State looks to fund new road repairs

BRISTOL — Local lawmakers on Monday hailed the Vermont House’s passage last week of proposed fiscal year 2013 General Fund and transportation budgets, spending plans they said would maintain key services for Vermonters while beefing up repairs to the Vermont’s roads and bridges.

The $5.01 billion state budget reflects a 6.4 percent hike in spending but will not require any increase in broad-based taxes,  Rep. Willem Jewett said at the Legislative Breakfast in Bristol. The Ripton Democrat serves as assistant majority leader of the House.

“The economy is rebounding a bit,” Jewett said in explaining that increased state revenues are underwriting the spending increase.

Also rebounding — to the tune of $104 million in new spending — is the Transportation Bill, a $658 million budget that includes $1.5 million in additional funding for town highway aid. Addison County and Brandon’s cut of that $1.5 million amounts to just under $123,000 (see chart), with Middlebury, Ferrisburgh, Bridport and Lincoln netting some of the largest increases.

This is the first time in seven years that the state has increased town highway aid, noted Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, a member of the House Transportation Committee.

Jewett explained the state’s fiscal year 2013 budget is benefiting greatly from federal funds associated with Tropical Storm Irene recovery.

“Much of the story of the budget is Irene recovery,” Jewett said. “The total of new dollars in the budget is $300 million, and roughly half of that is directly related to Irene. One might say the biggest story here is we’re able to do Irene recovery without raising broad-based taxes — something they did not do the last time a hurricane tore the state apart.”

Jewett noted the budget includes a financial safety valve for communities hit hardest by Irene last August. Under normal circumstances, communities would bear 5 percent of storm recovery costs — which would still have been a huge number for many of the towns hammered by Irene. Instead, communities’ exposure will be limited to 3 cents on their respective tax rates, according to Jewett. For Hancock — ravaged by Irene — that means a $10,000 local contribution for a bill that would have otherwise been dramatically higher. New Haven resident Spence Putnam said at Monday’s breakfast that he attended a recent meeting in Hancock at which it was disclosed the town sustained $2 million in damage to a combined total of eight miles of roads.

There was some additional good, local news in the Transportation Bill.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, said Bristol’s share of the upcoming replacement of the South Street Bridge will be limited to 5 percent, as opposed to the customary 10 percent (See story, Page 12A). The town was able to secure that lower share, Sharpe explained, because it agreed to close the road and detour traffic rather than insist on a temporary bridge.

“I was pleased with that,” Sharpe said of the reduced project share.

Lanpher said she was pleased the state is able to beef up its transportation budget at a time when the economy is beginning to revive.

“After the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds came in, I thought we would never see another (transportation) budget above $600 million,” Lanpher said.

It is a budget that reflects a 20-percent bump in spending, but that drops down to a 2-percent bump when one omits increased federal aid, according to Lanpher.

She and other local lawmakers were candid in their criticism of some of their colleagues whom they said voted in favor of the Irene recovery plans (139-0 on the House floor) but against the budget that will make those repairs possible. Around 40 lawmakers voted against the budget.

“I couldn’t understand,” said Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln. “It was shocking to me.”

Lanpher cautioned, however, that while the transportation budget features $104 million in new funds, the state is not yet completely sure how much Irene recovery is going to cost.

“It will be many years before we actually do know… ” Lanpher said.

Other highlights of the Transportation Bill, according to Lanpher, were:

•  $123 million for town, state and interstate bridges.

•  $100 million for paving.

•  23 new positions at the Vermont Agency of Transportation, 17 of which will be two-year posts directly related to Irene recovery. Six of the posts are permanent, and three of them have been allotted to the rail division.

The General Fund and transportation budget proposals will now go to the Senate, which is not expected to substantially change what the House has recommended, according to lawmakers. House and Senate leaders are eyeing April 27 for adjournment of the 2012 session, according to Jewett.

REAPPORTIONMENT

Other discussion at Monday’s gathering focused on:

•      Reapportionment. A statewide committee that focused on revising the Legislature’s House and Senate district boundaries based on the 2010 census numbers had recommended that Brandon leave the Addison County senatorial district and return to the Rutland County district. The committee — which included former Sen. Gerry Gossens, D-Salisbury — also suggested that Charlotte move from Chittenden County’s senatorial district into Addison County’s.

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, noted Chittenden County’s legislative delegation is dead-set against losing Charlotte, and that the Senate might be asked instead to endorse the exit of Brandon but forego the proposed move of Charlotte.

•  Creation of a rainy day fund, as surpluses become available, to help boost the state’s Education Fund and mitigate the impacts of future federal cuts.

•  A proposed increase in Vermont Yankees electricity generation tax to fund, among other things, the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund and Education Fund.

•  The proposed merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service Corp., the state’s two largest electric utilities. Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, noted there is a growing call from some citizens and organizations that the merged company reimburse utility ratepayers for the $21 million in loans they extended to CVPS 10 years ago when the it was experiencing financial troubles. The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, on which Ralston sits, will be examining that request — as well as another suggestion that a large portion of the loan repayment be dedicated to the state’s weatherization program — in the days to come.

“(The companies) want to return it to us in ‘great service,’ basically, with no cash moves,” Ayer said of the utilities’ recent pronouncements on the topic.

•  Scheduled road repairs this summer to portions of Route 125 (up to Hancock); Route 17, between the intersections of Routes 22A and 7; and potentially Route 22A from Shoreham to Addison.

Lanpher said state transportation officials will be touring Addison County roads on April 2.

•  Health care. Vermont lawmakers are keenly watching the debate in Washington, D.C., as the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments that could affect implementation of national health care law. Ayer, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee and Fisher, chairman of the House Health Care Committee, said the state has laid the groundwork to transition to the federal program.

“We are ahead of all the other states in the country except for Rhode Island,” Ayer said of Vermont’s preparations, which include developing a health care exchange.

“We also have legislation in place so that in the event that whole system isn’t ready, we have options — the insurance companies will continue to be able to function the way they are,” Ayer said.

The next Legislative Breakfast will be held at the Middlebury American Legion Hall on Boardman Street in Middlebury on Monday, April 2. The program begins at 7:30 a.m.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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