MONTPELIER — Local lawmakers will return to the Statehouse next week to tackle an agenda they said will include tough budgeting, further health care reforms, growing jobs, Lake Champlain cleanup, promoting renewable energy, battling drug crime and addiction, and perhaps some gun control measures.
“Money, money and money,” Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, answered in response to what he believed would be the top three concerns during the 2013 session.
The Legislature’s job was rendered a little less chaotic than it could have been with word on Jan. 1 that Congressional leaders and the White House had struck a deal to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff” — at least for now — as a result of some agreed-upon tax hikes primarily on the wealthiest Americans. Lawmakers had feared that a potential $50 million shortfall in state revenues for fiscal year 2014 (which begins July 1) would get much worse had Congressional leaders come up with a fiscal cliff solution that included substantial cuts to health care and other federal entitlement programs.
Still, the task at hand will be a formidable one, acknowledged Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, who was recently elected by his party as the new House majority leader.
“There will be a lot of pocketbook issues” to deal with, Jewett said, adding to that list continued recovery from Tropical Storm Irene and potential increases in public school taxes.
But the shortage of funds should also present incentives for Vermont to invest in the future in order to help residents save money in the long term, according to Jewett. For example, he believes the state should ramp up programs to help Vermonters better weatherize their homes and seek out renewable energy alternatives in view of the increasing costs of fossil fuels.
Other priorities cited by Jewett: cleaning up Lake Champlain, devising a comprehensive “approach to addressing the scourge of drugs in our communities” and adopting new protocols for search and rescue of lost/stranded hikers. That search-and-rescue legislation is being prepared in the wake of the tragic death of 19-year-old Levi Duclos of New Haven while hiking in Ripton a year ago.
RAISING STATE REVENUE
As a veteran member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Sharpe figures to be a significant player in the looming discussion about state finances. It is in the Ways and Means Committee that the state’s tax policies are crafted.
“I suspect we will have to raise some revenue one way or another,” Sharpe said.
He believes that will be the case due to a confluence of tough financial developments.
First, state officials are indicating it may be necessary to raise the statewide education property tax rate (for homesteads) by 5 cents, from the current 89 cents per $100 in property value to 94 cents. That’s because school districts are forecasting on average a 5-percent increase in education spending next year — due in large part to an anticipated increase of 14 percent in teachers’ health insurance costs — occurring at the same time that local grand lists are not growing.
“I know our committee will work hard to minimize that, but it’s a big challenge,” Sharpe said.
Second, Sharpe said the health care exchange that Vermont must establish as part of the federal Affordable Care Act will ironically “pinch” some of the state’s own longstanding insurance programs for low-income individuals and families, including Catamount Health and the Vermont Health Access Program (VHAP).
“These (clients) could see some dramatic increases in their insurance (premium) costs,” Sharpe said. “What our state has done in the past is … try to minimize the negative effects of federal legislation on Vermonters. I am sure we will look at doing that, but I think that’s another $18 million to hold harmless those Vermonters who have been getting their health care through VHAP and Catamount Health.”
Add to this scenario a projected $50 million shortfall for the state’s general fund — due largely to expected reductions in federal dollars for Vermont’s Medicaid program — and you have a prescription for financial trouble, Sharpe noted.
While Sharpe did not mention the prospect of raising broad-based taxes to generate more revenues, he said the state could consider an excise tax on sweetened beverages. The notion of taxing such drinks has earned support from 37 health advocacy groups who point to sweetened beverages as a leading cause of obesity, according to Sharpe. The excise tax could generate more than $20 million to help stem dramatic increases in Catamount and VHAP premiums, he said.
“The governor is not on board on this yet, but I think the governor is going to be forced to either propose some draconian cuts or find some new revenue,” Sharpe said.
HEALTH CARE IN VERMONT
Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, is chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. As such, she will be at the forefront of discussions about changes to the state’s health care landscape.
Ayer and her committee will spend much time this session making sure the state sets up its federally mandated health care exchange, which will be Vermont’s platform for dispensing health coverage.
“That will involve a lot of (information technology),” Ayer said of setting up the exchange.
At the same time, Ayer’s committee will closely track any health care savings Vermont experiences through its ongoing reforms. Substantial savings will be needed if Vermont is to ultimately transition to a universal health care system, Ayer noted.
Insurance isn’t the only health care angle the Legislature will need to address.
“I think in health care, we are going to be looking very closely at the mental health system, which sort of washed away a year and a half ago,” Ayer said, alluding to Irene’s impact on the state hospital complex in Waterbury. That emergency prompted state officials to design new infrastructure for Vermont’s mental health system, one that is to be more predicated on services delivered in community settings rather than at a central hospital.
“We are behind schedule and beyond budget in our progress so far,” Ayer conceded. “We are hearing good things, but we are still in a crisis situation in many cases.”
Until adequate new infrastructure is put in place, hospital emergency rooms are being pressed into service to work with mental health agencies in serving patients that might otherwise have been taken to the state hospital in Waterbury, Ayer explained.
“That is the worst possible place for someone who is suffering a terrible breakdown to be locked up in an emergency room with guards,” Ayer said. “It is a crisis situation, still.”
Ayer also cited school safety, Lake Champlain cleanup, Irene recovery, a “death with dignity” bill, the proposed decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana and gun control as other topics that would likely join the budget on the legislative docket.
Ayer will have a new colleague in the Senate — New Haven Democrat Chris Bray, who won the second seat representing the district that includes Addison County, Huntington and Buel’s Gore.
Bray is no stranger to the Statehouse. He recently represented the Addison-5 district for four years. And he agrees that it will be a tough session due to financial constraints.
“It will be another challenging year to deliver good services to Vermonters and contain costs,” Bray said. “We always seem to be dealing with tight dollars.”
While Bray anticipates many of his colleagues will propose spending cuts, cutting services or a combination of both, he plans to advocate for an alternative approach: Look at opportunities to grow the state’s economy to expand the revenue stream so the state can pay its bills and introduce more innovative programs. Bray served his previous four years on the House Agriculture Committee, championing such causes as Farm-to-Plate legislation aimed at harnessing Vermont’s agricultural know-how and products to spawn new, related businesses and jobs.
Bray is also drafting what he calls a “strategic trades and professions” bill as a means of training and retaining young Vermonters to work in fields that are currently undermanned — such as meat processing and large-animal veterinary services.
At the same time, Bray would like the Legislature to look at its unemployment insurance rules, which he said include high rates that are currently discouraging businesses from hiring new workers.
Bray said he would like to be assigned to the Senate Agriculture and Finance committees.
“I’m very excited to be returning to the Legislature,” Bray said.
eye on THE UNKNOWNS
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, agreed with his Democratic colleagues that health care reform and the budget would be two overriding issues to tackle during the coming session. But Smith hopes the Democratic majority does not take the state too quickly down the health reform effort it has mapped out. He’s concerned there remain too many unknowns in the ongoing health care debate.
“We should have answers now on how health care costs will be covered and where the financing will come from,” Smith said. “It is hard to make decisions without answers to those kinds of questions.”
Smith is also concerned about a trend of increasing state programs at a time when revenues are increasingly in jeopardy. And he recalled hearing a recurring refrain while on the campaign trail last year — household budgets are getting tighter and more and more people are worried about being able to pay their property taxes.
“We know the feds are tightening the (purse) strings,” Smith said. “We will have to take a hard look at our programs and see if we can deliver them as efficiently as we can.”
Economic development and job growth are other priorities Smith pledged to bring to the Statehouse this month.
Rep. Paul Ralston, D-Middlebury, believes utility regulation and energy policy will be the legislative topics that will have the greatest impact for Vermont and Vermonters.
“We have never had the discussion in our state about how much more Vermonters are willing to pay for renewable energy and who should receive the financial benefit from that extra cost,” said Ralston, a member of the House Commerce Committee. “With the economy still in a precarious place, we need to seriously consider the effects of artificially escalating the cost of energy to Vermont homes and businesses.”
Ralston added that “as the balance of power shifts in the energy sector, we need to reform how Vermonters are represented in the regulatory process to ensure that all parties have access to the proceedings and can afford to be heard. There will be an attempt to challenge local and regional control of the energy planning process, and that is likely to be a very contentious issue. Folks in the Northeast Kingdom will be asking for a short moratorium on large-scale, ridge-top wind development while the impacts of the recently completed projects are assessed.”
Vermont, according to Ralston, has an opportunity to grow in another energy segment — the technology of smart grid management.
“Vermont doesn’t have the geographic resources to support enough utility-scale electric generations, but Vermont can and should become a center for emerging energy technology,” Ralston said. “There is a major economic development opportunity in these technologies and pursuing them will not compromise our wild places. Just as efficiency is the cheapest electricity, efficient management of electrical systems can profit producers and consumers alike.”
Rep. Betty Nuovo, D-Middlebury, will be returning for her 27th year as a state representative. She hopes to again be assigned to the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. There, she plans to ask for a progress report on all of the state’s energy and recycling programs and make some changes, if necessary.
Nuovo said health care reform would likely be the biggest issue the Legislature will tackle this year, and perhaps during the next few years.
“It’s a process that needs to be done one step at a time,” Nuovo said.
Nuovo wants the Legislature to take more steps to prevent the abuse and misuse of prescription drugs. She will also file a bill at the request of local law enforcement to set up a licensing requirement for caretakers of the elderly. The initiative, Nuovo said, is being driven by reports of some caretakers taking financial advantage of their senior charges.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]