STATE BUDGET: The level of expenditures in the Vermont state budget is unsustainable until such time as a significant and reliable increase in revenues is seen. The only way to increase those revenues is to grow the economy, which needs to happen but will not occur overnight. In the meantime, the challenge to the new legislature is two-fold:
(a) Find areas of unnecessary expense by assessing need for services currently provided. Many positions have already been eliminated, and staff is often trying to do just as much with very limited personnel. This may reduce the quality and efficiency of essential services. Every agency and department must consider what services can be eliminated or provided in a different, less costly way. It will be important to include all employees in this effort.
(b) At the same time, make investments and adjustments to strengthen Vermont’s economy and job growth.
EDUCATION FUNDING: Anyone who studies the education funding system and adjustments made to it in the last few years—or even worse, tries to explain it to someone else—knows how incredibly complex and confusing it is. Schools are primarily funded through a statewide property tax on residential and commercial property with an income sensitivity component for reducing payment by homeowners with household incomes of $90,000 or less.
Far more than to the funding system itself, taxpayers object to the cost. Despite recent legislative efforts and hard work by school boards to hold costs down, taxpayers often say it is not enough, pointing out dropping enrollments. The Vermont League of Cities and Towns may recommend the creation of a new system that includes a focus on cost containment. I feel the legislature must again consider public concerns regarding cost, always mindful of the importance of providing high quality education to our young people.
ENERGY: The availability of reliable energy at a predictable cost is a basic need of homeowners and is an important factor when businesses and manufacturers consider locating in Vermont. Vermont Yankee provides about a third of the state’s electricity at a rate lower than other sources, but serious concerns have come to light regarding safety and management of the facility. These concerns must, of course, be thoroughly investigated. If the facility is deemed safe and reliable with an acceptable plan for monitoring and maintaining future safety, I would support renewal of the Vermont Yankee license. VY has served us well, but we must be assured that it will continue to do so.
A new contract with Hydro Quebec will provide an important and reliable energy source at competitive rates. I also support expanded development of cost effective alternative energy sources. Solar, wind, biomass, and small hydro projects all have a place in a balanced energy portfolio.
AGRICULTURE: Our farmers, many in difficult situations because of milk prices, often are issued costly requirements when environmental regulations are put into place. Financial assistance in implementing any new regulatory requirements could be helpful.
The Agriculture Department could present opportunities for and help with diversification. They could help find and coordinate new markets. Existing efforts can be continued and increased, including use of local products in Vermont institutions, promotion of agri-tourism, and support for makers of wine and hard liquor. Further development of biomass projects, some using grass products and timber, can be encouraged.
HEALTH CARE: I do not believe Vermont should embark on another health care plan at this time. The Blueprint for Health, which includes emphasis on healthy behaviors and preventing chronic disease, has not yet been fully implemented, and the new federal program’s effects are still an unknown. We need time to determine if changes are necessary. That said, legislation providing medical malpractice reform would be in order at this time. Such a law would protect patient rights and safety but discourage frivolous lawsuits that increase the cost of health care for us all.
JOBS: Good jobs don’t just happen. They are provided by good employers, and Vermont must work with existing and potential new employers to increase job openings. We need incentives for entrepreneurs to start a business in Vermont and for competitive, financially sound, and environmentally friendly companies to locate here. We need to expedite permitting for businesses seeking to expand their facilities.
We need to promote/expand existing initiatives and supports: Buy Local efforts, Vermont Employment Growth Incentive (VEGI), the Small Business Development Center (SBDC), the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). All can help our businesses survive the current economic situation and support job growth as we emerge from it.