The 2017 legislative session has been one of great uncertainty so far. We have new administrations in Montpelier and Washington DC, both of which are making some sharp policy distinctions from the previous administrations. While we are forging ahead here in Vermont working on our own budget issues, there is a sense of waiting for the axe to fall in Washington, wondering what challenges in both budget and policy will be handed down to us. It is hard to plan out a ten-year health policy when we don’t know what the next three months will bring.
Budget – While we monitor closely what is happening in Washington, we face our own financial challenges. The budget proposals sent over by the governor were defeated because they didn’t make economic sense and didn’t balance the budget. Despite the difficulty of wrestling with budget gaps, we do not deficit-spend, and we do not pass an unbalanced budget. The governor’s proposal to shift $112 million in costs to the Education Fund while providing $62 million to pay for it was an unbalanced proposal that shifted additional cost onto the K-12 school budget, while insisting that schools level fund their budgets from last year.
The House is working hard to craft a very tight budget that doesn’t raise taxes or fees, yet funds the vital programs Vermonters depend on. Every committee has been tasked with scrutinizing their jurisdictions for savings.
Technology – I serve on the newly reconfigured Energy and Technology Committee which oversees energy, telecommunications, and IT systems. At the same time that we are tightening belts, we also need to make substantial investments in computer technology to create a 21st-century statewide system. Last year the legislature commissioned an independent evaluation of Vermont Health Connect. It determined that the basic system is sound, identified the problems, and laid out a multi-year plan to fix them. The evaluators were very clear that the best option is to move ahead with fixing Health Connect rather than pursue any of the other options available. It turns out that health care is extremely complicated.
Act 46 – Wells and Middletown Springs will vote March 7th on merging into a single district, while Pawlet and Rupert plan to form a new study committee to look at merger options for the second time. Districts all over the state are struggling to meet the terms of Act 46. There have been close to 100 bills introduced to reform portions of the law, and I am supporting bills extending deadlines, lowering population requirements, and making “alternative structures” easier. What the legislature as a whole will do remains to be seen.
Water Quality – Following the State Treasurer’s report in January, the House continues to pursue an all-in approach to funding clean-water programs, not just in Lake Champlain but across the state. Clean water is both an environmental and economic imperative and the contamination has many sources and requires a broad array of responses. Work continues on both short term and long range planning; how to come up with the needed money is causing a lot of head scratching and creative thinking.
Ethics – Vermonters like to believe that our state is a small and trustworthy community. While that is true for the vast majority, the unfortunate actions of a few demonstrate the need for a statewide Ethics Commission. Senator Pollina and I introduced similar bills in the House and Senate to create one. The Senate is about to pass their version, so I have real hope to see this enacted into law this year. Vermont is one of only six states without such a commission.
Perhaps my proudest moment in the legislature was last month when I stood with the Republican Governor, the Progressive Lt. Governor, the Democratic Speaker, and Democratic/Progressive President Pro Tem, to pledge to fight for the human rights of all Vermonters. I am a sponsor of the House bill (with an identical one in the Senate) which declares that we will not participate in any kind of registry based on race or religion. The times when we have done that – institutionalizing slavery, creating Indian reservations and Japanese-American internment camps – are the absolute low points of our history. It must not happen again.
Quick Facts About Vermont:
Unemployment rate: 3.1% – 5th lowest in the country.
Uninsured rate: 3.7% – 2nd lowest in the country.
2,300 jobs added in 2016
High school graduation rate: 88%
Free or reduced school lunch rate: 44.2%
Maine and Vermont are the most rural states at about 61%
I have been hearing from concerned residents about Act 46 administrative mergers, both the proposed Wells/Middletown Springs union and what the future holds for Pawlet and Rupert. A common question is how I intend to represent all my constituents.
Good question. Middletown Springs and Wells are voting for choice, while Rupert and Pawlet are electing designation. Tinmouth already chose and enacted a merger with Mill River. Obviously I can’t choose either position or the other and still represent the majority of my constituents in all towns. So I stand by what I said in my campaign: these are community decisions, and that is what I support.
As a Middletown Springs resident and taxpayer, and as an individual, I support school choice for a number of reasons. However, representing Pawlet and Rupert I support the community’s decision to designate Salem and Granville (though the real questions appear to be not about designation or choice, but about how much tuition money will follow students if they choose to go somewhere else, and what may or may not happen to tax rates).
So what does “support the community’s decision” mean? It means that when I get a phone call or email from a constituent I will respond, as I do for anyone and everyone. When I get a specific request, for example, to make an email “introduction” between a constituent and a legislator, I will make that introduction. What I won’t do is introduce legislation that acts against ANY of the towns I represent. Nor will I actively advocate for choice in Pawlet and Rupert, because the community has already voted the other way. In that respect I have been a disappointment to the pro choice people, many of whom are friends – just as I have friends on the designation side.
As your State Representative I am walking a tightrope on this issue, as are many legislators whose various towns have chosen different and conflicting solutions to their problems. So my public support cannot be for “choice” or for “designation”. My support must be for a clear community process and the community’s decision.
This week Montpelier spoke with one voice as we took steps to prevent establishing any kind of government registry based on religion or race. The tri-partisan bill introduced at the Governor’s press conference Thursday is designed to block compliance with a muslim registry or other similar blatant discrimination.
Our actions balance our opposition [to discrimination] with the need for all of the valid data collection that happens routinely: drivers licenses, voter registration, medical information, Selective Service registration. The intent is to oppose hasty and unconstitutional edicts like President Trump’s executive order on immigration, as has been upheld by the federal courts.
Further, the Governor will need to approve federal requests to deputize state and local law enforcement to enforce federal law. As a state with an international border, Vermont has a long and mutually beneficial relationship with customs and immigration services. These actions do not affect those relationships, but add a level of review to changes to the status quo. As divisions and discord continue in Washington we can savor a rare moment of unity here in Vermont.
And it was indeed a brief moment of unity, until the Governor’s education funding proposals were killed in the legislature. Opposition centered on two elements; the timing (moving school budget votes to May 23, after months of work by school boards and supervisory unions to meet existing deadlines), and requiring school budgets to level-fund last year’s budget. Level funding actually would require cuts because of regular inflation and multi-year contracts which account for inflation. And that is not taking into account the the Governor’s proposal to move Pre-K, Higher Education, and teacher retirement commitments to the Education Fund, reliant on property taxes.
There is a lot going on in the legislature, but I want to look briefly at two particular topics. The first is Governor Scott’s proposals around education funding. The second is the ongoing recount issue for a legislative race.
Topic 1 The governor’s budget address was the forum for several bold proposals on education funding. General response has been an significant lack of support. Everyone agrees on the goal of cost-effective education, but how we get there is by no means clear. School boards and supervisory unions generally feel blindsided by both his proposal to require/urge school budgets to be level funded next year, and to move school budgets votes away from Town Meeting to May 23. Another proposal is to move Pre-K, the state college system, and education pension obligations into the Education Fund, which is funded primarily by property taxes.
Level funding is problematic when numbers of students, special ed needs, staffing, and maintenance all change yearly and many schools cut to the bone in their last budget by deferring needed upkeep and purchases. Next year’s budgets have already been established and submitted for Town Meeting day. Suddenly rejecting all that work for new budgets and a later date is not popular, especially with so many mergers underway.
Topic 2 The move to conduct a recount in the Orange-1 House race has unfortunately become highly, and unnecessarily, partisan, with spin doctors working overtime. I strongly support the recount and here is why. That district is a 2 seat district. The first place finisher clearly won, but the runners-up ended 8 votes apart, a 0.2% difference, and well worth a recount given that there were serious questions about whether absentee ballots were treated the same way in all towns.
A recount generated several new problems including needing to “force” ballots into the reader. In addition, this House district include parts of two senate districts. The tabulator used in the recount was from Orange County where they vote for one senator, so ballots from Caledonia County where they vote for two senators were initially rejected by the machine as “over votes” causing a lack of confidence in the recount results.
On appeal, a judge ruled that she did not have the authority to order a hand recount so the plaintiff appealed to the legislature to resolve the uncertainties of the election. The Vermont Constitution is clear on this topic, giving the House the authority and responsibility to “judge of the elections and qualifications of their own members.” This is a process in place since the founding of Vermont.
The Government Operations Committee has passed a resolution supporting a recount and on Wednesday the House will take up the issue. To me this issue is NOT about which individual ultimately wins the seat, it is about the integrity of the electoral system, about having a process that counts all the votes and accurately reflects the will of the voters. Regardless of the outcome of this recount, there will be needed changes made to election laws to avoid these kinds of problems in the future.
Although the legislature is already very busy this session there is a sense of suspended animation – waiting to see what cards we are dealt. Those cards are Governor Scott’s budget address and the Trump card, what actions will be coming out of Washington affecting healthcare, education, and transportation.
So far specifics on the governor’s “Affordability Agenda” have been scarce. Though everyone is in support of affordability and government efficiency, the devil is in the details. An efficient government is not necessarily the same as a lean government – the first eliminates waste, the second may simply reduce the government’s ability to deliver essential services. We will know more of the details this week.
The rush in Washington to undo President Obama’s legacy is causing concern in every state, not just the blue states. Again specifics are lacking, but we have a pledge from President Trump to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with “something really terrific.” We can’t plan for these changes until we know what they are.
One thing we can do here in Vermont, rather than trimming budgets around the edges, is to look at fundamentally redesigning our most expensive programs. Toward that end I am co-sponsoring two bills. The first is to work toward implementing universal access to primary health care. Multiple studies prove that easy access to preventive and primary care results in long term savings by reducing emergency room visits and preventing serious and expensive illnesses in the future.
The second bill is to continue working toward affordable education funding (property tax reform) by extending income sensitivity all the way up the income scale – essentially linking property taxes to income across the spectrum.
In the last campaign by far the greatest concerns I heard were about healthcare (both the cost and the frustrating website) and property taxes. There are no quick fixes, but I do believe we can make lasting and real progress. Other areas I am working on include broadband access, farm viability, and livable wages.
This early in the session there are a flurry of bills being sent to the various committees for consideration, with no bills coming out of committee yet for general debate. The uncertainty looming over us all is what will happen with a new administration in Washington, especially regarding the federal tax dollars that Vermont depends on for many of our programs to function: particularly health care, transportation, and education.
Some of my work this week has been on government integrity. In my last post I mentioned making a formal objection to a member being seated while the outcome of his race is still under appeal. In brief, absentee ballots were not treated the same way in each town in that district; some were considered spoiled and discarded while similar ballots were counted in other towns.
I have no idea whether the appeal will change the outcome of the race, and that is not the point. What is essential is that we have an electoral process in which every vote is treated equally, especially in very, very close races like this one. State law gives the House final authority to resolve the election, and the Government Operations Committee will be taking this up in the coming week.
Along with that, I am sponsoring a bill to create a government Ethics Commission and standards of ethical conduct, with a parallel bill in the Senate. The idea was vigorously debated in the Senate during the last session, but the proposal was determined to be too complicated and too expensive. This new proposal is much simpler, much cheaper, and to be frank, less effective. But it puts a framework in place and a timeline to evaluate how best to give it real teeth. The goals are to create a means to resolve complaints of unethical behavior, require more disclosure by public officials, and to create a one-year waiting period before legislators or administration officials can become lobbyists.
This January sees a complete changeover of leadership in the capitol as we swore in a new Governor, Lt. Governor, Senate President Pro Tem, and Speaker of the House; there are several new caucus leaders and over thirty new House members. Change like this creates uncertainty as people find their footing, but it also creates a lot of new opportunities.
Tradition does hold sway however, and the start of the new biennium consisted of a lot of ceremony, many speeches, and dignitaries roaming around. It is also a time of committee assignments, administration appointments, and more speeches. Legislators, media, and lobbyists pore over this information as if panning for gold, looking for nuggets to indicate policy priorities and direction.
I too am doing this because in November I was elected to be leader of the Progressive Caucus. It was in that new role that in the opening minutes of the session I issued a formal challenge to the seating of a member whose election results are still under appeal and will likely be recounted. The objection was overruled but it made the point that some of our election law needs updating and refining. That improvement will happen this year.
Also in my new role I was honored to formally nominate the new Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson. Her request that the Progressive Leader nominate her is an indication of willingness on both our parts to work across party lines for the best outcome.
It may be a new session with new leadership, but the challenges facing Vermont are the same: stagnant wages, lack of affordable housing, a sputtering economy, an aging and declining population, and the ravages of opiate addiction. These are not unique to Vermont but are the same problems facing all of rural America. The problems are not partisan; in the speeches last week I heard commitments across the board to solve them, and I pledge to work hard for solutions in the same light.
My committee assignment is the new Energy and Technology Committee with jurisdiction over energy, telecommunications, and IT systems. I think we have our work cut out for us!
Dear Editor, October 12, 2016
This political season has been a brutal affront to all who want to serve our country or state to improve, innovate, or seek logical compromise. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman has the character and honesty needed in this difficult political climate. He has proven himself by serving his first term working across the aisles, earning tri- partisan respect. He doesn’t accept PAC or Super PAC monies and votes his conscience after thoroughly studying an issue and consulting with his constituents.
In short, we know Robin and trust him to serve and represent our town at the state level. Bernie has endorsed him and we encourage voters in Pawlet, Middletown Springs, Wells, Tinmouth, and Rupert to reach out to him with questions at www.RobinForRep.com
Sarah Rath (D)
Jack Rath (R)
To the Editor, October 22, 2016
The way to make America great again is to get the venality out of politics. In the Herald of Sunday October 16, Bill McKibben expressed his distress at finding that Sue Minter was facing a negative campaign heavily financed by outside forces. This assault on Democracy is occurring at all levels.
At the national level, Congress is crippled by selfish and short-sighted loyalties to various opaque sources of money. Even at the most local and apparently safe level, free choices are being knocked out from under our feet.
Robin Chesnut-Tangerman is running for a second term as Representative to the Vermont legislature. He is running a clean, grass-roots campaign with the support of his constituents. His opponent is benefiting from an attack campaign by a Washington DC PAC.
There is no need to attack anybody. Even without any consideration of the candidates themselves, it is apparent that the nature and quality of these two campaigns is quite different.
Robin is a devoted public servant, with successful experience in the position. He knows the ropes. His work in the legislature has been noticed and appreciated. He keeps in close touch with the people he represents.
Robin is helpful, forward-looking and positive. He knows that it is not his business to make local policy decisions. The people themselves do that, in town meetings. The Selectboards do that. State agencies do that. The business of a Representative is to represent, and Robin does that with great energy, generosity, and enthusiasm. He is not working for some hidden entity. He is not working to make money. He is working for us.
We would be justified in finding the current political situation depressing, if not frightening. This is not the way America ought to be. Without trust, without control, there is no liberty. We should consider ourselves lucky to be able to support somebody we can trust, somebody who knows us and is working for us, and not for some mysterious distant interests.
We are in this together and we can do our small and isolated Vermont best to actually help make America great again with a vote for Robin.
Martha and Peter Heitkamp
Last Thursday the legislature met in a special session to act on the governor’s veto of S.230, “an act relating to improving the siting of energy projects”. As someone who worked extensively on the bill in committee and sat in on the conference committee between Senate and House, I have a good understanding of both the bill and the legislative intent behind it.
The bill as voted in May did two main things – it provided more input for towns in energy siting including solar and wind, and it directed the Public Service Board to establish new, presumably lower, sound thresholds for wind projects.
Problems arose in the last hours of the last day of the session when carefully crafted and vetted language was jettisoned in search of conference committee compromise. Two of the modified provisions proved problematic, and in an unfortunate drafting error $300,000 of funding for the planning portion of the bill was left out. The governor’s veto was over these concerns, and had nothing to with opposition to the substance of the planning section of the bill. Details of these provisions have been in the news; while happy to talk further with people, I will not go into the details here.
We had three choices: 1) override the veto (requiring a 2/3 vote and would not happen), 2) sustain the veto (we all go home and didn’t need to bother coming in the first place), or 3) introduce a new bill, essentially the same but correcting the mistakes noted above. The Legislature chose the third option, but the route was not without drama, delays, roll call votes, shuttle diplomacy, and complaints about procedure.
I believe that we made the right choice to correct the bill to reflect the clear intent of the original provisions for wind and to fund the planning provisions right away rather than kick the can down the road until the legislature could take it up again next year.
As always, please contact me if you have questions or concerns.
Public attention was primarily focused on the failed marijuana bill last week, but out of that spotlight some things were actually accomplished.
The budget and revenue bills were approved with a number of small victories including slowing the rate of budget growth, using no “one time” money for ongoing obligations, and hiring more social workers to help families and particularly children wrecked by the opiate epidemic. The budget balanced heavy pressure on state agencies to both reduce overall staff and to run more efficiently, while providing modest and long overdue increases for state colleges, home weatherization, and Parent-Child centers. These are all areas that pay back the money invested many times over.
Other legislation passed gives towns more say in siting wind and solar energy projects, provides paid sick days for many Vermonters who previously did not have them, provides for automatic voter registration, and makes it less onerous for people whose drivers licenses have been suspended (for non-payment of fines and often for non-traffic related offenses) to regain them. These reforms aren’t splashy or sexy, but they represent the steady – if incremental – progress that government is supposed to do.