STATE BUDGET: We have a situation in which the budget shortfall is driving policy, when it should be the other way around. This is a defining moment for the Legislature as we weigh “bad” against “worse.”
I believe that taxes are raised to support government services, and there is little, if any, capacity to raise broad-based taxes to cover the shortfall. However, I do not subscribe to the short-term, cynical thinking behind the “starve the beast” attitude toward government, because it results in a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure as a result of fewer people doing more with fewer resources. Further cuts to any program will need to carefully measure short-term savings against potentially expensive long-term costs and negative social implications.
Reserve funds, if strategically used, could cover approximately 20 percent of the shortfall, and vigilant enforcement of existing tax and compliance laws could result in significant additional revenues in the tens of millions.
EDUCATION FUNDING: All things being equal (which they aren’t), Act 60 has delivered education funding equity. However, the complex and contorted funding system that grew out of the Brigham decision and its “fix” (Acts 60 & 68), has not meant tax relief for our rural communities. We currently have a weird two-part hybrid of school funding: 1) statewide property tax appraisal, collection and distribution, combined with 2) what is left of local control — a public vote on a school budget that has been developed by an elected community school board. State-mandated proposals, while seemingly economically efficient, cut at the very heart of rural communities.
I’d propose having the Tax Department broaden the definition of eligible property sales in small towns, which would take some of the pressure off of the need for constant reappraisals. Changing the state reimbursement rate from per-pupil back to a per-pupil block grant is another conversation worth having.
ENERGY: If I was voting today on whether to allow Entergy to apply for a VY license renewal, I would have to vote “no.” I’m not convinced that the current, 38-year-old plant could reliably produce energy as a 40- to 60-year old plant, and I don’t believe that there will be fewer problems emanating from the aging plant.
The decommissioning fund is currently worth about $400 million, estimated costs for the entire process are approximately $1 billion, and Entergy has added no money to the fund since it bought VY. Finally, there is no long-term “home” (or federal solution) for the radioactive waste that is currently stored on site.
A timely example of how Vermont’s major utilities are actively seeking ways to replace VY’s base load power supply with the least expensive power available (whether or not VY’s license expires), is the recently signed 26-year contract with Hydro Quebec.
AGRICULTURE: The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Farm-to-Plate Initiative report is due next January, and will include a current-status assessment of Vermont’s food system and strategic planning, policy and investment recommendations.
It will be a blueprint for agricultural economic development, with the general goals of: helping successful farms continue to do well, opening up new markets and sales opportunities for fresh and processed food, access to affordable land and capital, and continued educational and training opportunities for the next generation of producers — many of whom will come from non-farming backgrounds.
I’ll work hard in the House Agriculture Committee to implement the F2PI recommendations.
HEALTH CARE: As per Act 128, a consultant (Dr. Hsiao, from Harvard) has been hired who has the task of assessing Vermont’s current Health Care situation, studying alternative system options, and making recommendations with regard to the appropriateness and applicability of melding such options in light of the federal reform law.
I believe that there should be affordable access options for everyone, rewards or incentives for good health habits, a decoupling of health care coverage and employment, and reimbursement for hospitals and doctors at levels that enable them to realize a reasonable profit. How this is done, taking into account Dr. Hsiao’s recommendations, will be hotly debated, and I will be looking to support a system of health promotion that measures care by deliverables (or performance), instead of interventions, since it will ensure that we are making progress toward meeting the above goals. The status quo is unacceptable.
JOBS: The best jobs are those in which things of value are produced, and successful long-term economic development rests on our ability to attract and develop businesses that: 1) employ Vermonters, 2) positively contribute to our “brand,” and 3) sustainably utilize our forests, fields, mountains and waterways.
A promising new initiative is the Vermont Agriculture Development Corporation, which pools “slow money” (long-term, relatively low-return venture capital) to be used for loans to “young” Vermont companies looking for capital to grow.
Any specific tax policy proposals for businesses will need to be carefully scrutinized as to optimal return on “investment.”