ADDISON COUNTY — Local lawmakers hailed the 2012 legislative session as one of the most productive in recent memory, producing what they said were some major advances in fortifying the state’s roads and bridges, devising a new search-and-rescue policy and advancing health care reform.
It was a busy session that featured a lot of bipartisan cooperation in passing major legislation, according to Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and House majority whip. He cited, as an example, a reapportionment bill that made substantial changes to House and Senate district boundaries. That bill, which in part calls for the Addison County senatorial district to swap Brandon for Huntington and Buel’s Gore, passed with fewer than 10 “no” votes, according to Jewett.
“We passed the budget with 18 ‘no’ votes and the fee bill went through on a voice vote,” Jewett said. “The (fiscal year 2013) capital bill didn’t even go to conference committee.”
Democrats hold an almost two-to-one majority over Republicans in the House (and a similar majority in the senate), but Jewett said the cooperation between major parties this year was exemplary.
That cooperation was also in place for a search-and-rescue bill inspired by the tragic loss of 19-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven. Duclos died of hypothermia during a trek on a Ripton trail in frigid weather last January. His family voiced concern about the lack of timely search response by the Vermont State Police, a criticism that was echoed across the state. The new law establishes an interim policy requiring state officials to immediately respond to such calls and work in conjunction with municipal and civilian search and rescue organizations. It also established a summer study committee to further evaluate the state’s search and rescue policy and make recommendations on how the state’s system could be improved.
“We are relieved that the search and rescue bill has passed the House and Senate and that Vermonters are assured a high level of search and rescue response from now on,” Kathy Duclos, Levi’s aunt, wrote in a statement on behalf of the family.
Two Addison County lawmakers played significant roles in advancing a health benefits exchange, a requirement under the federal Affordable Care Act. The Vermont health benefit exchange will include a program to assist income-eligible residents and employers in enrolling in a qualified health benefit plan subsidized in part through federal tax credits.
“We took an important step forward in health care reform this year,” said Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln and chairman of the House Health Care Committee. “There will be significant tax subsidies to enable people to afford access to the care that they need, starting in 2014.”
The exchange, Fisher said, will also throw an important economic life preserver to small businesses now struggling to help their employees pay for health insurance.
“It is really important for our small businesses to have new options about how to make sure their employees are covered,” Fisher said. “I think there will be significant savings there as well.”
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, which also helped shape the benefits exchange bill.
“It was exactly what I wanted,” Ayer said of the bill. “It keeps insurance programs in the benefits exchange. If we are still in a situation where we have people using different standards and different kinds of administrative processes to do claims and so on, we are not going to be able to realize the savings.”
Ayer and Fisher are confident that Vermont could still proceed with health care reform even if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down key provisions of the Affordable Care Act. The nation’s highest court is currently reviewing the law.
“It would be a setback, but not terminal,” Ayer said of a potential court ruling against health reforms. “We are just not going to have the same resources we hope are available to us through tax credits and that sort of thing. And remember, we have already gotten millions of dollars from the feds to help us with health information technology and computerization, which should improve access and make it more affordable.”
Ayer also cited, as accomplishments, passage of a “good renewable energy bill”; not having to raise broad-based taxes; and revamping the state’s mental health system and infrastructure.
“We did a little bit of belt tightening, but by and large, avoided big cuts that are important to people who need services,” Ayer said.
Fisher said the 2012 session elicited an interesting debate regarding immunizations and whether the state should require them for all children prior to entering public schools. Lawmakers ultimately elected not to remove a provision in current law that allows parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for philosophical reasons.
“It was a classic case of individual freedoms versus personal responsibility,” Fisher said.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, played a role in shaping the most robust transportation budget in the state’s history. But more than $100 million of the $658 million spending plan was related to Tropical Storm Irene-related repairs, for which the state received reimbursement from FEMA for the majority of its costs.
Lanpher said she was pleased with the speedy and collaborative process that led to the fixes of Irene-ravaged roads and bridges in just a few months instead of the usual few years.
“We did some really united good work,” Lanpher said, citing cooperation with the affected towns, Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Buildings and General Services, to name a few.
Indeed, Irene taught the Vermont Agency of Transportation to become more nimble in dealing with road and bridge projects, according to Lanpher. Instead of going through the time and expense of procuring a temporary bridge to allow through traffic during construction, she said the agency is now more dedicated to closing a road or bridge, signing detours, and making swift repairs.
In addition to the rapid repair work, Lanpher was pleased there was enough money in the transportation budget to set aside an additional $1.5 million for repairs to local roads and infrastructure.
And she was also pleased to have played a role in helping Addison County Transit Resources land a combined total of $710,000 in grants to help propel its proposed new, $4.2 million Middlebury headquarters on Creek Road closer to reality.
Lanpher was also pleased to see the Legislature begin debate on a proposed GMO labeling law; pass a bill extending the “Gold Star” license plate to the families of service men and women who died during their service, though not necessarily on a battlefield; ask the University of Vermont’s Gunn Institute to help the state measure the health of its economy, and outlaw fracking, a process used in natural gas extraction.
Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, was particularly happy with new agricultural initiatives passed by the 2012 Legislature. Chief among them: Creation of a Working landscape Enterprise Fund that earmarks $1.2 million in grants for startup farming and forestry businesses.
The legislation, Giard believes, will move the state from its tradition of “commodity dairy” production to a more diversified agriculture that could eventual supply all of New England with various crops, meats and, of course, milk.
“This is going to set the policy for the next renaissance in agriculture in the state of Vermont, which is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Giard, a former farmer and vice chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “It is going to be Vermont’s own policy on the local foods movement … setting the state in a position for the new agriculture that is emerging — the fruits, the vegetables, the grass-fed beef.”
Giard, also a member of the Senate Education Committee, saw passage of a bill he had introduced back in 2008. That bill seeks to have the state’s education secretary appointed by the governor, instead of the Vermont Board of Education. That move, supporters believe, will make the secretary more accountable to the public and the state’s education priorities.
“It is a huge step forward in Vermont’s education system,” Giard said.
Other steps forward enacted by the 2012 Legislature, according to Giard, included the outlawing of fracking; the closure of the State Hospital in Waterbury and ensuring overhaul of the state’s mental health system; and the passage of a bill that will create a health care benefits exchange.
TAXES & SPENDING
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, which deals with tax writing policy. He was gratified that the Legislature was able to not increase broad-based taxes in spite of the daunting Irene repairs.
“I think that’s an important piece of what we did,” Sharpe said. “We have seen some recovery in the economy, so there was some additional funds available for the general fund and we raised some fees, particularly for the operation of the Agency of Natural Resources for environmental protection.”
The additional fees will generate around $8 million more for the Department of Environmental Conservation, according to Sharpe.
“Those (funds) will go mainly to expediting the permitting process so that people who want to rebuild and need to rebuild, we have a permit process and a staff in place to be able to take care of those permits in a timely manner,” Sharpe said.
While the overall fiscal year 2013 state budget of more than $5 billion is up more than 6 percent, Sharpe said Irene-related recovery accounts for around 4 percent of the increase.
And the Legislature took steps to buttress the state’s financial future, Sharpe said, by agreeing on how to treat future budget surpluses. They agreed that 50 percent of such funds would be placed in the state’s education fund; 25 percent would be diverted into a “rainy day” fund; and 25 percent would be reserved to help backfill anticipated cuts in federal assistance.
Sharpe was also pleased with passage of the health benefits exchange legislation, but disappointed lawmakers could not agree on a bill aimed at encouraging people to properly dispose of their junked tires. Sharpe said junked tires are plentiful in piles throughout Addison County and beyond, and they could create an environmental hazard if they catch on fire.
The 2012 session saw the substantially out-numbered Republican lawmakers pick their spots to make an impact. Among them was Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven.
“One political party is in charge of all three branches of government,” Smith said. “It’s difficult working in the minority, but the minority has a voice, and we were heard from, from time to time.”
Smith made his voice heard on the health care benefits exchange bill. He voted “no” for several reasons. He based his vote on his beliefs that advocates for the new law have not proven it will reduce or contain costs, and that the federal government in its financially strapped condition is likely to withdraw financial support. He is also skeptical about state government taking on management of Vermont’s health care system.
“The problems associated with health care will still be there in the future,” Smith said.
Smith also voiced concern about increases in the state budget and the toll it — and future increases — will take on the majority of Vermonters, whose salaries have remained largely stagnant for the past three years.
“We are spending more than we are taking in, and that is asking citizens to pick up the tab,” Smith said.
Smith, a lifelong farmer, was pleased to see the Working Landscape legislation pass.
“We made some great gains there,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.