By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers and state leaders hailed the 2006 legislative session as one of the most productive in recent memory, with health care reform, energy conservation initiatives and Addison County’s take in the capital bill topping the list of accomplishments.
“This session has shown why Vermonters can be proud of our citizen legislature,” said Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, a Windsor County Democrat. “We wrestled with the difficult issues of improving our health care system, developing a future-oriented energy policy, expanding opportunities for higher education, and protecting our communities. In each case, this Legislature has found effective solutions that will serve the people of Vermont.”
Welch, during a phone interview, said Addison County should be particularly pleased with the almost $3 million it received through the fiscal year 2007 capital bill. The bill includes $2.2 million to pay the state’s share of debt on the Patricia Hannaford A. Career Center expansion and renovation project; approximately $300,000 for a weed harvester and related equipment to clear milfoil from the southern portion of Lake Champlain; and $100,000 to finish off the new Vermont State Police barracks off Route 7 in New Haven.
Middlebury, Addison County’s shire town, saw its proposed Cross Street Bridge added to the Vermont Agency of Transportation’s projects list. And the Legislature also agreed to earmark $90,000 toward a study of septic systems that could work in Addison County’s difficult clay soils — a study that will be profiled in a future issue of the Addison Independent.
The Independent interviewed nine of the county’s 11 lawmakers to get their highlights of the 2006 session.
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge
Ayer was particularly enthused about the large number of energy-related bills that passed the Legislature in 2006. They included new efficiency standards for new appliances and equipment (such as furnaces and boilers) to be sold in Vermont; expanded net metering programs that will allow homeowners to more easily sell their own wind and/or solar power back to the state’s power grid; a series of state goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2012, 50 percent by 2028, and 75 percent by 2050; a “growth centers” bill that encourages communities to take more control of their energy needs; and a requirement that the state Legislature give its OK before the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant can be authorized to operate beyond 2012.
Ayer, a member of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, believes that Vermont will need to be increasingly vigilant over its power needs in the coming years — not only because of the increasing costs of fossil fuels, but because of the impending expiration of the state’s current contracts with HydroQuebec and Vermont Yankee.
“We’ve got to figure out how to make our own power, and use less,” Ayer said.
Ayer is also pleased that the Legislature passed a health care reform bill, and said she’s pleased with her role in brokering a deal between OMYA and the state on disposal strategies for the mining company’s calcium carbonate waste.
Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes
Clark, a member of the House Education Committee and a teacher at Mount Abraham Union High School, touted the “farm-to-school” initiative as one of the Legislature’s top accomplishments. The initiative increases nutritional education in Vermont schools and makes it easier for farmers to sell their products in public school cafeterias.
Clark said the bill’s benefits are two-fold; farmers benefit economically by selling their products to schools, while the students get a healthier diet of fresh produce.
“If the kids have a healthier choice with their food, isn’t that good for the future of health care users?” Clark said.
Clark voted for of the Catamount Health bill, though he has concerns about whether it will be financially sustainable in the future.
He praised the passage of legislation that he strengthens home schooling and the ability of adults to get their diplomas later in life.
Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln
Fisher, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, said he was most pleased with legislative efforts to create a prescription drug monitoring program; facilitate end-of-life planning; and develop a new state hospital that would replace the facility in Waterbury.
Unlike most of the county’s legislative delegation, Fisher did not vote in favor of the Catamount Health plan. He said he believes the bill continues the current trend of “segmenting” health care consumers into separate risk pools. Fisher believes the state needs to move toward placing consumers into a single risk pool — something he believes would improve services and decrease costs.
“I feel this bill continued the current (health care system) too much,” Fisher said.
Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport
Giard fielded a lot of local issues in his work on the Senate Agriculture and Institutions Committees. On Senate Institutions, he and Ayer lobbied for the county’s financial requests in the capital bill.
On Senate Agriculture, Giard promoted a series of farm-related initiatives, including one that requests that Vermont dairy farmers be relieved from paying hauling and stop charges for vehicles that pick up milk at their farms.
Giard added he was also pleased to see the Legislature pass health care reform and approve increased funding for adult day care centers, the Vermont Agency on Aging, child care and special investigating units focusing on sex offenders.
“This was a tremendous legislative sessions,” Giard said. “Addison County gained.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton
As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Jewett spent a lot time crafting legislation that will create the sex offender investigative units in each county; mandatory five-year sentences for aggravated assault; and lifetime supervision by the Vermont Department of Corrections for the worst offenders.
Jewett said the state has committed money for developing a strategic plan on how Vermont will respond to sex abuse cases.
In non-judiciary matters, Jewett was pleased the Legislature was able to come up with a state match to leverage an extra $100 million in federal transportation dollars during the next five years. He is concerned, however, at the rising costs of construction.
“It suggests we won’t be able to get much more done with the extra $100 million,” Jewett said.
Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury
As a member of the House Committee on Health Care, Maier played a big role in shaping the Catamount Health plan. He called the plan — which will offer coverage to an estimated 25,000 Vermonters who are currently uninsured — “potentially historic.”
Beyond health care, Maier said the 2006 Legislature can be proud of having passed several bills promoting renewable energy and energy conservation. Lawmakers also endorsed initiatives to strengthen rural economies through environmental protection rules and encouraging broadband Internet access in rural Vermont, according to Maier.
“I think it was a great session,” Maier said. “I think we accomplished a huge amount. I am pleased and honored to have been a part of it.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol
Sharpe, as a member of the House Transportation Committee, took an active role in lobbying for local road and bridge projects in Addison County. He said he was pleased to have successfully advocated for such projects as Middlebury’s Cross Street bridge, repairs to Field Days Road, and replacement/repair of bridges in Bristol, Lincoln and Leicester.
“I tried to make sure they were all in the state’s schedule,” Sharpe said.
He also played a role in leveraging the state match for the extra $100 million in federal highway money, though he’s concerned about the state’s ability to sustain its share in future years. He noted that a large chunk of this year’s match is dependent on the state’s general fund dollars, a resource Sharpe said is bound to get even more scarce in the years ahead.
While Sharpe voted in favor of the Catamount Health plan, he said it was “not as comprehensive a plan as I would have liked. But doing nothing was not an option for me.”
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury
“I think it was a great session,” said Nuovo, who served on the House Ways and Means Committee. “We got a whole lot done on some very important issues.”
Those issues, according to Nuovo, included health care reform; a bill that reduces 2007 statewide property tax rates by 7 cents and consolidates the prebate and rebate payments under Act 68; a new study that will inventory the state’s groundwater supply and propose how it can be protected; new programs that will crack down on stalking and sexual assault; and various energy-related initiatives that will encourage use of efficient household appliances and reduce people’s exposure to mercury.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven
Smith, a veteran member of the House Agriculture Committee, dealt with a wide array of farm-related proposals during the 2006 session, including the Farmer Protection Act. The measure would have allowed organic farmers to pursue nuisance complaints against manufacturers of genetically modified seeds, in cases where genetic material from those seeds drifts to an adjacent farm and cross-pollination occurs.
Gov. James Douglas this week vetoed the bill, though Smith believes the issue will resurface.
Smith said supporters of the bill “have vowed they will continue to battle, and come back to the Legislature.
“Hopefully, we will find solutions continuing in our tradition of working together,” he added.