Rep. Fred Baser: First year in Legislature spawns hope
The 2015 legislative session has ended. At times it felt like a rodeo, full of surprises. I serve on the Commerce and Economic Development Committee. We passed six bills out of our committee that became law. All these bills either benefit consumers or advance our state economy. My committee efforts were among the most satisfying times of the session.
The keynote Commerce Committee legislation was an economic development bill that strengthened existing efforts and created several new economic development measures. Notable in the bill is a first-time homebuyer program that awards first-time homebuyers in the state a $5,000 interest-free loan to put toward their down payment. Participants must qualify for their mortgage and meet certain income standards to reap the benefits of the program. The bill also assists working Vermonters on Medicaid disability. These individuals will be permitted to have greater earnings and savings and still qualify for Medicaid benefits.
Vermont students graduating from one of our fine colleges or universities can obtain college loan forgiveness if they choose a career in Vermont. The Economic Development Bill also includes measures to strengthen job training and intern programs, create additional small business loan opportunities, and offer opportunities for Vermont businesses to grow employment. It has studies to create an employee relocation benefit, plus one to develop a path for our technical education high schools toward existing and future jobs in state. Finally, the bill repeals the Cloud Tax, which sends a positive message to the tech industry.
A broad-based education bill becomes law July 1. The bill tries to control property tax increases while supporting equity and the quality of education. While I voted for this measure, there is good news and bad news in this bill. The good news is cost containment measures that guide school districts to limit per pupil spending to certain parameters. Penalties will be assessed if school budgets exceed per pupil spending targets. There are also cost saving incentives for districts that consolidate. The first-year savings for merging school districts is 10 percent of the homestead property tax. Also positive is the fact that merging schools, should they choose, can maintain their local school boards and retain many of their current responsibilities. Plus small schools can remain open if they demonstrate excellence in their operation.
On the questionable side are the answers to these questions: Will school budgets and property taxes be restrained? Will our kids’ education improve? Are we losing even more local control over our schools? Plus, this bill does nothing to simplify the complex education funding formula. Time will give us the answers to these questions and what if any adjustments may be advisable.
I also supported the Clean Water Bill, which takes steps to control the five major contributors to phosphorous run off. The bill deals with agriculture, development, roadways, forestland runoff and municipal sewer system controls. Between state and federal money, we will dedicate about $60 million to the effort.
I supported the Energy Bill that protects the value of renewable energy credits that will help control everyone’s electric rates. The bill also makes an effort to increase renewable energy and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
The Legislature also took some modest steps to involve communities in the siting of future solar projects by creating a study group to recommend how towns can enjoy greater involvement. The bill did establish setback and screening standards for solar arrays, plus towns are now party to the Public Service Board’s permit process.
Other bills of note include a measure to improve Vermont’s system for protecting children from abuse and neglect. The philosophical exemption for vaccinations was eliminated. Death with Dignity was confirmed, and a telecommunication bill that set up a new authority to advance our broadband access was passed.
I did not support the budget or tax bills. Our state spending has gone up far more rapidly than Vermonters’ incomes or the GDP of the state. The 2016 General Fund is projected to be 4.1 percent higher than last year. It was necessary to raise taxes, to the tune of about $50 million, in order to reach a balanced budget. The educational property taxes were also raised for the coming year. We are spending too much money and the lack of corresponding revenue is putting a great deal of pressure on our resources. We are already anticipating another budget shortfall for fiscal year 2017. More restraint in our fiscal management is needed. I believe this can be done without damaging our government infrastructure or the many programs we have that have shown good results.
My experience this session was great. I made new friends, helped craft meaningful legislation, and did my best to represent my constituents well. Vermont’s legislative process works. While the some of the policy decisions made can be challenged, all bills receive a great deal of testimony by affected parties prior to reaching the floor. Bills also may travel through multiple committees prior to a vote. Floor discussion is often very vigorous. Democracy can be emotional and difficult, but the process gives me hope for the future.