Bill's 2012 Town Meeting
Legislative
Report

After a busy first 8 weeks of the 2012 session I asked some of my legislative friends  for a brief report on a major topic in their committee.  Some gave me a paragraph describing a something their committee has worked on, others a list of items and I wrote a paragraph.  Below is a list of these reports.  Just click on a topic to go to a report.  It is simply not possible to include all the work of this session here, if you do not see a report on a topic you are interested in, please e-mail me and I'll will  get you information on it.

                                  
 

Vermont’s Mental Health System of Care
 

Vermonters who have mental health conditions deserve to have high quality services and care available to them in both community settings and, when needed, in inpatient hospital settings. Tropical Storm Irene did suddenly what the legislature has wanted to do for many years: it closed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury. The silver lining is this forced us to act and provided a capital funding opportunity that we had never had before.

The purpose of H. 630 is to strengthen Vermont’s existing mental health care system by offering a continuum of community and peer services, as well as a range of acute inpatient beds throughout the state. H. 630 has passed both the House and Senate but with different language from each body. A conference committee will meet to resolve the differences between the two versions of the bill.

If passed, this bill will provide for:

·
        development of a clinical resource management system
·
        integration of the treatment for mental health, substance abuse, and physical health;
·
        contracting for new peer services and expanding existing programs
·
        enhancement of existing community services at the designated agencies by using mobile emergency support teams, allowing for case management for more individuals, increasing adult outpatient services, and establishing additional short-term crisis beds;
·
        development of a five-bed residence for individuals seeking treatment with minimal use of psychotropic medications;
·
        providing housing subsidies to individuals recovering from mental illness;
·
        development of new intensive residential recovery facilities (so-called “step-down” facilities)
·
        replacement of the services provided at the Vermont State Hospital

o   a 14-bed unit within the Brattleboro Retreat
o
   a six-bed unit within Rutland Regional Medical Center
o
   Temporarily contracting for seven to twelve inpatient beds at Fletcher Allen Health Care
o
   Inpatient services at another temporary location if a viable setting is identified
o
   building a 25 or 16 bed hospital in central Vermont (the House passed the bill with 25 beds, the Senate with 16 beds)
o
   A secure five-bed residential facility 

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Vermont Prescription Monitoring System


 

The legislature has been asked to revise the way the Vermont Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) works. The purpose of the VPMS, as established a few years ago, is to “promote the public health through enhanced opportunities for treatment for and prevention of abuse of controlled substances, without interfering with the legal medical use of those substances.” H. 745 is the bill that may make changes to VPMS. Some of the suggested changes include requiring health care providers to search the VPMS prior to prescribing a controlled substance, expanding the category of people who may access the VPMS, and creating a unified pain management system advisory council.  The House Human Services Committee is working on the bill.

 

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Surrogate Decision Making

There are times when a patient is in the hospital and unable to make or communicate a decision to hospital personnel regarding what treatment or care the individual wishes to have or not have. In such a situation, hospital personnel try to determine who can speak for the patient. If the patient has prepared an advance directive, appointed an agent, or has a guardian, that person may speak for the patient.  H.673 address the issue faced by hospital personnel in making treatment decisions when a patient has not indicated in any way who should speak for him/her.  A person who may speak for a patient but is not an agent or guardian is called a surrogate decision maker.  Work is in progress in the House to address surrogate decision making in a very few limited circumstances.

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Appropriations

For the last 5 years, the Legislature has wrestled with a budget gap between projected revenues and projected budget pressures brought on by the Great Recession.  Although we face a $61 million gap, it is the smallest in 5 years.  Although this gap is smaller, unanticipated challenges came forward as we face a state ravaged by spring floods and Tropical Storm Irene. 

The upward pressures on the budget include increasing caseloads in human services; increased General Fund contribution to the Education Fund that will relieve pressure on the property tax; funding for more state troopers and public safety; responsible payments to retirement funds; and reduced federal contributions to Medicaid and long term care.  Thanks to good fiscal management in the current year, we have set aside $11 million in reserves to address some of the upcoming challenges.  Better management of Medicaid services is estimated to conservatively save $5 million while improving health outcomes.

This year we a confident that we will be able to avoid some of the painful decisions faced during the worst years of the recession.  In that time we strove to make cuts to balance the budget while avoiding severe harm to core state services, these included: 600 position cuts, deferred replacement of safety equipment, salary reductions, grants elimination, and level funding state services even while caseloads were increasing due to the down economy. 

Last year, in order to focus our limited state financial resources on top priorities, we began the process of asking agencies to describe the outcomes they are trying to achieve.  This year many agencies presented their budgets in the context of data that indicate their effectiveness.  In tying taxpayer investments to actual results we are making strides towards outcomes-based budgeting in which tax dollars are used to pay for specific, proven results, rather than spent to buy government activities.  This is a crucial step in making the budget process more transparent and holding government accountable to all Vermonters. 

Though we- along with the rest of the nation and much of the world- have been through very difficult economic times, we can be proud that Vermont has maintained an excellent AAA financial rating.  This demonstrates the strong fiscal responsibility of past our budget choices and lowers interest rates for our long-term borrowing.  This year alone, State Treasurer Beth Pearce was able to save the state nearly $5 million by renegotiating our debt service, which is essentially the state’s mortgage payment.

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Health Care Exchange

Vermont is planning for the implementation of the health care exchange that is called for in the Affordable Care Act. Every state is setting up an exchange unless they prefer to let the federal government set one up for them. The exchange will make health coverage more affordable to middle class Vermonters by allowing them to access new federal tax credits and subsidies. The exchange will allow consumers to compare insurance products with a transparent, standardized web portal or with the help of trained navigators who can help Vermonters enroll. Working Vermonters will have a new freedom to choose a benefit plan that best meets their needs. Small businesses will be freed from the burden of administrating health benefits so they can focus on doing what they do best: growing business.

Two-thirds of Vermonters may qualify for tax credits in the exchange. That means households making less than $92,200 (for a family of 4) will be eligible for help paying for their premium. Additionally, there will be greater support for households making $52,625 or less.

Small Vermont businesses spend more than $100 million toward their employees’ health care today. Much of this can be freed up in 2014 for reinvestment in their business in the form of expansion, salary increases or business growth.

The exchange will offer a full range of health plans that are modeled on the most popular health plans in Vermont in 2012. We expect there to be at least 10 different plans, ranging from high deductible plans to robust platinum coverage.

The work of the House this year advanced cost containment projects, including payment reform and continued emphasis on prevention and management of illness through healthy life style choices of Vermonters.

Employers will be able to have 100% choice over their health care costs.

Working Vermonters will have portability when they purchase insurance in the exchange. Insurance coverage will be continuous whether you change jobs, reduce hours to stay home with a newborn or to start your own business.  With premium assistance available through the exchange, it will be easier for Vermonters to maintain coverage during these big life changes.

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Vermont Strong License Plates

When the going gets tough, Vermonters get going and that was clearly evident as Vermont struggled with the ravages of Tropical Storm Irene.  State and local employees, the National Guard and private citizens from around the state rolled up their sleeves to show the world that we are strong, “Vermont Strong.” 

 The "Vermont Strong" decorative license plate bill, commemorating this strength, passed with overwhelming support from both bodies. The proceeds of the $25 plate go directly to help those affected by Irene; $18 goes to the Vermont Disaster Fund, $2.00 to the Vermont Food Bank, and $5 to cover the cost of manufacturing. Plates can be purchased by visiting vtstrong.vermont.gov and are available at many local businesses.

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Roads and Bridges: Lessons Learned from Irene

The Agency of Transportation and Legislature are reviewing lessons learned from Irene.  We have heard many forward-thinking presentations and recommendations are being explored and developed.  A critical lesson was brought forward through the Accelerated Bridge Program.  Started in response to ARRA stimulus funds, Irene brought new innovation and urgency to this program.  Accelerated Bridge Construction using new construction techniques and materials aligned with short term road closures and other factors allowed for enormous time and cost savings. The agency produced goals and objectives for the program. A bill is currently in House Judiciary to review Right of Way (ROW) process improvements.


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Funding Our Roads and Bridges


Vermont’s economic strength depends upon a 21st Century infrastructure.  In the 2013 transportation budget, the House continues to leverage forward-thinking investments in the state's enhance mobility, economic development, community vitality and environmental stewardship. With a record level of funding in the 2013 budget at $658 million, Vermonters can be assured construction season will be active.

Building Bridges to the Future: Vermont’s high rate of structurally deficient bridges is largely due to interstate bridges reaching their critical time for rehabilitation along with deferred maintenance on our aging bridges, many built after the 1927 flood. This year’s record investment represents a commitment to bridges and rebuilding post Irene.  Current plans involve expanding the bridge preventive maintenance program; developing new procedures and models to expedite bridge replacement projects; and continued funding for the town highway bridges and structures programs. The Bridge program has a record investment of over $123 million for 2013.

Preserving our highways: Keeping our roads safe is a fundamental mission for VTrans; however, as of 2010, 28% of the state roads are listed in “very poor” condition. While this marks an improvement in past trends, down from 34% in 2009, continued improvement to our roadway is addressed in this year’s record investment of $104 million in 2013. 

Expanding our investment across modes: While the primary function continues to be keeping our roads and bridges safe, there are also enhance investments in our railroads, public transit systems, and bicycle and pedestrian programs.

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Education Property Tax Rate

Every year the Legislature is required by statute to set the Education Property Tax rates.  The Tax Commissioner makes a recommendation in December and these are reviewed by the House Ways and Means Committee in January.  After much testimony and discussion, the House set the residential education property tax rate at 88 cents and non-residential rate at $1.37, with the base education spending amount per pupil at $8,723 in bill H. 754.  The 70% of Vermonters who pay by income will still begin with a 1.8% base.  These rates are a base upon which local spending choices are added.  The rates are up a penny, largely due to a reduction in grand list value and the assumption that average school spending statewide will be up 1.7% - though the current figure is 2.6% with over half the districts reporting. 

Because the exact numbers will be a moving target until Town Meeting Day, this is our best effort for the time being, and will be reviewed in concert with the Senate as spending rates are clarified.  In an effort to re-establish (or rebase) the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund back to 2010 level, we passed the Sharpe-Olsen Amendment, which takes 50% of any “waterfall” or surplus and applies it to the General Fund Transfer to the Education Fund.  This helps rebuild this transfer in a manageable way over time. This amendment is consistent with our values in balancing the needs of our schools, the importance of local control, and ongoing efforts to provide property tax relief.
 

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Statewide Collection of Education Property Tax

The question of whether local or state government should be collecting the education property tax has been an ongoing topic of discussion since the creation of Act 60 in 1998. In an effort to come to resolution on this matter, the Legislature is working on legislation to transfer education property tax collection to the state beginning in 2015. The goal of the transition is to implement a collection system that is more efficient, less costly, more transparent, and consistently applied statewide. The legislation, supported by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, also contemplates additional analysis by the Tax Department and encourages the establishment of working groups by stakeholders to think through technical problems and more reliably assure that the end product is, indeed, a viable improvement over the status quo. The bill would also entail moving the annual listers’ appraisal date from April 1 to January 1 starting in 2014.

Once the transition is made to a state collection system, questions and concerns surrounding the handling of income information on the local level will be resolved, as it will no longer be funneled through local municipalities. Until that time, however, state law must provide for a workable protocol regarding income sensitivity-related property tax adjustments. To this end, Ways and Means is reviewing options to protect this sensitive information, while allowing certain professionals such as escrow agents, bankers, and auditors the access they need to conduct real estate transactions and other local functions. Under this scenario, anyone else seeking this information would need to obtain a written consent from the taxpayer.

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Fee Bill
 

Fees for service are an important part of state government. They help protect Vermonters and provide additional value to particular groups of citizens. Each year, a rotating group of state agencies can come to the legislature and request fee increases in an omnibus “Fee Bill.” The major agencies requesting fee increases this year are the Agency of Human Services (AHS), Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

AHS generally does not charge many fees because they work with Vermont's most vulnerable populations. Their fee change this year allows their Assistive Technology Program to rent software and equipment to schools, organizations, and individuals. These tools serve as a gateway to permanent use of life-changing technology to perform daily tasks and improve cognition and communication.

ANR’s Departments of Environmental Conservation and Fish and Wildlife have both requested fee increases to better manage pollution and protect our flora and fauna, including endangered and threatened species. The legislature sought to take a balanced approach between helping our economy and environment to thrive in reviewing these fee requests.

Increasing DMV fees is difficult, recognizing cars are a necessity for many hard-working Vermonters. In the wake of Irene, and historic and continuing rebuilding of roads and bridges, the Agency of Transportation requested an increase in fees. If Fee Bill passes, expect to see an increase in vehicle registration and other broad fees, as modest as possible.

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Meeting our Recycling Needs

In 1987, the State set a goal to reduce solid waste going to landfills by 50%. Unfortunately, this goal has fallen short, achieving only about 36%.  In addition, waste generation per capita and by volume has increased significantly in the past 25 years.  With only two operating landfills in the state and one near capacity, it is time to act.  It is time to think of waste products not as trash, but as residual commodities with value for recycling.

 H.485 is a major update of the Vermont’s solid waste law.  This bill calls for an analysis by the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) of waste composition, disposal rates, and current recycling efforts.  This information will be used to develop a plan to minimize landfill disposal, build consumer education, develop private markets, and improve infrastructure. The bill would require separation and diversion of all recyclable materials in 2015, of leaf and yard waste in 2016, and of food waste (mostly for compost) in 2017. 

As an incentive to people and businesses to recycle more and throw away less, municipalities will be required to offer weight-based pricing options for collection, often referred to as “pay as you throw.”  Many details are yet to be worked out, but H.485 will move us further down the road to zero waste. 

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Stopping drunk driving

Two years ago the House unanimously passed a DUI bill allowing certain offenders to opt for a program that would let them drive legally while ensuring that they were sober while doing so. The program allowed those eligible to have installed in their cars an “ignition interlock device” that keeps the car from starting if the driver’s breath contains alcohol.

The program was enacted last summer by the Dept. of Motor Vehicles and currently has 88 enrollees. Over 300 people have made inquiries about enrolling, and 25 have been denied. The Agency is very enthusiastic about this results-based program, and would like to expand it, which we hope to do in the next week or so.

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Protecting vulnerable adults

Earlier, the House passed H. 413, which will help keep "vulnerable adults" safe. (This means any adult who needs extra care who lives in a facility.) Currently, if the Attorney General wants to pursue a complaint against a facility,  he must file a criminal charge, which can have a devastating effect, e.g. forcing a facility to close when there might have been simply one incompetent employee.   H. 413 allows the AG to file a civil charge (i.e. to levy a fine), which can address the complaint without shutting down the facility.

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Vermont State Employees
 

With the record spring flooding, many state employees had been providing extraordinary service to Vermonters as they struggled to keep roads and parks open.  Then Irene struck.  Agency of Transportation employees again stepped up to repair roads and bridges all over the state in record time. 

The state complex in Waterbury was significantly damaged, forcing the relocation 20% of the state’s work force.   1,500 employees moved to temporary work sites and were quickly back to work.  The disruption to employees’ lives was significant; requiring many to increase travel time, find new childcare, and other modifications. 

The efforts of Vermont State Hospital Employees have been heroic—first as they kept 54 patients safe during the flood and then as they followed their patients to Burlington and Brattleboro, Springfield and Rutland.  They are working very long hours under conditions not designed to meet the needs of Vermont State Hospital patients.  

H.630 which reorganizes the mental health system of care recognized this extraordinary effort and the inability to reopen a state facility for more than two years.  It provides additional employment and re-employment rights to state hospital employees.  Expecting to have more news on the opening of a facility in Morrisville to care for a group of state hospital patients, the House deferred taking steps to assure the employment of some of the workers until later in the session.

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Commerce and Economic Development

The legislature has responded to a number of issues that have presented themselves this year.  One involves home and property owners who will be relieved to learn that they can again sell their property and take back a mortgage from the buyer.  As part of a response to the mortgage -ending crisis, casual sellers were required to become licensed lenders, a step that simply did not make sense in the context of someone selling their own properties on an occasional basis.  This has been remedied in a bill that recently passed in the House.  Another property related bill remedies a problem for homeowners on private roads: a Fannie Mae regulation has made the sale of these properties difficult or impossible without a written agreement as to maintenance of the road among the homeowners or, in the alternative, a state statute addressing road maintenance.  A bill in the House will fix this problem without imposing any additional obligations on landowners than they currently have under Vermont common law.

The House has worked on numerous issues relating to economic development --- relating to lending, borrowing and the legal structures of businesses. The House passed a bill relating to Private Activity Bonds – to take better advantage of tax exempt financing opportunities for economic development. The bill also increases the lending capacity of VEDA to enhance its lending capacity to meet the needs of businesses recovering from tropical storm Irene.

A Department of Labor bill addresses many issues relating to Workers Compensation to protect good businesses and workers from unscrupulous activities; to make sure workers get their wages; to stop retaliation; to better inspect work sites; to allow some people starting a new business to continue to receive unemployment benefits; to allow volunteers in fire departments and rescue squads to be covered for WC; to remove the disincentives for employers who send workers to safety training; and to create a preauthorization for independent contractors who wish to request it.

Efforts to increase worker training opportunities for Vermonters are ongoing and are being taken very seriously by the Legislature.  Training programs through the Vermont Department of Labor, the Office of Economic Development, and numerous other state programs provide training - to provide opportunities for individuals and provide the needed workforce for our employers.

Good work has been done in the area of consumer protection.  A House bill provides some protections to those who wish to sell their rights to periodic payments under a structured settlement.  It also protects those who borrow money on the internet against unscrupulous lenders.  Also included are protections relating to insurance for portable electronic devices, gift certificates, loyalty awards and others.

Work in the Commerce and Economic Development Committee relating to the Public Service Board and the Public Service Department includes providing for the electronic filing of documents with the PSB which will improve transparency and access to information on the many decisions critical to our economic and environmental future.

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Dual Enrollment
 

Research demonstrates the many benefits high school juniors and seniors derive from taking college-level courses for dual-credit.  Based on this, the House Education Committee has begun to draft legislation that will expand access to such courses for Vermont students. Dual enrollment courses are designed to help all students with college and career readiness and to reach out to students who might not otherwise see college as an option. Such courses help create a bridge between secondary and post secondary education, helping to guide students in continuing their learning at either a community college or four-year college or university.

The advantages high school students receive from taking dual or concurrent enrollment classes include: a more rigorous high school education; heightened aspirations to pursue a higher education, particularly among first generation college attendees; a smoother transition from high school to college; and a reduction in the time it takes to complete a college education.

Fiscal benefits of dual-enrollment programs can include savings for students, their parents, and the state. These programs may help create an important bridge between secondary and post secondary education, helping to guide students in continuing their learning at either a community college or four-year college or university.

Many aspects of the House Education Committee’s draft legislation are founded on recommendations made in a report by a Policy Research Team appointed by the House Education Committee that met to discuss the issue this past summer and fall. Team members included two members of the House Education Committee, two principals, a former superintendent, four members of the Department of Education, and a member of  the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, Vermont Adult Learning, and the New England Secondary School Consortium.

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Education Mergers/Consolidation

In 2010, the legislature passed a bill to help school districts improve educational opportunities, increase administrative effectiveness, and save money through a voluntary consolidation process. Since then, dozens of school boards across the state have engaged neighboring districts to discuss the costs and benefits of working together jointly. This year, school board members and superintendents asked the House Education committee to modify the law to create even more flexibility in how they can unite to achieve these goals.

The House Education Committee drafted a bill that provides financial and other incentives to encourage school districts and supervisory unions to provide services cooperatively. It includes changes that will facilitate and encourage school districts and supervisory unions to merge in diverse ways. For example, sending towns (“choice towns”) may unite under common governance and service structures. Similarly, towns that offer only primary and middle school education may also unite with neighboring districts with the same grade offerings. In short, towns will not be restricted from uniting creatively and in a way that respects their local traditions and functions. The bill also delays the deadline for the centralization of special education services until July 1, 2015 and directs the Commissioner of Education to convene a working group to address barriers that schools face in implementing the law. Finally, H.753 extends the closure period of any school from 4 to10 years and requires that merger plans include provisions for closing schools.

The “voluntary school merger bill” provides various incentives for collaboration. School districts or supervisory unions (SUs) can receive up to $5K in reimbursement for services performed to help explore the feasibility of cooperative governance and joint services. If districts or SUs proceed toward shared services or duties, addition funds are available to reimburse for consulting services. Finally, $150K and either a tiered local property tax forgiveness or a $400 per pupil grant is available to towns and SUs that ultimately decide to transition into one of the many different cooperative structures set out in H.753. 

There is strong support for H.753 and its predecessor Act 153 throughout the state. Already, three supervisory unions in southern Vermont plan to merge into two, saving over $700,000.00. Over twelve separate studies are also underway to explore future mergers. Finally, a measurable uptick in joint services and shared resources among districts has been noted by the Department of Education.

The legislature is committed to strengthening Vermont’s education system. H.753 helps advance our aim by encouraging Vermonters to look beyond the walls of a school or the boundaries of a town in order to expand opportunities for our students, increase achievement levels, save taxpayer dollars and simplify our governance structures throughout the state.

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Cleaning Products in Schools

The House passed S. 92, which protects students’ health by requiring manufacturers and distributors of cleaning products to sell only environmentally preferable cleaning products and air fresheners to schools. Such products include those that are already used by the state’s Department of Buildings and General Services under state contracts, or are certified as environmentally preferable by an independent third party. Individuals who provide cleaning services to schools also must use only environmentally preferable products. The bill does not regulate the sale, use, or distribution of disinfectants or other antimicrobial pesticides. Schools may continue to use conventional cleaning products purchased prior to July 1, 2012 until supplies are depleted.  Independent schools may continue to use conventional cleaning products purchased prior to July 1, 2013 until supplies run out.

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Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking)

Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into natural gas bearing rocks to create fractures that will allow the gas to flow into a well. This occurs about a mile below the surface and is not to be confused with hydro-fracturing to improve the yield of water wells. We know of no plans to develop natural gas extraction wells in Vermont. However, shale in Franklin County and the Islands is believed to be similar to shale in Quebec where natural gas is produced. Some experts tell us that it is impossible to prove that fracking won't result in groundwater contamination. Other experts are just as convinced reasonable regulation will prevent any harm to the environment. At this time no one has announced plans for gas exploration or production in Vermont.

No one disputes that natural gas is a cleaner fuel than coal. When natural gas replaces coal it eliminates the mercury emissions that eventually find their way into fish. Studies are underway to determine whether problems that have been associated with fracking, such as methane and other contaminants in drinking water wells, are pre-existing conditions or the result of fracking. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is already working on revising the rules related to Underground Injection Control (UIC). We want to make sure that no fracking occurs until research underway to assess the safety of fracking has been completed and DEC has completed the revision of UIC rules. The House of Representatives passed a bill that would place a moratorium on fracking for three years. Consideration by the full Senate is pending.

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Redistricting----- the who, what, when and why 

Redistricting can be a "scary" topic when it is "your district."

There has been a lot of misunderstanding with regard to the process.  So, allow me to do a little walk through the process for you.  Redistricting is the process, revisited every ten years, by which your House and Senate divide the state into districts on the basis of population.  As a result of the last census, each state representative will represent about 4,172 people in a one- member district or 8,344 people in a two-member district.  No district perfectly matches these numbers; therefore deviations are allowed.

In drawing the new map, the House wanted to keep communities as whole as possible. Considerations were school districts, commonality of communities, economic and social alignments, to name a few.  Some areas in the north gained population while southern portions of the state decreased in population. This affected the outlines of current representative districts, and a domino effect occurred when districts were adjusted to reflect those population changes.

Misconceptions arose during the process. I will attempt to alleviate some of these worries.  If you live in a town that is now part of another district, it does not affect where your children will go to school, your bus routes, taxes, the structure of your town government, your garbage collection, or delivery of mail.  It might mean that instead of having one person representing you, you have two.  Or you might have to vote in a different polling place.

After passing the House and the Senate, the new map will go to the governor for his signature.  It needs to be at the Secretary of State's office by mid April for election preparation.

Jericho and Underhill will be part of the Chittenden 3 2 seat district, Bolton will be in a 2 seat district with Huntington, Buels Gore and Waterbury.

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Prevention and Detection of Embezzlement

Every day we hear in the news of a new incident of embezzlement either in the public or private sector.  The legislature is working with the state auditor, VT League of Cities and Towns, and School Boards Association to reduce the number of incidents of embezzlement in municipal and county government, supervisory unions, school districts, and non-profit organizations.

Legislation is being drafted that is designed to establish good working internal controls and to help organizations create an environment in which it is difficult to commit this crime. The state auditor would like to assist organizations and possibly monitor their financial internal controls. Thoughts being developed include a checklist for management making sure they understand the need for internal controls, a yearly education requirement, and a reporting requirement when money has been discovered missing.

A balance will need to be found between just creating another mandate and putting out a helping hand.

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Supporting Our Troops

The 700 Vermont National Guard troops who were called up post-Irene worked alongside troops from eight other states.  Those other state guard members were awarded housing allowances by their states. Vermont law did not provide a housing allowance.  Current legislation requires that housing allowances be paid for future state service.  This multi-faceted bill also requires that Vermont employers protect the jobs and health care benefits of guard members providing state disaster services.  Further, it places in statute the authority of the Adjutant General to award medals and creates an administrative disciplinary process for the Vermont National Guard.  Finally, the bill expands the use of educational scholarships for our troops.


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Rivers, Lakes and Flooding

As most Vermonters know, spring flooding of our rivers and lakes and August flooding from Tropical Storm Irene have not only changed our landscape but also caused a paradigm shift in how we address the management, resiliency and quality of our water resources and response to more frequent and extreme weather conditions. A broad bill considering the preservation of our water resources is being scrutinized and vetted in the House, while a bill addressing river inundation and erosion is being addressed in the Senate. 

Addressing these issues has required input from our lake, river and storm water experts, our road and bridge builders, farmers and municipalities, many still in stages of recovery.  From this, we are gathering a better picture of changes needed in law and in practice to prepare for and respond to weather events, erosion and pollution

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Lake Champlain

Lake Champlain has long struggled with phosphorus pollution coming from development, agriculture and forest runoff.   Last year, the EPA declared Vermont’s current plan for daily allowance of phosphorus run off to be inadequate.  To compound matters, spring flooding brought record lake levels and huge plumes of sediment, further exacerbating problems.

This year, the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources has been looking at ways to reduce phosphorus pollution, beginning with review of a recently completed detailed study identifying critical source areas (CSAs) of phosphorus pollution in the Missisquoi Bay Basin. A calibrated model depicts and defines the most probable source locations of pollutants and this report will allow targeted implementation of best management practices.

Implementation will require additional personnel to field identify CSA’s and assist farmers with revising their practices. Other strategies will look at nutrient planning, soil loss of croplands, and the impacts of small farms.

A current bill also explores priorities assigned to municipal pollution control systems, the treatment of storm water and storm water improvement projects, and the need for a critical response plan to help remediate longstanding water quality problems in St. Albans Bay. 

While improvement ideas and needs are many, dollars available are few.  The House is currently working with lake, agricultural, municipal and business groups to identify sources of funding to address these issues. 

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Department of Labor

Workers’ compensation insurance is an important protection to both employers and employees.  It provides excellent medical payments in the case of an on-the-job injury, it has a provision to replace most of lost earnings during recovery, and it protects the employer from law suits over the injury.

Vermont law allows sole proprietors to opt out of this coverage for themselves, and when that person works alone as an ‘independent contractor’ the coverage is optional.  The Department of Labor is working on clarifications to the independent contractor status to make it easier for these individuals to prove they are independent contractors so they can get work.

The commerce committee is also strengthening a very important provision of the workers compensation statue.  With this revision, all fire fighters, EMTs, rescue personnel, and emergency volunteers will be covered by workers compensation insurance for any activity coming under the scope of their departments or services, including things like fixing the firehouse roof, working on department fundraisers, and participating in trainings and parades.

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Working Landscapes

Vermont is in the midst of an agricultural renaissance and is at the forefront of the local foods movement. That success has been due to the efforts of skilled and dedicated farmers, creative entrepreneurs, and the strategic investment of private and public funds. Starting a new business, however, or moving to the next level in an ongoing enterprise holds many technical, regulatory and financial challenges for growth.  

The House Agriculture Committee unanimously passed the Working Lands Enterprise Bill (H.496). Vermonters see the working landscape as key to our identity, our economic growth and as legacy for future generations.  The working lands economy - comprised of farms, forestry and value-added processing – holds tremendous opportunity for job creation and rural revitalization.  The committee process was guided by a report from the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s “Invest in our Farm and Forest Future; along with extensive public and committee testimony from the agricultural and forest products

The bill creates The Working Lands Enterprise Fund to demonstrate the state’s investment in the working lands enterprise economy. The fund will focus on three key areas:  enterprise grants and loans to land-based and value-added businesses that are new or want to grow; wrap-around services to working lands enterprise start-ups or those in growth phases; and needed infrastructure to support cluster development and spur business success and rural prosperity.

To make sure the funds are leveraged and dispersed as prescribed, there will be a Working Lands Enterprise Board to oversee and administer the Fund and coordinate all economic development efforts related to working lands enterprises. Find more information here: http://vtworkinglands.org.  

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Roads to Canada

The Vermont Commission on International Trade and Sovereignty held hearings with the Legislature, clearly demonstrating the important role Vermont plays in international and national trade.  The Quebec Ministry of Transport presented their timeframe for road improvements and new sections of Rt 35, which should greatly improve trade access to Montreal. US-Canadian trade supports nearly 20,000 Vermont jobs and 898 companies of which 90% are small or medium-size enterprises.  As of November, 2011, the US exported $1.7 billion in goods to Canada. 

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Tax Relief in the Wake of Irene

Tax Abatements: The first piece of legislation dealing with the storms of 2011 made its way quickly through the House on January 5th. This bill helps cities and towns by having the State step in to absorb the costs of storm-related education property tax abatements that, under normal circumstances, would be borne by municipalities. It is estimated that the one-time cost of this measure would range between $2 and $4 million. Although there are a number of pieces still in play (Federal aid, insurance determinations, etc,), the Secretary of Administration, Jeb Spaulding, expressed that the State would likely be on the hook for no more than $100 million due to the ravages of Irene. That’s a big number, but a far cry from what was being bandied about in October.

Irene Education Payment Deferral - Just before the Governor’s budget message on January 19th, the House passed its second legislative effort thus far this year to assist cities and towns hard hit by the spring floods and Irene. The approved bill enables the State Treasurer to defer the due date for education taxes due the State from storm impacted municipalities  to be moved from Dec 1, 2011, to February 28, 2012. By postponing this date and absolving affected municipalities from any delinquency penalties, cities and towns hammered by Irene will be given a much-needed cash flow breather. Eleven towns, all from southern Vermont, have chosen to take advantage of this deferment option, to the tune of $7.1 million.

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©2013 - Paid for by Representative Bill Frank
19 Poker Hill Rd, Underhill, VT 05489
Bill@RepBillFrank.com