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.
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.
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.
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.
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.