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Winter Reading

February 8, 2015

reptomstevens

Detail, Carpet, Hall of Representatives

And just like that, one month of the legislative session has passed. As has been the case in each biennium I have represented this district, we hit the ground running because the issues we are addressing are of such importance to the well-being and sustainability of the state. From a budget gap to the health of Lake Champlain to education finance and governance reforms to health care and renewable energy, our plate resembles a third trip to the all-you-can-eat-buffet: topped off and precariously balanced.

Because it is a new biennium, and because many of our committees have been rejiggered, we have spent a lot of time being educated about the issues each committee deals with in detail. And with a large influx of new legislators — 35 this year — this education is necessary and welcome. In the case of my committee, we have already received background on veteran’s issues, homelessness, affordable housing, mobile homes, emergency housing, cemeteries, earned sick days, alcohol and lottery law and labor issues, including addressing a teacher’s right to strike. Each of these issues, to an outsider or a citizen who only reads about the issues online or in the newspaper, may seem esoteric, but they are connected by the fact that Vermonters across the state are hoping we can help them by giving them the right tools to help them succeed.

Besides testimony, we are being given a lot of reading to do for research. Some of this material is considered pro forma — annual reports, brochures, etc. — but a lot of it is integral to our understanding of the issues. For instance, if you would like to join us in contemplation of making our income tax system more equitable and transparent, you may want to read the Blue Ribbon Tax Structure Commission Final Report from 2011. The recommendations in the report are some of the clearest we have ever seen in reforming our tax structure — and they are so clear that they have been put aside because they have been interpreted as too disruptive to our year-to-year collection of taxes. This doesn’t mean we won’t address this shift this year, so I have bookmarked it and am spending time educating myself so that when it does come forward, I will know the issue better.

Over the past two years, our legislative website has become more transparent and, this year, much more user friendly. Driven by the desire to save on paper (imagine a committee of 11 receiving numerous drafts of 25 page bills over the course of a session versus being able to call them up on a computer or iPad) and to make our work more accessible, the state has invested in making the public information we receive easier to search for and find online.

Perhaps education reform is your cup of tea? On the House Education Committee’s webpage, you may read all of the same handouts or copies of testimony received by the committee. By doing so, you can begin to glean the depth of difficulty involved with trying to balance governance reforms with finance reforms, not to mention with trying to enhance achievement of successful educational outcomes. If you are concerned with the legislation surrounding background checks, you can visit the Senate Judiciary page to read supporting or dissenting documents or search from the Legislature home page for the text of the bill. And to learn about how complex it will be to create “green burial grounds,” take a look at my committee‘s site and read the materials presented so far.

I encourage you to read along with us. I receive a lot of phone calls and emails discussing these topics and when I respond with the links for these sites, most folks are pleased that we can provide this information. Our decision making process often seems to be shrouded in mystery only because there is so much going on at the same time. Visit our website, find our committees, search for the issues you are interested in, spend your snowy nights reading and let us know what you think.

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