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Very productive legislative session

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May 31, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington said the state should be proud of what she characterized as a “very productive” 2007 session during which lawmakers passed initiatives that will have a long-term, rather than a short-term, payoff.

Symington, a Jericho Democrat, acknowledged that while the Legislature did not make a lot of big headlines and breakthroughs on issues like property tax reform, she believes lawmakers did take important steps to ensure that Vermonters will have energy savings, a better telecommunications network and stronger farms in the future.

“We lived up to the promises we made as we started the session,” Symington said during an interview last week at the Addison Independent. “For me, the statement I began the session with was, ‘What we do today is about the tomorrow we are building.’ We need to make decisions right now that are going to determine the quality of jobs, the quality of community life and the quality of landscape our grandchildren’s children are going to be working in. I think that was reflected in the work we took on.”

Symington said House leadership, for a second year in a row, set three legislative priorities back in January: energy, health care and rural economic development.

While the Legislature did not expand upon the new Catamount Health plan that will kick in this fall for uninsured Vermonters, it did pass H.531, a bill that essentially codifies the new law and clarifies its funding stream.

“(H.531) is a bill that essentially said, ‘We meant it’ (on health care),” Symington said.

She said she was proud to see lawmakers focus on long-term energy policy for the state, looking ahead to when Vermont’s contracts with Vermont Yankee and HydroQuebec expire by the year 2015.

FOCUS ON ENERGY

The Legislature ultimately passed H.520, the so-called “climate change energy bill” that expands opportunities for small-scale renewable energy projects. The measure also includes funding for Efficiency Vermont to supply homes with energy efficiency information and solutions to conserve heating fuels. Efficiency Vermont has historically been limited to providing conservation tips and assistance for electricity only.

Gov. James Douglas, a Middlebury Republican, has served notice that he will veto the bill based on one of its primary funding sources — a tax on Vermont Yankee that would generate a combined total of $25 million over 3.25 years (ending in fiscal year 2012). Of that $25 million, $14.8 million would be earmarked for the expanded role of Efficiency Vermont.

Symington said she hopes Douglas reconsiders his veto threat. If he doesn’t, she said she would “make a case for overriding his veto.” That showdown on H.520 would take place on July 11, according to Symington.

“It would be very disappointing to be a year behind in making a significant impact on Vermonters’ pocketbooks,” Symington said of the impact of a successful veto of H.520.

Asked how she would characterize her current working relationship with Douglas, she replied “as long as we’re working on something he cares about, it’s great. I think he doesn’t show the same respect to the Legislature when we say, ‘We’re serious about the energy future of this state, and making sure Vermonters can afford to keep themselves warm. He’s not at the table, and that’s a frustration.”

CELL PHONE ADVANCES

Symington hailed passage of H.248, the so-called telecommunications bill, which establishes a Vermont Telecommunications Authority that will bond for up to $40 million to help spread cell phone and high-speed Internet access throughout the state by 2010.

Lawmakers hope H.248 will greatly enhance Vermont’s ability to attract businesses that require upgraded phone/computer services.

“That was a real accomplishment,” Symington said. “And I think it’s an example of what can happen when we talk ahead of time and try to work with the administration. The administration put a skeleton of a plan and some ideas on the table, and we really gave them our full attention and fleshed them out.”

TRANSPORTATION ISSUES

While the state’s tele­communications infrastructure is poised to get a shot in the arm, Symington is concerned about Vermont’s transportation infra­struc­ture. Lawmakers did lobby successfully for funding for public transportation and funds for local transportation programs, but fell short of allocating what is really needed to repair and replace state culverts, roads and bridges, according to Symington.

“We are $140 million short of what we need to be putting into our roads and bridges and rail system every year,” Symington said. “That’s not a couple of cents on the gas tax; that’s a structural issue we’ve got to face up to.”

KEEPING YOUTH AT HOME

Symington agreed with Douglas that the state needs to do more to keep its young population in Vermont. But while Douglas has touted scholarships as a means of accomplishing that goal, Symington and other Democrat leaders take a different tack.

“The Legislature said (scholarships) are too simplistic,” Symington said. There is more to this. We also have to think about kids for whom college isn’t an option, who are seeking technical skills to move into trades. We need to better match the skills of kids graduating from college or other education institutions with the needs of employers.”

Symington was pleased that Douglas and the Legislature were able to agree on H.433, which, among other things, establishes a “workforce education and training fund” to get Vermont students the training they need to land jobs in the Green Mountain State.

FARM BILL

Lawmakers also passed laws on behalf of farmers, according to Symington. Among them was H.522, the so-called “farm liability bill,” which includes provisions that allow small poultry farms to process birds without an inspection requirement, provides for a mobile slaughterhouse, and establishes a policy for the state to buy local produce and dairy.

The speaker is also pleased the Legislature passed a bill that could soon free Vermont dairies from having to pay stop and hauling charges associated with getting their milk to processors.

“I think that’s solid work,” Symington said. “There was a lot of solid work this legislative session.”

Symington has mixed feelings on H.526, the General Assembly’s answer — at least for this year — on education finance reform. The measure allows schools to present annual budget increases that are based on the following formula: The average of per-pupil spending statewide, multiplied by a factor of the consumer price index (CPI), plus 1 percent. A district that wants to spend above the increase figured using that formula would have to warn that request as a separate item on their town meeting warning. Plans call for the bill to be fully implemented by 2009.

“I think what we came up with is a compromise,” Symington said. “Some think we should’ve gone further; others think we went too far. But for me, I think it reinforces the basic dynamic behind school spending, which is no matter where you live, the more you spend, the more you pay — whether you pay based on income or property.”

She added she’s glad the Legislature did not endorse an arbitrary spending cap or a system through which large school budget increases would have to be endorsed by a “super majority vote” of the public.

“We won’t go further in discussing ‘Montpelier knows best’ education spending boundaries,” Symington said.

Symington said lawmakers will have time to “tweak” H. 526 before it takes effect on 2009.

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