Honoring our Veterans
I have attended two very special events this month honoring our veterans. The first was a statewide Veterans Town Hall moderated by Senator Leahy’s staff in Burlington. The second was South Burlington High School’s Annual Veterans Assembly.
This Veterans Town Hall was a first for Vermont, and it was very powerful. Veterans talked about the intense focus, fear, and expectation of imminent death that was a part of their experience in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They described the loyalty that led them to place survival of their comrades above their own lives, and of their despair following combat deaths of close friends. A South Burlington nurse spoke of a soldier, separated from family and friends, who died in her arms in Vietnam. Surviving veterans talked about chronic health problems caused by stress and chemical exposure.
Despite these great hardships, the intense rush of adrenaline and joy of comradery led soldiers to sign up for multiple tours of duty. Many spoke of the isolation they felt after returning home, an isolation that often led to suppressed feelings, alcohol dependence, and even suicide.
We were reminded that post-traumatic stress disorder isn’t always combat related. A veteran spoke of the sexual assault and beating she suffered from her mentor in the Navy, an officer who was disciplined with a six-month suspension.
Several of the Town Hall veterans have become deeply involved in veterans’ organizations on their campuses and in their communities. They are counselors, social workers, and advocates. One is a leader in healing other wounded warriors through farming. Another is grateful to the non-vets who have reached out to take him on many fishing trips. Yet another is especially thankful that his dad took him out on the Appalachian Trail. Between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mt. Katahdin in Maine, this Army veteran spoke with countless other vets – vets also seeking to heal their wounds in the great outdoors.
SBHS’s Annual Veterans’ Assembly on November 9th was no less inspirational. In a gym packed with students, veterans, and the public, student leaders spoke compellingly about the veterans in their lives. A student-produced video tribute featuring South Burlington veterans and their families was a highlight of the ceremony.
When we return to the Statehouse in January, one of our first acts will be to recognize and honor our veterans. My House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – will then consider several specific veterans issues. We will look at the great strides we’ve made to end veteran homelessness in Vermont and the obstacles that remain. Military sexual trauma will continue to be a focus. Vermont National Guard post-secondary scholarships and tuition benefits will be a key topic. Supporting the long-term care needs of our aging veterans will remain a priority. We will strive to keep the hopes and dreams that veterans themselves express at the forefront of our work. As one veteran pleaded at the Veterans Town Hall: “Don’t thank me for my service. Ask me to tell my story.”
Preparing for Winter
This warm fall has not encouraged us to prepare for winter. It has been absolutely lovely….but who wants to put gardens to bed when flowers are still blooming, or clean and pull down storm windows when it’s still warm outside?
Fortunately, the Vermont Legislature thought quite a bit about the winter of 2018 in its session earlier this year. My House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – worked with the Appropriations committee as we focused on the Fuel Assistance and Weatherization programs. Low income Vermonters depend on fuel assistance to help heat their homes in the winter. Increasingly we recognize that weatherizing homes reduces heating costs, advances our renewable energy goals, and increases the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable citizens.
LIHEAP (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program) is a federally funded program that provides a benefit to income eligible clients to assist with heating costs. The President’s proposed budget eliminated funding for the LIHEAP program. However, both the federal House and Senate Appropriations committees have approved individual bills that fund the block grant at last year’s level. Currently, we anticipate that Vermont’s LIHEAP block grant will be level funded at $18.96 million for the coming heating season.
The Administration projects that this season’s eligible fuel assistance caseload will be 20,000, lower than last year’s caseload of 21,286 households. The Department for Children and Families has estimated that the full-season fuel benefit will be an average of $879 this heating season. This benefit will pay an estimated 53% of the average household’s seasonal fuel oil bill.
Weatherization is primarily state funded through a fuel tax. Services may include a comprehensive “whole house” assessment of energy-related problems, state-of-the-art building diagnostics, and energy efficient retrofits. Our goal is to weatherize 900 Vermont family homes this year.
Program eligibility for both fuel assistance and weatherization is based on the federal poverty levels. In 2017, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600 annually. Recognizing that this low level excludes a great many needy Vermonters, the Legislature acted to allow up to 15% of the federal fuel assistance block grant to be swapped with State funds in the Weatherization fund to address the eligible population between 151% and 185% of the federal poverty level. The State funds for this heating season include $128,000 carried forward from FY17 and the fund swap from the Weatherization program of $2.8 million.
For information about weatherization services, contact Champlain Valley Weatherization at 1-800-545-1084 or email@example.com. For information about fuel assistance, contact the Department of Children and Families at 1-800-479-6151. A helpful checklist for winter buttoning-up is available at ButtonUpVermont.org.
We know that fuel assistance and weatherization help keep low income Vermonters in their homes. In many cases that means avoiding homelessness. Winter homelessness constitutes a crisis for Vermonters.
This year we have had both good and bad news about the incidence of homelessness in Vermont. January’s annual point-in-time survey found a 12% decrease in homelessness in Chittenden County. At the same time, the overall state numbers were 1225 Vermonters, an increase of 11% over the count in 2016. We saw an increase of 59 households, and 25% of those people counted were children. Notable progress is being made on the development of supervised shelters, including low barrier shelters for those suffering from substance abuse. The $35 million housing bond passed in 2017 promises to increase affordable housing availability over time.
Focus on Elders
According to the 2010 census, 16.1% of South Burlington residents are 65 years of age or older. This rate has almost quadrupled since 1970 and is higher than the overall Chittenden County (11.1%) and Vermont rates (14.6%). It is expected to rise further as increasing numbers of baby boomers come of age.
In my experience, there are no defining qualities or experiences that apply universally to our elder residents. Other than having a higher risk of health care problems as they age, attitudes toward life and life experiences remain varied. Personalities of people that I’ve known for 30+ years haven’t changed.
One defining exception is housing status. While many elders still live in their own single family homes, many others – at least in northwest and central South Burlington – have moved into condominiums or congregate rental housing. It is my pleasure to visit with them, talk about their lives and families, and catch up on legislative issues of interest. Recently elders have expressed interest in a range of issues: Medicare stability, veterans’ services, the Equifax breach, housing affordability, rental housing property standards, recycling, water quality, retirement planning, benefits of the 3 Squares (formerly Food Stamps) program, minimum wage, marijuana legalization, and more.
The 2017 Vermont Legislature recognized that 45% of working Vermonters have no employer-provided pension plan. Nearly half do not have an IRA or other private plan. The Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan proposes a portable, voluntary, simple and affordable way to supplement Social Security income in retirement years. The plan will be funded by employees, but employers may offer to contribute as a benefit. Employees will be auto enrolled in the program, with the option of withdrawing. Details are being finalized by the Public Retirement Plan Study Committee to be submitted by January 15, 2018.
The state’s Long Term Care Ombudsman Program serves older Vermonters and their families when they have issues with service providers. A new state law brings the program into compliance with federal requirements, while ensuring that new long term care programs must comply with consumer protections. The law also provides a “private right of action” in court to vulnerable Vermonters if they have been financially exploited. A vulnerable Vermonter may now bring a civil suit against someone who has exploited them. If the person is found guilty of exploitation, the vulnerable adult receives the restitution. Previously, legal action was limited to criminal charges brought by the Attorney General, and the state was recipient of any fines collected because of that action. This change originated in the House Human Services committee chaired by South Burlington Rep. Ann Pugh.
Next year’s budget protects vital services for vulnerable Vermonters, including funding for Adult Day Centers and Meals on Wheels. We passed a $35 million housing bond to create homes for low and moderate income Vermonters of all ages.
Many elders whom I’ve spoken with are pleased with these state policy changes and concerned about potential reductions in the federal Social Security and Medicare programs. Their concerns also extend to the needs of Vermonters still in the workforce, including their own children and grandchildren, and in some cases, themselves.
I find South Burlington elders actively seeking out news on federal, state, and local government. They are excited about the changes in store for City Center, including the development of Cathedral Square Corporation’s Allard Square elder housing and the Community Library siting. They remain active, vital members of our community with much to contribute.
Much of the learning required of legislators takes place during the annual session from January through mid-May. But it does not end in May, not by a long shot. I highlight three of my learning opportunities this summer and fall.
As a strong supporter of public education, I am concerned about public dollars funding private education for our kindergarten through high school students. This year I was lead sponsor of two bills in the House that would prevent this. The first bill would generally prevent public monies going to private schools and the second bill would disallow public monies going to out of state schools.
An article in ProPublica highlighted this issue (https://www.propublica.org/article/voucher-program-helps-well-off-vermonters-pay-prep-school-at-public-expense). Last year, Vermont sent $40 million to private schools from districts that allow school choice to their students. I have heard from people both in and out of state that the loss of students and resources has negative effects on their local schools, students, and families. The author of a recent Vermont Bar Association newsletter article argues that private schools receiving state funding must provide legally required services to students with disabilities. Some Vermont independent schools disagree.
The Minimum Wage Study Committee is considering whether to raise the Vermont minimum wage to $15 per hour. As a member of that committee, I am reviewing studies from other states and municipalities that have raised their wages higher than Vermont’s current $10 per hour. We are looking at the equities, costs, and opportunities involved in going to a higher wage, specifically how it would affect Vermont workers and their families, employers, and the economy as a whole. The committee is slated to make recommendations the first week of November, not only about the fair wage level, but about the annual increments necessary to reach that level. The 2018 legislature will then consider the study committee’s recommendations. The House standing committee that I chair – General, Housing & Military Affairs – will continue this work early in next year’s session.
This year, the House passed a bill to address racial disparities throughout state government. The bill establishes a 13-member Racial Justice Panel to review, analyze and make recommendations for reforms in the Vermont Judicial system. In addition, it strengthens Vermont’s statewide Fair and Impartial Policing model policy for adoption by all law enforcement in January of 2018. It also directs the Vermont Human Rights Commission and the Attorney General’s office to create a structure to address systemic racial disparities in the areas of education, housing, employment and economic development and health care in a comprehensive manner. This unprecedented bill creates a mechanism for identifying the intersectionality of racial injustices and should improve the lives of all Vermonters. The bill awaits Senate action next year.
I am proud to have voted for this legislation. And I am very pleased to have participated in our library’s August 9th community reading of Frederick Douglass’ speech “What to a Slave is the 4th of July?” This great 1852 speech on patriotism and racism is still very relevant today.
The August 11th rally and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, serve as a massive learning opportunity for us all. The white supremacist-sponsored debacle and its aftermath leave no doubt about the continued existence of racism in our country. While historically we have focused on racism in the southern states, recent local and state experiences show that it is very much present here, too. While we have taken some important steps to end racism, clearly we must be vigilant and open to ongoing learning that will lead to real, lasting change.
As the legislative session wrapped up in May, a number of high value economic development programs were combined into one comprehensive bill. This economic development package addresses multiple needs including retirement security, downtown growth, workforce development, affordable housing, minimum wage, and small business growth.
About 45% of working Vermonters have no employer-provided pension plan. Nearly half do not have an IRA or other private plan. The Green Mountain Secure Retirement Plan proposes a portable, voluntary, simple and affordable way to supplement Social Security income in retirement years. The plan will be funded by employees, but employers may offer to contribute as a benefit. All employees will be auto-enrolled in the program, with the option of withdrawing their enrollment. Details are being worked out by the Public Retirement Plan Study Committee and will be submitted by January 15, 2018.
Every year, three thousand young Vermonters enter the workforce with no job skills. They are 50% of our high school graduating class and 25% of that year’s graduating class who leave postsecondary education after the first year. This bill creates exciting initiatives to address those needs: funds for career training and planning, focusing on apprenticeships; creation of advanced level courses through our Career and Technical Education Centers (CTE); and creation of a career pathways coordinator within the Agency of Education to work with our state colleges, UVM, and Career and Technical Education Centers.
The 2016 Vermont Livable Wage is $13.03 an hour for a single person in a two person household. That goes up to $21.97 per parent in a two parent and two child household in town and $20.30 in the country. A comprehensive study on the impact of an increased minimum wage to $15.00 over time and a public benefits cliff study will take place this summer and fall.
The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment found that building five thousand new housing units per year would remove a major barrier to economic success and produce the homes and communities Vermont needs to attract talent. While the budget makes an unprecedented $35 million housing bond possible, this bill streamlines and sets permitting priorities to encourage affordable housing for low and middle income Vermonters.
Small business development is fostered in three ways under this bill. Funding is expanded for the highly successful Micro Business Development Program that helps low and moderate income Vermonters launch businesses. A new program is created to foster climate economy startups. More business advisors affiliated with the Small Business Development Centers will be sent to underserved regions of the state subject to available resources.
The cost of workers’ compensation is one of the biggest challenges to a business. This year’s economic development bill lowered the business workers compensation rate from 1.75% of their insurance premium to 1.4%.
Concerns over climate change have led to unprecedented business growth in Vermont over the last few years. Energy conservation, solar and wind energy expansion, alternative fuels, and transportation innovations have been responsible for significant job creation. There’s much more to do. A major conference will be held at UVM from September 6-8 called “Catalysts of the Climate Economy: National Innovation Summit.” Business and government leaders from across the country will come together to share their ideas for generating economic activity through solving climate change challenges. We will have a chance to show off Vermont solutions and learn from others. For more information, visit the conference website: https://www.ccecon17.com/.
An opportunity to create significant quantities of housing for low and moderate income Vermonters emerged this year. Key legislators championed a major housing investment before the session began. The governor called for a $35 million bond in his January budget address. This effort became the most universally accepted initiative of the 2017 legislative session.
It is easy to see why a big housing investment makes sense. The Vermont Housing Needs Assessment for 2015 – 2020 found that an additional 5,954 units of rental housing and 10,600 units of home ownership are needed across the state. The National Low Income Housing Coalition and Vermont Affordable Housing Coalition’s recent release of Out of Reach reflects that Vermont’s average Fair Market Rent for a two bedroom apartment is $1,139. In order to afford this – without paying more than 30% of income for rent – a household must earn $45,445 annually, translating to $21.90 per hour. This is unaffordable for a large percentage of Vermonters. Out of Reach found that Vermont has the 5th highest affordability gap for renters of any state in the nation. High rents, along with low vacancy rates, continue to be barriers for finding and retaining housing.
Business leaders have long cited housing shortages (particularly here in Chittenden County) as obstacles to recruiting middle income employees from out of the area. Home buyers looking to spend between $200,000 and $400,000 face very tough competition and are increasingly paying more than the seller’s asking price.
My House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – was proud to advocate for a $35 million housing creation bond in the Fiscal Year 2018 budget bill (covering the period from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019). A quarter of the new housing will be targeted to Vermonters of very low income (30% or less of median income). Another quarter is targeted at those with moderate incomes (80% – 120% of median income). The remaining housing will target Vermonters with income that is less than or equal to 120% of area median income.
The challenge has been how to cover the $2.5 million annual debt service for the bond. The Appropriations Committee found $1.5 million from available sources in the budget and proposed that the additional $1 million come from a portion of the Property Tax surcharge. However, the surcharge was established specifically to go to the Clean Water Fund to pay for ongoing and important work to clean up Vermont’s watersheds.
The final compromise between the House and Senate calls for extending the Clean Water surcharge until 2027 and then reducing the rate from .2% to .04% for the 20-year period required to pay off the bond for affordable housing. This creates roughly $40 million in funding for cleaning up the waters of the state while making a critical investment in affordable housing.
Despite his strong support for the housing bond and several other components of the budget bill, the governor has vetoed the bill. By the time you read this, disagreements between the Legislature and the Scott administration may be resolved – an outcome needed to secure the future of this important housing bond.
Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 862-2267 if you would like me to email or snail mail you a copy of my end of session summary. It will also be up on my website, email@example.com, along with updates related to this week’s special legislative veto session.
Serving at the Statehouse is an amazing honor and privilege. Yet, nothing beats being home in South Burlington. I count on seeing many of you around town, on the bike path, and in the parks this summer and fall. Meanwhile, please don’t hesitate to be in touch with questions about this year’s session or the work to come.
As I begin this column, lawmakers are working overtime to wrap up the 2017 Legislative session. I am here in the Statehouse after hours as key conference committees wrap up their work. Discussions are centering on the budget, the housing bond, economic development, and school finance. This is the time when the most significant policy choices are made.
Much of the media focus of the last month has been on the governor’s proposal to shift teacher collective bargaining from the local to state level. I opposed this shift. School employees, school board members, and other citizens from across the state contacted me on this issue. What I heard most often was a plea to “keep it local.” We know that savings can occur because the Vermont Educational Health Initiative is offering lower cost health care plans available for school staff. I worked to ensure that property taxes are reduced based on expected savings and that a commission is appointed to examine the potential for further change in the system.
The Fiscal Year 2018 budget makes several important investments while containing no new fees or taxes. This budget represents a 1.5% growth in the state’s General Fund, which is below the 3.7% forecasted revenue growth and below the 2% projected Gross State Product growth. It also strengthens and protects our reserves.
This budget adds a total of $8.37 million ($5.9 million for mental health and $2.5 million for developmental services) to increase pay for workers. Investments in mental health crisis staff services are included. There is also an increase of $2.5 million in child care services, appropriated to bring family eligibility services up to the current Federal Poverty Guidelines and to increase subsidies to child care centers and home-based services for infants and toddlers.
Some correctional system reforms are supported through budget provisions. The Southeast Correctional Center (Windsor prison) will be closed, coupled with planning for reuse of the facility for coordinated reentry. The Department of Corrections’ plan for increased use of electronic monitoring is supported. The budget captures federal funds available to secure policy camera equipment. Judiciary system provisions include retroactive pay, Guardian ad Litem and court security improvements, and initiatives in the Attorney General’s office related to civil rights and small businesses.
This budget makes vital investments in housing. On the homelessness front, it maintains the cold weather exemption and adds $600,000 to increase shelter capacity in Rutland and Barre, the two areas that need it most. Even more significantly, this budget provides the means to finance a $35 million bond for the creation of affordable housing for low and moderate income Vermonters. This investment is expected to create up to 650 new homes, leverage an additional $70 to $100 million in investments across the state, create as many as 780 construction jobs, and generate significant additional property tax revenue. I am especially proud of this provision, which is strongly supported by virtually all legislators and the governor.
Sadly, as I conclude this article, the Governor has pledged to veto both the budget bill and the school financing bill. If this occurs, legislators will return to Montpelier on June 21 – before the June 30th end of the fiscal year. Our goal will be to prevent a shutdown of our state government and education systems.
I am eager to be home more than in Montpelier, but know that with uncertainty at the state and federal government levels, the work is far from over. Please stay in touch with your representatives at all levels in the weeks and months to come.
Health Care and Consumer Protection
The Vermont Legislature is hard at work wrapping up the 2017 session. With only two or three weeks to go, key pieces of legislation are passing the House and Senate. Several of these measures involve changes in health care and consumer protection policies.
Last week, the House passed a bill that focuses on workers’ compensation for first responders with post- traumatic stress disorder brought on by extraordinary and unusual work related circumstances. This bill, H.197, was thoroughly reviewed by the Commerce and Health Care Committees before passage by the full House. Several years ago, my committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – was instrumental in securing passage of legislation that establishes a presumption of workers’ comp eligibility for firefighters who experience heart attacks. Research and direct experience establish a link between carbon monoxide exposure experienced by firefighters and heart attacks. H.197 continues support for our first responders who put their lives on the line and can experience adverse health conditions as a result.
The House also took action to expand the current law governing health insurance, under which plans, including Medicaid, need cover only in-person consultation as long as the patient is in a health care facility. S.50 extends the same coverage for telemedicine as for in-person visits, as long as there is a secure connection that is HIPAA- compliant (assuring patient privacy). Insurance plans may not charge more for telemedicine than in-person visits. Expanding telemedicine is expected to reduce transportation costs and inconvenience for patients who have difficulty traveling to see their providers. It also promises to be more efficient in situations where health care providers are in short supply.
The House Health Care Committee has been hard at work on a bill that addresses concerns about the number of psychiatric patients waiting in emergency rooms to receive proper care. There are more than 400 vacancies in Vermont’s mental health care workforce because of difficulties in recruiting and retaining workers. These conditions are severe, and there are no easy answers. The bill under consideration, S.133, calls for the development of a comprehensive action plan by the Secretary of Human Services by September 1, 2017.
Several consumer protection bills have passed or are near passage by both the House and Senate. These bills include initiatives that require telemarketers to provide accurate caller identification information to consumers; require that home improvement contracts be in writing and contain specific provisions, including warranty provisions; and require that home loan escrow accounts provide additional protections for consumers. Last year, the Legislature considered regulating fantasy sports contests but failed to reach agreement on how to proceed. In the fall of 2016, I requested from the Dartmouth College public policy program an analysis of other states’ legislative and court activity related to fantasy sports contests. The House Commerce Committee is utilizing the Dartmouth research in framing its recommendations for action this year.
When I sit down to write next month’s column, I expect we will have adjourned. I will report the final outcomes of initiatives discussed over the last four months: the final budget, housing, paid family leave insurance, economic development, alcohol policy changes, and more.
Meanwhile, thanks to all who have attended the South Burlington Legislative forums held at the Library on the fourth Monday night of each month during the Legislative session. Please join Representatives Ann Pugh, Maida Townsend, and Martin LaLonde, as well as Sen. Michael Sirotkin, moderator Vince Bolduc, and myself at our session wrap-up on Monday, May 22nd at 7pm. Whether at the forum, over the phone, or via email, I look forward to hearing from you.
Focus on Families
My Vermont House committee – General, Housing & Military Affairs – passed two important family-focused bills last week. One of these bills would provide accommodations for pregnant workers, while the other establishes a family and medical leave insurance program.
The first bill to pass committee allows pregnant employees to request reasonable workplace accommodations. If an employee needs accommodation because of her pregnancy or a pregnancy-related medical condition, she can request changes or modifications in the workplace, duties or other working conditions. Employers may refuse the accommodation if it would result in an undue hardship for the business. “Undue hardship” is defined as an action requiring significant expense or difficulty. That can vary widely depending on the nature of the work and the size of the business.
Testimony on this bill, H 136, revealed that pregnant worker needs can be as simple as the need to have access to more drinking water, a footstool available at a workstation, or more frequent bathroom breaks. Another identified need involves relaxing the requirement of wearing a uniform if it no longer fits. This bill encourages dialog between employer and employee.
Since the early 1990’s, both Vermont and the United States have offered family and medical leave for employees. But neither of these programs has evolved to include income replacement for those families who need leave to take care of their parents or themselves, or to bond with their children. Both the Vermont Paid Family Leave Act and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act allow employees to apply for up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave a year for a number of family and medical reasons and they protect the employee from losing their employment, unless their absence creates an undue hardship for their employer. H.196 adds a fiscal element to the leave at a reasonable cost to employees.
Substantial statistical backup for H.196 is included in a report completed for the Vermont Department of Labor and the Vermont Commission on Women. The program would be employee funded and will provide employees with up to twelve weeks of income replacement.
The benefits for employees are numerous. Many families could spend more time bonding with their newborns, strengthening families and potentially saving thousands of dollars in child care. Workers would also be able to take time off for their own medical treatments and take care of a family member at the most vulnerable times of their lives.
The committee heard compelling testimony from mothers unable to take time off following childbirth, childcare providers, and elder care advocates. We also heard from employers who are unable to cover wage replacement for workers taking parental leave. At the same time, employers see financial leave support as key to keeping these valuable employees (often lower wage workers) in their workplaces for the long haul.
We chose to mandate an employee paid leave insurance program due to the fiscal realities of asking the state to pay for their potential share in a year when finances are tighter than ever. Many small businesses wanted to be able to help their employees with this contribution, and may do so voluntarily. H.196 does not extend the existing leave for employees and extends medical leave reasons to include care of grandchildren, siblings and foster children.
Passage of these family friendly bills in committee marks the end of the first phase of the legislative year. Over the next couple of weeks, we will shift attention to full House consideration of these and other committee-passed bills. Then we will take up bills passed by the Senate. I particularly look forward to consideration of the Senate’s housing bill.
I hope to see many of you at the March 27th Legislative Forum. Whether at the Forum, by email or phone, I look forward to hearing from you.
Building the Budget
The Legislature is focused on building the 2018 state budget, which covers the period from July 1, 2017, through June 30, 2018. Much of the work is happening in the House Appropriations Committee. At the same time, each policy committee is drilling down on several sections of the budget that fit within their areas of jurisdiction. In many ways, this is among our most important tasks. The budget represents funding allocated to the activities of state government and enables the realization of public policy goals.
Budget building begins with the Governor’s budget address in January. Governor Scott then asked most government agencies to level fund their budgets. He also proposed new spending of $17.3 million.
In her Other Paper column early this month, Rep. Ann Pugh talked about the Governor’s address with its focus on new spending and reliance on shifting costs to the Education Fund. Further research and discussions have illuminated the budget challenges.
Proponents of increased support for our state colleges and early childcare systems have been particularly encouraged by the proposal to significantly increase their appropriations. There are very strong needs in both these areas. At the same time, the Legislature is unwilling to accept the Governor’s proposal to balance the budget on the backs of local property tax payers. Without this shift to the property tax, the budget is $50 million out of balance.
The House Appropriations Committee has completed its public hearings on the budget. Two weeks ago, the committee held seven public hearings around the state, with more than 150 people attending. The committee heard strong concern about the urgent needs for mental health treatment and for funding higher education and early education, as well as support for programs like the working lands initiative. Testimony submitted in writing is posted on the Appropriations Committee website, as are all of the documents supporting agency testimony.
My committee – House General, Housing & Military Affairs – is focusing on three key areas in its budget review process. The first is centered in the Agency of Human Services’ Department of Children and Families. Our spotlight here is on emergency housing, home weatherization, and crisis fuel assistance. The proposal is to continue community focused services to alleviate homelessness, and to extend crisis fuel assistance in limited situations. There is also a proposal to expand home weatherization to households with incomes up to 120% of federal poverty guidelines.
The second area of our focus is the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB). VHCB creates affordable housing and conserves agricultural and recreational lands, forestland, natural areas, and historic properties. The budget request includes repayment of a $35 million housing bond. I was particularly pleased to see Governor Scott recommend this bond for housing creation and am hopeful that we can make this a reality given our vital need for housing creation. This policy change would require that the first $2.5 million of the property transfer tax revenue repay the bond.
Our final area of review is a section of the state military budget dedicated primarily to tuition support for members of the Vermont National Guard. There is a proposed increase of $500,000 to this section.
General, Housing & Military Affairs is asked to work with designated members of the Appropriations Committee and report our final recommendations in these areas by March 1. Working together the Legislature will produce a balanced budget that meets the needs of Vermonters.
Thanks to all of you who have written with your input about what’s going on under the Golden Dome. I look forward to hearing from you in the weeks ahead.