Vermont Conservation Voters Endorses!

I’m proud to announce that I have received the early endorsement of the Vermont Conservation Voters. Our natural resources, from the lake to the mountain tops are a top priority for me and for all of us!

Great coverage of the bill signing today in Saint Albans! Lot of hard work paying off for development in downtowns and other growth centers.

Looking back on the 2014 session

Looking back on the legislative session I’m proud of what we have accomplished, but there’s still so much work to do. On the biggest issues of our time-healthcare, education finance and economic development- we are in the middle of important conversations about which policies are best for our state’s future.

Some critics are happy to point out the problems and challenges we are facing. Some of us are working to actually solve these complex problems. If you are reading the papers and thinking about whom to vote for in November— take a good look at candidates who are offering solutions to the many challenges we face.

One of those challenges is providing affordable healthcare to every Vermonter. The system is too expensive- both in public and private dollars. The Affordable Care Act had a messy roll out across the country- but low and behold the reforms are bending the cost curve and thousands of people have health care today that didn’t just a few months ago. The ACA and the exchanges aren’t enough, and that’s why I continue to look forward to the chance, not the certainty, but the chance that Green Mountain Care will be able to provide quality, affordable health care to everyone in Vermont at a lower cost than our fractured system does today.

How do we continue to provide high quality education in Vermont schools at a price we can afford? While Vermont’s education finance mechanism is the most fair in the country in terms of per pupil spending, it has over 270 districts with their own isolated budgets. Our kids can’t afford the “I’ve got mine” mentality when all of them deserve a good education. We need governance reform asking some small communities to make hard choices about their small schools and some large schools to be more efficient and effective. We also need some liberation from teach-to-the-test standards that don’t help our children prepare to be critical thinkers. I supported H.883 to begin the process of reforming the governance part of the education puzzle, but I’m also looking forward to discussion of Rep. Condon’s approach to education finance- which is based more on ability to pay than on property value. There are plenty of critics of the current system, but few of them were willing to offer any solutions this session.

I hear a lot of hysteria about how it’s not affordable to live in Vermont, and for many of us it is hard to make it here. I went without health insurance for years when I started a business. However, I want to take a step back and look at the accomplishments we’ve made for jobs and development in Vermont. I worked hard on H.740 and other reforms to Act 250 to make it easier for businesses to develop land in the right places with less red tape. We supported VEGI incentives to businesses like Keurig Green Mountain that are committed to Vermont and our workers. The TIF districts in St. Albans and five other communities have kept us on a roll in growth areas like our downtown.

Our small state may never be able to impact national trends in industry and technology that have had some companies leave Vermont or reduce their workforce. We can, however, spur entrepreneurs with Working Lands Grants and attract new industrial employers by supporting our RDCs like the Franklin County Industrial Development Corporation. We have the 2nd lowest unemployment rate in the nation- 3.3%. I look forward to doing more to keep Vermont moving in the right direction now that we’ve passed the worst the recession had to offer.

Difficult challenges require vision-the ability to look beyond the complaints about the status quo to the solutions that will make our communities in our great state better places for our children to go to school, get jobs, and thrive. I look forward to the 2014 campaign and I would be honored to have another chance to serve Saint Albans in the Vermont House.

My Day Job rocks! Showing off the solar array at Crossett Brook Middle School.

My Day Job rocks! Showing off the solar array at Crossett Brook Middle School.

Late Night Floor Speech on JRS 27

I am sure I am not alone in my disappointment with our Congress and our Supreme Court in recent years. I will be voting yes this evening.

I too, fear the bad result that may come out of a convention, but I fear even more the growing lack of faith that many of my constituents and that people across the country have in our democracy.

Here in Vermont we have it good. A few hundred dollars from a PAC stands out on a campaign finance report. Most of us only raise a few thousand dollars, and some of us only a few hundred. That barely pays for lawn signs and printing up some postcards. All that said a growing number of us have been the target of supposedly non-partisan groups and their third party expenditures.

We all know how different things are outside of our state, and how much the corruption of money has changed the character of our country and accelerated an explosion of wealth for those at the top and an increasing struggle for everyone else.

No one knows whether we can limit the scope of the proposed convention, but we can limit our belief that our democracy will prevail by voting no tonight. I do know that we will increasingly lose our voice to money without overturning Citizens United.

I think my constituents want us to take whatever action we can to change the impact of money on our democracy. I hope you’ll join me in voting yes.

H.883 Ed Governance Bill Passes House 75-62

Last night the debate in the Vermont House raged on for hours over H.883. This bill seeks to take more than 270 Vermont school districts and merge their governance structures (administration and school boards) to create 45-55 new Education Districts. This would be done through a multi-year process with a lot of public input from local communities.

Some legislators asked why we didn’t tackle “the real problem” of Education finance. Education financing is fraught with problems, but we can’t get to an improved financing mechanism statewide if every school district continues to go it alone. Each school has its own board, and some Supervisory Unions have less than 300 students. The new Education Districts would have between 1000 and 4000 members.

For those communities who have a degree of school choice because they don’t operate their own schools— like Georgia— H.883 would allow them to incorporate and preserve choice.

The most important reason to support this bill is that it provides an opportunity to expand course offerings and resources for students between different schools in the new Education Districts. With a combined school board and administration two elementary schools could share a teacher without having to negotiate and administer two contracts and two sets of benefits. Efficiency is realized while students get more opportunities to learn.

I voted yes on H.883 to close the learning opportunity gap for Vermont schools and put us on the path to meaningful reform for our Education Financing system.

Why I Support a $10.10 Minimum Wage

I am able to be represent our community in the legislature in large part because my wife is running our family’s café business. We have a great staff of seven employees. During this week’s debate I thought long and hard about what our work on the minimum wage would mean to small businesses like ours.
I whole-heartedly support an increase of the minimum wage to $10.10 next year and a move toward a living wage in future years. We have always paid more than the minimum wage, but I know that some of our employees have still struggled to pay the bills. A move to $10.10 won’t solve that, but it’s a step in the right direction.
If all else remains equal, the increase to a $10.10 minimum wage will cost us thousands of dollars in 2015. However, our businesses are not islands. If I remember my college Economics class this kind of increase will also put more money into the hands of people who will spend it in small businesses like ours. We’ll have months to adjust pricing and will continue to look at the right mix of hours on our payroll to make the new wages work. I also know that employees who are able to pay their bills and are not working with the constant anxiety of not making ends meet are more productive and keep the total number of payroll hours down.
I’ve worked at my business without pay. I’ve borrowed money to get through a tough winter (or a longer than expected construction season). Through all of that I’ve never found that keeping wages down makes sense for my business, my employees, or for the image that Main Street businesses like ours want to project to our customers. Some have said that this bill is the death of small businesses, but I think it helps revive the financial lifeblood of Vermont’s lowest-paid workers.
In the end I know that people in my community value those who serve them in retail, food service, and other jobs that pay at or close to the minimum wage. Vermonters overwhelmingly support an increase in the wages of people who work at this end of the pay scale. That’s why I supported H.552.

Transportation BIll FY2015 

Transportation Bill on The House Floor Today

Today I’ll join several of my colleagues to report on the Transportation Bill which came out of our committee last week with unanimous, tri-partisan support. This bill represents a much-needed investment in roads, bridges, rail, airports, bike and pedestrian facilities and public transportation. Transportation infrastructure keeps our economy moving. Our recent investments are paying off in the form of better road conditions, state airports that support economic development and rail programs that reduce truck traffic and are getting closer to being ready for 21st century passenger and freight up and down the state.

The $665 million Transportation Budget includes $104 million of one-time funds. These funds primarily come from FEMA and FHWA Emergency Relief grants to state and town projects in response to Irene and other disaster declarations.

We heard from town road officials that VTrans has been working well and more closely with municipalities post-Irene. We will continue to support technical assistance to town road programs with district-level techs. To help town highway conditions after this winter weather, we successfully pushed for changes that will allow spring leveling funds to be used to help Class 1 Town Highways that have been damaged this year.

In spite of this unprecedented level of investment, we are still more than $200 million short of the figure needed to bring our infrastructure into a state of good condition across the system. We continue to look for ways to provide more pavement miles per dollar, even as asphalt costs continue to rise. Here are some of the highlights of the FY2015 Transportation Program that begins this July:


-$80 million of maintenance funds, including leveling and winter plowing
-$115 million of state paving program funds
-$50 million of roadway construction and resurfacing
-$124 million of bridge funds
-Nearly $30 million in funding for rail infrastructure
-$113 million in Town road and bridge program aid and support

We will see the benefits of the Transportation Bill in Franklin County as paving on highways including Route 105 and Route 78, maintenance of numerous bridges and culverts as well as support for capital projects in towns across the county. From sidewalks in downtown Saint Albans to work on paving Route 242 up to Jay Peak, the Transportation Program touches all of our lives.
As I look forward I’m excited to see that our effort to reduce vehicle miles traveled and fuel waste from idling are paying off. As cars become more fuel-efficient, electric and hybrid vehicles phase out traditional fuels, our rail and bus services improve and more Vermonters carpool we will need to look beyond fuel taxes for fair and reliable ways to pay for the future transportation needs of all Vermonters.

Representative Mike McCarthy
Saint Albans

Mike McCarthy
mike@ilikemikevt.com
(802) 233-7587

Town Meeting Day Report

TRANSPORTATION
I serve on the House Transportation committee. This year’s budget makes sound investments in our infrastructure that will grow Vermont jobs not only by directly supporting the construction industry, but also by supporting important economic sectors such as tourism, agriculture, hospitality, and manufacturing, among others.
Several years of record level transportation investments are yielding positive results. We are seeing improved performance in pavement and in the condition of our bridges. In 2008, Vermont ranked near the bottom of all states, 45th in the nation for structurally deficient bridges. By 2013, our strong investments have improved our rank to 28th. Overall percentage of structurally deficient bridges has declined from 19.7 percent of all bridges in 2008 to just over 8 percent in 2013.
Mindful of our continuing energy challenges and our need to drive down our carbon footprint, this transportation budget continues to invest in all modes of transportation including railroads, public transit systems, airports, and bicycle and pedestrian facilities.

EDUCATION
The legislature is considering updating Vermont’s education system to ensure that it provides our students with the core competencies needed for our workforce and citizenship in the 21st century.
For over a century, Vermont’s education structure has remained largely unchanged. The legislature is considering consolidating our 60+ Supervisory Unions into 14-16 Districts. While this alone won’t result in cost-savings, governance changes may help us gain some efficiency and improve services to students.
Financing our school system leads to a perennial debate. Throughout the state there are communities with small increases in spending, but large tax increases. Our school boards struggle under the pressure of rising staff costs like healthcare and increasing needs for student services like special education. The tax system is complicated. Those making less than $90,000 pay based on income, not just home value. We are working to devise a formula that is more predictable, easier to understand and less volatile. At the same time we must give all of Vermont’s students access to quality, public K-12 education.
While we make changes that will create a less volatile property tax environment, I believe we need to keep outcomes for students at the top of our priorities. This debate won’t result in major policy changes in this biennium, but good work is being done to change school governance and financing while maintaining the best qualities of our locally controlled school systems.

VERMONT HEALTH CONNECT
Many of us on both sides of the aisle are frustrated and disappointed by the technological challenges experienced during the Vermont Health Connect roll out. This ambitious project has had significant and serious bumps along the way. At the same time, there are many Vermonters who, once getting past the technical glitches, are now enjoying the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
The Health Care committee continues to keep close watch on the enrollment updates and the technical challenges with Vermont Health Connect. The good news in Vermont is that our insurance carriers, our navigators and our health care providers are working very closely together to be sure that Vermonters don’t see a lapse in coverage because of the technical glitches. Although there are still technical problems with the VHC web site, the insurers are working very hard to do what is right by Vermonters.
As we come to the end of the open enrollment period, it is very important for Vermonters who are uninsured or were on VHAP or Catamount need to get on the Vermont Health Connect website and enroll by March 15 for coverage beginning on April 1. If you have insurance now that renews later in the year, you will still be able to enroll on your enrollment anniversary. If you need help resolving an application that is in process, or if you need to enroll please contact me and I can help you get connected with an enrollment navigator.
I’ve spoken with several small business owners who have had trouble signing up through VHC and have now enrolled directly through MVP or Blue Cross. Businesses can still enroll directly through the insurers and we heard today that they will be able to use VHC for payment and enrollment for 2015.

DISTRACTED DRIVING
I was proud to be the reporter of the Hands-Free Cell Phone bill on the House Floor for the Transportation Committee. All Vermonters have seen drivers weaving, speeding or simply looking down at a cell phone while they move along our roads. Distracted drivers who are texting, scrolling through contacts to find a number or typing an email are a growing concern to police and other emergency responders. Here are the facts:
Each day in the US, 9 people are killed and 1060 are injured as a result of accidents that involve distracted driving. The Governor’s Highway Safety Plan for 2014 sites that 24% of Vermont crashes involve distracted driving. An April 2013 National Highway Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA) study from Virginia Tech found that talking on a cell phone did not increase safety risk, but that the visual-manual manipulation of devices increased risk of “safety critical events” significantly. The 2010 ban on texting has been difficult to enforce because drivers can simply claim they were dialing a number, rather than texting.
H.62 as it passed the House in February, prohibits the handheld use of portable electronic devices on Vermont highways while a vehicle is in motion. Portable electronic devices include cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, GPS and other mobile electronics. The bill allows the use of these devices in hands-free mode. It also allows drivers to activate or deactivate a device if it is mounted in a cradle or otherwise fixed to the vehicle.

RENEWABLE ENERGY
Vermont is a national leader in solar energy and green jobs in part due to our net metering program. Solar net metering benefits the environment, encourages job growth, reduces energy costs, promotes energy independence, and diversifies Vermont’s energy resources.
Tripling in volume since 2011, the success of this program has also caused some growing pains.
The current cap on net metering forced utilities to turn away customers who wanted to participate in the program. The House recently passed a bill lifting these caps from 4% to 15% on a 136-8 vote and is now in the Senate. By shaving electric consumption during hot summer days, solar net metering reduces utilities’ need to buy expensive power off the grid. Efficiency measures, combined with net metering, have already deferred $400 million in Vermonters’ future transmission costs by lowering our overall demand for energy. This means real savings on everyone’s monthly energy bills.

LAKE CHAMPLAIN and The TMDL
In 2002, the State of Vermont developed a plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus pollution going into Lake Champlain. Despite spending a great deal of money, this plan did not address the problem, triggering a 2009 lawsuit and an EPA response demanding that the State develop a stronger plan. The new EPA Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL for phosphorus pollution limits is due this summer. At present, the EPA requires the State to reduce the amount of pollution by 36% and provide “reasonable assurances” that the State has the ability and the resources to do the job.
Reducing pollution by this much is no small task. The solutions to the problem will require changes to our road and bridge standards, floodplain development, actions in rivers and streams, forestry practices as well as substantial changes in agricultural practices. In addition, the State will need to identify a means of funding these solutions. A variety of House committees are working on these issues and expect to see a bill, H.586 emerge sometime after Town Meeting Day.

PAID SICK DAYS
Many people have contacted me about the Paid Sick Days bill that was passed by the House General committee. This bill mandates that employers provide 56 hours of paid sick leave to employees. The bill has not yet come to the House Floor for a vote.
In its current form, employees can begin using the paid leave in 60 days. There is much debate about this bill, and it currently is in House Appropriations. There are many unanswered questions about the way this bill would impact small businesses, effect other employee benefits and be administered by employers or their payroll service companies. I appreciate your feedback about this issue.

OPIATES
The Governor focused his State of the State address on opiates, but long before that Saint Albans was standing up to fight the disease of addiction. Addiction is a major threat to individual’s lives and has strained the fabric of many Vermont communities.
The legislature has been proactive on many fronts. We gave law enforcement and emergency service personnel tools to root out illegal drugs and to save the lives of those who overdose. We have renewed our investment in recovery centers like Turning Point and treatment programs that help people get off and stay off drugs.
We recognize that there are not enough openings for opiate treatment and are expanding those resources. I support a shift from corrections budgets to drug treatment that hasn’t yet been embraced, but Vermont is moving in the right direction.

THE BIG ECONOMIC PICTURE
By the summer of 2013 the state had recovered nearly 11,000 of the 15,000 jobs that were lost during the recession of 2008-2009. We’ve added jobs in our growing specialty food industry, software and programming jobs, high tech manufacturing and renewable energy. We have also seen big manufacturing employers leave the state or downsize as they shift with the global economy.
In 2013 we added 3,700 jobs for a growth rate of 1.2%. To keep moving forward we have to face tough challenges like cuts in federal programs- even vital services to our economy like transportation. Some of these critical needs the state has to meet if the federal funds are no longer available We have to change the way we do business—reforming healthcare, education financing and delivery and continuing to build public-private partnerships in a variety of sectors.
We can meet challenges like cuts in federal heating assistance by putting Vermonters to work insulating and updating these homes to bring down costs not just for this season but for many winters to come.We can meet the challenges of climate change with smart investments in infrastructure and agriculture that will improve our water quality and boost our tourist economy.
We can work together across the aisle to provide a 21st century education to all Vermont students at a cost that is affordable. Let’s not forget that last year Vermont ranked 2nd in the nation on the Nation Assessment of Educational Progress. If Vermont were a country, we’d have the 7th highest score in the world for academic performance.
I look forward to finishing the session with a balanced budget and an eye toward making this and even better place work, live and thrive.

I’m on TV! The bill banning handheld cell phone use is on its way to passage. It passed the House by a large majority and is now being considered by the Senate.