, MARCH 6, 2012

On Friday, March 9, the Freeman French Freeman/Goody Clancy report on the state complex will be released publicly, and we will find ourselves another step closer to determining the future of the complex and, by extension, Waterbury. The report will present several options, or scenarios, from which the administration and the legislature will choose. It is impossible to conjecture which one is the most feasible until we study them all, and we are nervously waiting until the report is released.

While I remain bullish on our future, regardless of the result of the FFF report, I acknowledge that any complete resolution will be years away. The notion of returning a multitude of employees to the complex and returning our downtown economy to its pre-August 28 status is a perfect dream. But as we have been saying since the beginning of the aftermath of this natural disaster, our focus must also remain on the present, and on finding positive outcomes for our friends, neighbors and local businesses.Few people seem to recognize the depth of the damage done by the tropical storm and the flooding in Waterbury Village. We experience this in Montpelier, where only a small percentage of representatives experienced the same, or similar, circumstances in the towns in their districts. Perhaps the depth is masked by fear, or a desire to return to “normal.” I know, from watching the debate over the police department, that some folks in town are treating the conversation as a return to the old normal when, in fact, things have changed. For those of us who live in the village, we have seen our worlds tipped upside down, and the effects are psychological and, yes, monetary. Our local businesses are hurting and gamely surviving, waiting for the FFF report and the administration and legislature’s reaction to it. Our neighbors who got hit hardest are still moving back into their homes, six months later. Some are still fighting with their insurance companies. Many of our homes have lost value, and our village taxes will rise. Our water and sewer bills will rise because the largest customer isn’t in town and using our services.If recovery from the flood were simply about money and taxes and who should pay for what, we would all be accountants now, worldly in a way we never expected. But it isn’t. Listening to the criticism of the select board — a select board that gave every ounce of energy, dedication and spirit it had in the months after the flood to the town it serves — is tough. Not because I think they are right or wrong, but because I know this recent conversation is a distraction from the real recovery. Don’t get me wrong — the conversation about the police department is important. The real conversation, however, begins again on March 9: How will we recover from this flood together, village, town and state, and how will we hold that true spirit of togetherness in the face of friction, and become a better place to live, work and play?As time passes, we get used to whatever our new normal is, and we return in some ways to our old prejudices. We are not healed yet, and every time we experience the old it is like stretching the scar tissue — it hurts and it is (usually) a good sign of recovery.When we hear from the firms who studied the buildings in the complex this week, we will not hear all the answers we want to hear, but we will hear enough to take us to the next level, to continue our planning for the immediate future. We will, in Montpelier, take this information and craft our next level, and we will determine, together, what we can expect in Waterbury over the next several years. I cannot promise that it will be the medicine we’ve been looking for, but I do know we will be able to take the information we learn and use it to our advantage. We are strong enough to weather all of this, and I think we all know it.
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