By JOHN FLOWERS
MONTPELIER — Election day is still three months away, but that hasn’t kept Vermont House Speaker Gaye Symington from drafting a 2007 legislative “to-do” list that includes re-examining Vermont’s use of the property tax; devising a long-range energy plan; helping farmers; and implementing health care reform measures.
Symington, a Jericho Democrat, recently discussed her 2007 agenda during a far ranging interview at the Addison Independent offices. With Democrats currently holding an 83-60 seat edge over Republicans in the Vermont House, it appears unlikely that she will have to give up the gavel this winter. Symington believes her party could even pick up a few seats, though she does not anticipate Democrats will be able to muster the two-thirds majority they would need to override gubernatorial vetoes.
Property taxes, Symington said, will likely emerge as “the new issue that will be brought to the front burner.”
She acknowledged that in spite of Act 68, Vermont’s education funding law, Vermonters are again withering under the weight of rising property taxes. The state, according to Symington, has become too reliant on the property tax as a funding source.
“We have a tough budget coming up,” Symington said, alluding in part to major deficits projected in the state’s Medicaid and home heating assistance programs. “We cannot turn to the property tax to bail us out.”
The Legislature, Symington stressed, needs to talk increasingly about the costs of schools. Specifically, she said lawmakers need to look at how school districts are currently configured; get a handle on why there is so much turnover among school administrators; and measure the financial impact of new, federally mandated programs that schools have been required to deliver in recent years.
“We need to attack (the property tax issue) head-on,” Symington said.
Symington’s other 2007 priorities will have a familiar ring for returning lawmakers.
“The three things we talked about the most last year were health care, energy and rural economic development,” Symington said. “(Those issues) have not gone away.”
Symington said the Legislature did not dispense with health care last year when it established the Catamount Health program for uninsured Vermonters. She stressed that Catamount Health is only one provision of Vermont’s Health Care Affordability Act. The act also calls for Vermont to better manage its chronic care services, something that will have to be sorted out through the federal Medicaid program and the state employees’ health insurance program.
“That’s a heavy piece of legislation, with a number of moving pieces in it, and I’m committed to making sure it works,” Symington said.
She added Vermont must also pay attention to the plight of Vermonters who remain “under-insured” — such as seasonal employees.
“As we move forward, there are going to be new pressure points where people step up and say, ‘Boy, maybe it would make a sense to have something that is more consistent,’” Symington said. “There’s no denying that it’s going to take an enormous amount of energy and attention to make work what we’ve set out to do. What we’ve set out is a lot, and we need to make it work right.”
Symington said the 2007 Legislature will also look at ways to create more financial stability for farmers, who’ve been struggling with low milk prices and rising fuel costs.
The House speaker has joined other Vermont politicians in lobbying for more federal and state aid to see dairy farmers through their current crisis, but she added that agricultural operations should also be encouraged to diversify their offerings.
“It’s an industry we can’t approach as just ‘business as usual,’” Symington said. “Somehow, we need to do more to differentiate our products — and we’re moving that way. We’re taking out the barriers to having value-added cheese manufacturing on-site in a farm. We had tax barriers that made that difficult, and we got rid of those.”
Symington sees similar product-diversification opportunities for farmers raising beef cattle and a multitude of crops.
“We should support farmers in making these transitions,” Symington said.
While improving economic conditions for farmers is likely to dominate Lawmakers’ agricultural wish list, Symington is concerned that another, more contentious issue could grab headlines during the 2007 session: farm animal identification. State agriculture officials want farmers (and some homeowners) to register their animals in an effort to reduce the spread of avian flu, should it ever make its way into the state. But some farmers see such a rule as being unwieldy and needlessly intrusive.
She likened the potential showdown to last winter’s debate over whether the manufacturers of genetically modified seeds should bear liability for damages sustained by organic farmers in instances of cross-pollination.
“Somehow, we end up in these pitched battles, issue after issue, with divisions that can’t seem to be crossed,” Symington said. “I fear the same thing coming with this ‘premise ID.’”
Symington is proud of steps the Legislature has taken during the past two years to promote renewable energy projects and energy conservation in the state. But she believes Vermont still needs to “get real” about developing a comprehensive energy policy to meet the state needs beyond 2012, when its current pacts with HydroQuebec and Vermont Yankee will have expired.
“If we don’t start planning, we’re going to reach a point where we will have choices that aren’t really choices,” Symington said. “We will be forced into situations that we know don’t fit for our state.”
She will recommend that Vermonters be invited to public hearings to give their input into statewide energy planning.