STATE BUDGET: We need to establish a truly collaborative working relationship among the Legislature, the administration, and the agencies and employees involved. We are in this together and must seek solutions that spread the sacrifices that are going to be necessary as fairly as possible. Pursuing economic growth policies will gradually lead to an increase in tax revenues.
The blue ribbon tax commission established by the legislature last year will be making a report early in the session — there may be some opportunities to raise revenues by extending taxes (possibly the sales tax) to areas currently not taxed, or by rescinding certain tax credit and exemption programs. I will be scrutinizing the budget for areas where cuts can be made and looking for a leveling off of educational expenses. We are also at a point where we can look for a small amount of relief from the “rainy day fund.”
EDUCATION FUNDING: I don’t consider Act 68 broken, but the property tax crisis requires us to consider modifications to Vermont’s education funding practices. Respect for Vermont’s tradition of local control in education matters and the principle of funding fairness established by Act 60 must be integral to any changes that might be made. Local school boards have worked hard to keep education spending level or even slightly lower in recent years.
I am interested in using the $19 million in federal stimulus money to buy a year to allow this process to continue and intensify as student numbers continue to decline. This will also give the Legislature another year to consider thoughtfully any changes that might need to be made to state funding of education, such as additional incentives for consolidation of administrative structures or school districts if they can be shown to save money over the long run.
ENERGY: The lack of a solution to the long-term waste storage problem, the inadequacy of the decommissioning fund, and serious safety concerns at the Vernon plant make re-licensing the existing facility hard to justify. Entergy’s proposed new contract offers much higher rates and only half the power they now provide to Vermont. The failure of the Douglas Administration to develop a long-term plan for Vermont’s energy future has caused important options (several proposed wind energy projects, and the purchase of the hydro dams on the Connecticut River) to be delayed or lost. There is currently enough power available on the New England spot market to meet our needs. Meanwhile, we must vigorously pursue energy conservation, which can actually save energy dollars, while developing a comprehensive plan for small alternative energy projects. Currently available federal incentives, combined with judicious use of state incentives, can help spur this type of development.
AGRICULTURE: Legislators from agricultural districts can play a key role in communicating to the public and the rest of the Legislature the vital importance of agriculture to our society and our economy. We need public and legislative support for policies that encourage collaboration among dairy farmers on pricing matters, continued efforts to assist in diversifying agricultural production, strengthening the infrastructure for processing, marketing, and distribution, and supporting local food consumption. I will make it a personal goal to further the objectives of the Farm to Plate/Farm to School legislation passed in recent legislative sessions.
HEALTH CARE: I support the ultimate objective of a single payer health care plan for Vermont. We must vigorously pursue the necessary federal waivers to move toward that objective. Health care coverage should not be dependent upon one’s employment, nor should employers have to make providing health care coverage an integral part of their business plans — they should be free to focus on their areas of business expertise. No health care reform program will be successful without rigorous attention to cost control. In the current economic environment the short-term focus needs to be on areas with a relatively quick payback — such as implementation of electronic record keeping and streamlining of administrative procedures. Implementation of a standard claims form is long overdue. Active support, education, and advocacy for healthy lifestyle choices need to be a part of the state’s long-term strategy.
JOBS: Supporting our agricultural economy is the first requirement in this regard. In addition to providing jobs on farms, the agricultural community supports many related businesses. Agricultural businesses spend much of their dollars in the local economy. In addition our tourist industry depends greatly on the working landscape provided by our agricultural community. In general Vermont’s economic development policy should be oriented toward direct support of small, local businesses, broadband access improvements, and worker training programs, and not toward costly and ineffective tax incentive plans aimed at attracting large, out-of-state employers to Vermont.