STATE BUDGET: The last report I have read indicates the deficit looks to be about $112 million. This represents about 8.6 percent of our total spending; so, a lot of money. The Legislature’s mandated “challenges for change” will address about $33 million of the short fall. I have been informed that Gov. Douglas has ordered all agencies and departments of state government to bring forth budgets that show a 6 percent cut from present spending. Even with all that, we will still come up short. The next step will be to take a hard look at where we can be far more efficient: office space utilization, paying for only generic brand drugs, state employee retirement program, education spending through out the entire system (K-16). In short, a review of everything.
Yes, I am very sure, even the Legislature’s compensation. In fact, I would predict, that this year the Legislature will have a much shorter session.
EDUCATION FUNDING: Is Act 68 broken? Some claim it is, but where? It has done what the Vermont Supreme Court had ordered; equality in education funding for all our public schools. Yes, the Common Level of Appraisal, or CLA, is cumbersome, and yes there is a great deal of debate over the fairness of the “rebate” program. The property tax has become an ever greater burden and I am very interested in finding a different way of funding our schools. Education in Vermont is a $1.8-billion-a-year enterprise (K-16). The property tax provides close to $1 billion of that amount.
Even though there are a host of other taxes that make up the difference, the property tax carries the brunt of the load. For a host of reasons, the Legislature and the next administration must continue to search for more creative ways to fund education and take as much burden off the property tax as possible.
ENERGY: I voted not to renew Vermont Yankee’s license. I think it would be a major mistake to push an aging nuclear reactor 20 years longer than its original design specifications. It was given a 40-year life span for a reason: technology changes and “stuff” wears out. The longest-running nuclear facility in the United States ran for 41 years. The longest running nuclear plant in the world ran for 47. It, in my judgment, would be a huge mistake to push VY to an unheard of 60 years.
In testimony before Senate Finance, we were informed that we have plenty of power in the grid. Central Vermont Public Service and Green Mountain Power have been making plans to buy less and less of their load from Vermont Yankee. The press has been running articles about both companies as they buy their future demand from other sources. By the way, VY had increased its price by 50 percent.
AGRICULTURE: When we speak about Vermont agriculture, it no longer means just commodity dairy. It now includes organic dairy and locally grown foodstuffs for local consumption. My guess is, your question concerns commodity dairy. At the moment, the price of milk is “up”; the price being driven by exports. The problem lies in the fact that cow numbers are down, but milk production is up — it has been increasing for the past seven months. This could bring a drop in price by February. We want to keep our farms; they represent a huge part of our economy.
This is what we have done just while I have been in the Senate: passed legislation to remove “hauling and stop charges” (we now need New York state to join our effort) and send those costs up stream like all other businesses do. We gave financial grants to farmers in 2006 and loans in 2009 and 2010. We have supported conservation programs, farm viability, transition to organic, “cow power” projects and financial programs through the Vermont Economic Development Authority. We have supported all efforts that have been put forth at the federal level to manage the milk supply. My next approach is talk with our dairy co-ops about the possibility of “vertically integrating” much more of their milk supply.
HEALTH CARE: In the last legislative session, we passed Act 128, which orders a study of “design options.” This will give the 2011 Legislature actual facts and financial figures relating to three different ways to provide health care access for all Vermonters and for the payment of such. Those “options” are: a single payer, public option and a system that is designed by the hired consultant. That report is due before the Legislature on or before Feb. 1. Concerning the new federal health care bill, that is an on going study. The big question is, can Vermont get the necessary waivers from the feds to run our own system?
JOBS: Economic development will be a major focus of the next legislative session. Our work to bring broadband to all corners of Vermont will continue. The next major phase of our economy will be citizens that are very computer savvy and price conscious. Vermont must be prepared. Next, Vermont needs a “business plan” to help guide, focus and fine tune our efforts. Such a plan will allow us to measure our progress in such areas as small business development, agriculture, commerce. It will also bring into focus those laws, rules and regulations that need to change with the times.
Further, we need to have our local economic development regions expanded. A larger area will encourage greater communications and cooperation in our local development efforts. The Legislature must adequately fund this effort to ensure success. I am very optimistic about our economic future: We are hard-working, educated, creative, determined, savvy Vermonters that know how to pull together.