2014 Town Meeting Report
This is the sixth year in a row that the Legislature has come to work in January with a substantial budget gap to close. And while the stress involved in keeping costs down for services while fixed costs grow at the rate, or faster at times, of the rate of inflation, we are still able to accomplish some amazing things in this state. The work represented in this report still has many miles to go before it becomes law, but we are proud of the achievements we are making on your behalf, and we are doubly proud and honored to be your voices in Montpelier. We have some very difficult problems to face, as we all do in our communities, but we know the work we are doing will be in the best interests of our district.
The Affordable Care Act went into effect on October 1, and it is fair to say the roll-out was rough. We are not pleased with the difficulties we have heard about from our constituents, and we appreciate you informing us of them.
By many other measures, however, the ACA and the introduction of the exchange has been hugely successful. Individuals and families who did not have access to health insurance now do, and those that have had access are finding plans that, for the most part, offer better coverage for less cost. This provides an immediate benefit for the families that now have coverage, including coverage for pre-existing conditions, and it will have ongoing benefits for our economy and our health as more people take care of themselves with the help of health programs to which they now have access.
The problems with the software and the sign-up process are slowly being addressed, and Vermont has been the most successful state in signing up people for Vermont Health Connect. We expect improvements to continue to be a priority, both for the General Assembly and the administration.
Our schools continue to excel in many ways – one study showed that if Vermont were a country, our schools would be ranked 7th in the world! That’s very
flattering, and it is the result of our schools, teachers, students, parents and communities working together and committing to provide our students with access to the best education available to them. Our district has excellent schools and by most accounts, we are proud of our achievements.
But – our funding system is showing signs of age and the educational equity required by our Supreme Court decision is threatened by an increase in property
and income taxes needed to fund the system. This is a result of the decline in property values due to the recession and a severe drop in federal dollars to pay for important elements of our system. No matter the cause of the problem, we need to find a solution before we lose the quality we find in our local schools.
We are committed to working with you and with our peers in the House of Representatives to find a way that protects what we hold most dear, while working to improve living and working conditions for Vermonters.
New construction on the State Office Complex isdue to begin in April! We have all watched the deconstruction and the preparation for the restoration work throughout the fall and winter and now the state is getting ready to get the major construction work underway. Whether it is on the Selectboard or in Montpelier, we have been tracking, watching, observing and pushing the state to do the right thing at the Complex since September 2011. As legislators, there is nothing more critical than fighting for one of the most potent economic drivers in our village and town. The Shumlin Administration has been keeping its promises to Waterbury. State workers who live in Waterbury, Bolton and Huntington will be able to return to work in a healthy, modern environment.
The Legislature passed the first net metering law for renewable energy projects less than 500 KW in 1998. The program didn’t take off, however, until 2011, when the Legislature adopted the solar adder to pay customers $0.20 for each kwh of solar energy produced. Since 2011, the net metering program has nearly tripled in size, from 12 MW of capacity in 2011 to 39 MW of capacity today. About 90% of these projects are solar projects!
The success of the solar net metering program has also caused some growing pains, leading to this year’s net metering bill. Some of Vermont’s utilities recently hit a 4% cap on net metering as a percentage of the utility’s peak load and were forced to turn away customers who wanted to participate in the net metering program. H. 702 addresses this issue by raising the 4% cap on net metering to 15%, allowing customers statewide to take full advantage of federal solar incentive tax credits that are anticipated to expire at the end of 2016. By guaranteeing a predictable source of revenue, the solar adder has made it possible for almost any homeowner with good sun exposure to obtain financing for a solar electric system. By shaving electric consumption during hot summer days, solar net metering reduces utilities’ need to buy expensive power off the grid. Efficiency measures, combined with net metering, have already deferred $400 million in Vermonters’ future transmission costs by lowering our overall demand for energy. This means real savings on everyone’s monthly energy
Earned Sick Days: H.208
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 well. Have you ever sent your sick child to school because you couldn’t take time off care for her? You probably feared that you would lose your job if you did.
Nearly 60,000 working Vermonters do not have access to any paid time off at all, sick days or otherwise. This is nearly 20% of our workforce, most paid minimum wage – and up to two-thirds are women. They work in our restaurants, our schools, and our hospitality industry. When illness strikes their family, 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.
H.208 proposes that working Vermonters 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. These earned hours must be used 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.
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. 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.
Campaign Finance Law: S.82
A key feature of Vermont electoral campaigns has always been the personal connection between candidates and voters. Vermonters have been demanding that we try to limit the influence of money in our elections. Limiting contributions to candidates encourages this connection by giving candidates an incentive to conduct grassroots campaigns.
Vermont’s previous attempts to retain the personal connection by limiting campaign donations have been subject to numerous legal battles and, unfortunately for our democracy, lost in the highest court in the land. In January, Governor Shumlin signed S.82, a new campaign finance law. Under this new law, effective in January 2015, contributions to local candidates and representatives from individuals and PACs during every 2-year election cycle will be limited to $1,000; contributions to senatorial candidates will be limited to $1,500; and contributions to statewide candidates will be limited to $4,000. Because of legal challenges in other states, Vermont’s proposed limits on aggregate contributions and contributions by independent expenditure PACs are contingent on the outcome of litigation in other states. Vermont’s new law likewise does not place limits on contributions from political parties to candidates because, given the contingent nature of the limit on independent-expenditure PACs, PAC spending could easily outpace political parties.
Some are concerned with the lack of limits on PACs and political parties. However, the bill explains, “If independent expenditure-only political committees are allowed to receive unlimited contributions, they may eclipse political parties. This would be detrimental to the electoral system because such committees can be controlled by a small number of individuals who finance them. In contrast, political parties are created by a representative process of delegates throughout the State.”
Other highlights include more frequent financial disclosures by candidates and PACs or other organizations that pay for election materials, and the Secretary of State will maintain a publicly accessible database with links to reports and donations. These reporting requirements will be in place for the next election cycle.
Military Spouse Unemployment: H.275
When a Vermont-based member of the military must move to a new posting, their spouse, who may have a job here as well, has been unable to collect unemployment benefits when they have to leave their job because of this posting.
H. 275 will rectify this. As passed, a “trailing” spouse will be eligible to apply for unemployment benefits if moving due to a military posting causes them to leave their job.
This is only fair, and will serve as a small financial buffer for their family as they uproot from Vermont to settle elsewhere. There will be no impact on that employer’s experience rating, and so their unemployment insurance rates will not increase because of this circumstance.
Vermont would be the 45th state to enact this legislation. We’re proud to honor the families of active service members who make this sacrifice to keep their family together.