While the legislative session was dominated by a gnashing of teeth over cuts to the $1.3 billion General Fund budget and proposed tax increases, creating a clash between the Democrat-Progressive controlled Legislature and Democrat Gov. Peter Shumlin, it was also a session that produced several significant advances — including several social-cultural milestones and ended with a balanced budget without tax increases on income or sales.
That’s no small feat considering the federal government curbed its fiscal stimulus spending and had the state eying shortfalls of $70 million back in early January.
And despite the bickering back and forth among liberals, this session also demonstrates what can be accomplished when all parties have their eyes on improving the status quo.
Consider a few of the notable accomplishments that have been heretofore stalled for years:
• After a difficult debate throughout much of the session, the Legislature comprised on a death-with-dignity measure that assures patients they have the right to choose how to die if diagnosed with a terminal illness. The bill creates ample safeguards and a three-year trial period before it will be revisited. It’s a very personal issue with moral implications that are very difficult to legislate. Yet, the Legislature held a respectful and sensitive debate (for the most part) and ruled for individual choice over state mandates to the contrary — a job well done.
• The Legislature also took the political risky, but very practical, action to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, while still keeping it as a misdemeanor. Decriminalization does not mean legalizing possession of the drug, but it does mean the punishment will more appropriately fit the crime.
• Approving hemp legislation: In a similar vote, the Legislature approved legalizing hemp production, but noted that federal laws remained intact and that growers could face federal prosecution. Essentially, it gives Vermont farmers a leg-up in the production of hemp products if a sensible federal law is ever adopted on the issue.
• Approved a measure that allows for the three-year moratorium on imposing sales taxes on “cloud services” to end after July 1 this summer. The tax moratorium allowed online retailers and others to avoid sales taxes, which put downtown local businesses (particularly retailers) at a disadvantage. Opponents argued that the moratorium helped spur business growth in the online-digital world, citing the multi-million dollar business Cars.com as the example, but as that very example suggests, they’re not the ones who need help. The online retail community has been given enough of an advantage to get established; it’s past time that downtown retailers and locally owned independents have a level playing field to compete. It’s never easy dropping a tax break, but it was the right action to take.
• On the education front, the Legislature agreed with the governor’s aggressive agenda to: appropriate $322,500 to cover the cost of free lunches to all low-income students; doubled the funding to $800,000 for the Next Generation Initiative which covers the cost of earning college credits while still in high school (potentially reducing the cost of a higher education significantly and creates incentives for students to pursue high school studies with greater focus; another program allows high school seniors to complete a year of college while in high school with the funding following the student — a benefit that could reduce college education costs by 25 percent; and the Legislature approved a 3 percent increase in funding to boost financial aid at UVM, Vermont State Colleges and Vermont Student Assistance Corp. In a tight budget year, that’s a lot of progress on education issues.
• Gas tax: The governor and the Legislature also agreed to boost the revenue picture for roads and bridges by altering the formula for state taxes on gasoline/diesel. The changes not only increased the amount of revenue the state will received, but also created a system that keeps revenues consistent and growing even if usage (because of less driving or higher fuel efficiencies for vehicles) drops. While criticized as a broad-based tax that hurts the average citizen, it was a smart and well-timed move that corrects a system that was doomed to fail (meaning roads and bridge maintenance would not be able to keep pace with declining gas tax revenues) as fuel usage declined. It was another tough decision, but well considered and well crafted.
• Western Corridor: After seeing promises for doing something to improve the western rail corridor be nothing but empty words for the past 20 years, the governor proposed and the Legislature agreed to invested $11 million in improvements to rail improvements south of Burlington to Rutland, and a short section from St. Albans to the Canadian border. Finally.
• After years of cutting Medicaid spending to doctors and hospitals, the Legislature agreed to come closer to covering its costs by agreeing to a 3 percent increase. It’s not much, but for doctors and hospitals it’s a welcome shift and a move toward doing things that help the system, not harm it.
Several things also flopped. Among those were:
• In what should have been a no-brainer, the Legislature couldn’t rally support to pass an added 80-cent tax on cigarettes to make buying cigarettes less appealing and prompt more Vermonters to make healthy choices. It’s not that legislators were favoring smokers, but rather they couldn’t stand the heat from stores that sell cigarettes along the New Hampshire border. Spineless.
• Similarly, the Legislature ran away from a very reasonable request to tax break-open tickets. The practice is widely used to raise funds for non-profits, especially at places like VFW clubs and other charitable organizations. The problem is that records are not kept well for this type of gambling, allowing for the possibility that some non-profit and for-profit businesses are abusing the system. While the tax went nowhere, the House did reach a compromise in which better record keeping will be put in place, and for-profit bars are not allowed to keep proceeds exceeding actual costs. That’s not great, but it’s progress.
• And in one of the biggest battles of the session, the Legislature modified the state’s welfare pay-to-work program — Reach Up — by placing a five-year cap on benefits to most families (previously Vermont was the only state in the nation to have unlimited benefits), but left in place the full funding of the Earned Income Tax Credit, rather than reducing the annual increase in spending that program has seen over the past few years. It was one of the few initiatives the governor proposed and fought for, but that the Legislature remained firmly opposed and prevailed.
In short, it was a good session for the Governor, and for the people of Vermont.
Angelo S. Lynn