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Lawmakers take stock of session

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Posted on May 20, 2010 |
By John Flowers



MONTPLIER — Area lawmakers cited advances in health care legislation; funding for the Champlain Bridge along with loans for businesses affected by its closure; and preservation of the Addison County Probate Court system as among several local victories scored during a money-strapped 2010 legislative session.

“I think that overall, this was a very successful session based on the circumstances in which we worked,” said Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport.

“When money is in short supply, it dominates the entire session.”

While Gov. James Douglas has yet to sign into law some key bills — including the fiscal year 2011 budget and a new health care measure passed before adjournment last week — legislative leaders voiced optimism this week they and the executive branch could reach consensus and avoid a special session to consider veto overrides.

Much of the heavy lifting of the 2010 session involved navigating the state’s fiscal ship through $154 million in red ink. Through a series of budget cuts, rescissions and other cost-cutting measures, lawmakers left Montpelier last week confident they had balanced the books. Their ultimate success will be measured, in part, by the performance of a “Challenges for Change” cost-cutting bill that sought to cut $38 million from ongoing state spending — such as by reducing the state’s inmate population and cutting human services. Sen. Claire Ayer said lawmakers could only identify around $32 million in “Challenges” savings, so the budget will have to be closely monitored.

While the state’s general fund was in trouble, Vermont had a record amount of money to spend on repairing roads and bridges, thanks in part to federal economic stimulus money and new tax revenues from gas and diesel fuels. All told, Addison County placed five major projects on the fiscal year 2011 state paving list and another six on the state bridge program list, dominated by the upcoming replacement of the Champlain Bridge. Vermont’s share for that replacement span — expected to be functioning by the summer of 2011 — is estimated at $55,250,000.

Lawmakers also agreed to earmark $800,000 in federal stimulus funds for no- and low-interest loans for businesses that suffered losses as a result of the Champlain Bridge closure last Oct. 16. Loan amounts range from $1,000 to $25,000 and can be borrowed for up to 10 years. There is no principal or interest due for the first two years of the loan. For additional information or to request a loan application, business owners need to contact the Addison County Economic Development Corp. in Middlebury at 388-7953 or by email at rpscheu@addisoncountyedc.org or jmolineaux@addisoncountyedc.org. The program ends Oct. 31, 2010.

Porter Medical center received $40,000 in reimbursement, related to per diem it extended to workers traveling from New York State.

PROPERTY VALUATIONS

The Legislature this past session also agreed to temporarily freeze property valuations on hydro property located in Vermont communities, including in Weybridge, Middlebury and other Addison County towns. Those hydro property valuations plummeted last year and therefore figured to result in a huge dip in property tax revenues in some towns before the problem was corrected.

Addison County Probate Court will continue to function on its own and will not be merged with courts in Rutland and Bennington counties. Lawmakers had considered such a merger, among others, in an effort to cut $1 million within the state judiciary.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and a veteran member of the House Judiciary Committee, noted the Legislature did realize $1 million through a judicial restructuring bill that consolidates the existing family, district, superior, environmental and probate courts into a single “Unified Superior Court” with family, criminal, civil, environmental and probate divisions. The move results in all court staff being designated as state employees under the management of the court administrator.

“This important government efficiency measure saves $1 million in the general fund and an additional $1.2 million in property taxes (through county budget savings); it allows the court to ‘buy-back’ the existing court closures and reopen our courts; and, most importantly, it gives the Vermont Supreme Court the tools it needs to manage the entire judicial system,” Jewett said.

Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, said he is pleased the Legislature passed S.88, a bill that calls for a consultant — under the oversight of the Vermont Health Care Commission — to design three different health care system options (including single-payer) for Vermont that could be ready for implementation by July 2012.

Maier, chairman of the House Health care Committee and co-chair of the Vermont Health Care Commission, said it remains uncertain whether S.88 will be signed by the governor. Douglas told Vermont Public Radio this week that the expenditure on the consultant was a waste of money, and he didn’t like a requirement that pharmaceutical companies must report the number of free samples they distribute in the state; but he liked the expansion of a program to provide preventative medicine services and cap hospital budgets.

If signed, S.88 would result in the consultant releasing an initial report to the 2011 Legislature in February.

“I am reasonably confident the governor will sign the bill,” Maier said.

Giard cited other 2010 session accomplishments about which the Legislature should be proud. The include:

• The ban on texting while driving and sell phone regulations for teen drivers.

• An $8.665 million economic stimulus package designed to help Vermont businesses.

• New insurance provisions for young autism patients.

• The vote against re-licensing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant.

• New slaughterhouse regulations that provide for more humane treatment of animals.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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