What we accomplished: the legislative year in review

By Rep. Joan Lenes
and Rep. Kate Webb
Legislative priorities set last session were overshadowed by the urgency of reconstruction following Tropical Storm Irene. The Legislature spent the first weeks passing legislation to provide emergency tax relief to flood-ravaged communities, reforming Vermont’s Mental Health System and appropriating record dollars to repair our broken roads and bridges. In spite of all this, and in the face of disappearing American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds and a slow growing economy, we passed a balanced budget without raising broad based taxes. We redesigned our health care system, making sure that the federal legislation could benefit Vermonters as effectively as possible. We strengthened our DUI law, helped schools merge and improved conditions for mortgage lending. We reapportioned our electoral districts in a way that garnered tri-partisan support.

Taxes: paying our fair share – the “Vermont Way”

While there were no broad-based tax increases, there were tax changes. These changes promote fairness and economic competitiveness, and will help sustain our schools and state infrastructure. Vermonters will now be able to:
– Get more help from Vermont Taxpayer Advocate
– Net business losses for sole proprietorships
– See less teen smoking, as small, flavored cigars will be taxed the same as cigarettes.
– Have longer to file property tax adjustment and renter rebate claims
– Be exempt from doubling of interest and dividend income in the property tax adjustment, (if you are over 65)
– Be free of the land use change tax for working farms, when applying for a wastewater permit
– Be eligible for new market tax credits, increased funding for downtowns, and affordable housing tax credits to help rebuild stronger communities and neighborhoods in the wake of the spring flooding and Irene
– Be forgiven from paying sales and use taxes on remotely accessed, prewritten software until 2013 (cloud tax)
– Be exempt from sales and use taxes for dental health items for dentists.
– Include secondary packaging equipment in the manufacturing exemption from sales tax
– Get a tax rebate if you buy a mobile home to replace one damaged by a flood in 2011
– See some property tax relief as a result of increased sales tax revenue allocation to the Education Fund
– Be free from meals tax for those living in an independent living facility

Investing in Transportation Infrastructure

Transportation investments strengthen our economy and improve quality of life. This year brings the largest transportation budgets in history: $658 million in 2013. Along with Irene recovery needs, this budget addresses seriously neglected infrastructure needs and helps meet our goal to reduce our roads classified as ‘very poor” to 25 percent. Bridges classified as structurally deficient reduced from 16 to 9 percent, moving Vermont from a 49th place to 29th among states. The Vermont Disaster Relief Fund and Vermont Food Bank received support from the sale of over 25,000 Vermont Strong license plates – buy yours today.

Universal Recycling and Solid Waste

Vermont has only two landfills and may have just one in the near future. It is imperative to reduce the quantity of waste currently going to landfills. H. 485 takes the first step to achieving universal recycling in Vermont, which not only diverts waste from our limited landfill space, but also provides significant economic development opportunities. Specifically, H.485 sets a schedule to ban recyclable material from landfills statewide, and then phases in recycling of yard waste and other organic materials such as food scraps. There are tiered implementation dates from July 2014 to July 2020. Solid waste facilities, trash haulers, and individuals have compliance target dates that allow for education and smooth transition.

Vermont’s Mental Health System of Care

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 here was the opportunity to upgrade and update our mental health care system, resources and infrastructure. New legislation offers a continuum of community services, as well as a range of inpatient beds throughout the state. In addition, it provides for a clinical resource management system and integration of treatment, a new intensive residential, or “step down” facilities, and a residence for individual seeking treatment with minimal use of psychotropic medications.

Embezzlement: prevention and detection

Vermont has earned the dubious distinction of being first in the nation for being at high risk for embezzlement according to a 2012 report. Something needed to be done to protect taxpayers’ money in municipalities.
Legislation passed in S.106 authorizes the State Auditor to create an internal controls checklist and provide education to county, municipalities and school district personnel who receive or disburse funds. The document is designed to determine that financial controls are in place to assure proper use of all public funds. The legislative bodies of these organizations must receive and review the checklist and insure sound systems of internal financial controls are in place. Treasurers must file quarterly reports with the select board or school board regarding his or her actions.

Consumer Protection

The legislature passed a number of consumer protection measures to insulate small businesses from unscrupulous Internet lending and telephone solicitations and set policy for the receipt of unwanted and unsolicited merchandise. Policy for gift cards and discount membership programs was updated. New legislation also addressed theft of metals from homes and businesses by setting procedures for consistent recording of scrap metal dealers’ transactions to law enforcement. Following on a request from Shelburne residents, improvements were made to record keeping and reporting requirements for pawnbrokers. A provision this year sets in place policies to regulate insurance for portable electronic devices such as cell phones, and laptop computers and set in place research on better consumer protections for elderly persons.

Vermont’s Working Landscapes

Over 97 percent of Vermonters believe that our working landscape is key to our future – in fact more important than anything else, according to the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

Recognizing that Vermont’s most reliable assets are our natural resources, our people and our brand, the Working Lands bill will stimulate economic development, encouraging entrepreneurism and job creation in agriculture and forest products. The Working Landscapes Enterprise Board, will implement the policy, making determinations on funding& resources for those who want to start up, expand, or branch out in agriculture and forestry.  The board will consider enterprise grants, capital for a business’ growth phase, infrastructure investments, and business planning and startup help, as well as wraparound services, technical assistance and financial packaging. Available funds may be leveraged through private funders and foundations.

This is a transformational piece of legislation.  If Vermont still has vibrant agricultural and forest activity in 20 years, it will have been because of the work started this year.

Buying and Selling Real Estate

The Legislature fixed two problems that had been interfering with the ability to buy and sell some real estate.  First, it will now be possible for a Vermonter to hold a mortgage on a sale of property without needing a lender’s license so long as they do so infrequently.  This will help people who want to sell their property or business and be paid back over time.  Real estate loans to relatives are also now possible without getting a lender’s license.

Bankers and homebuyers were having problems trying to close loans on properties on private roads. Currently, Fannie Mae loans require a written road maintenance agreement or a state statue setting how maintenance disagreements will be treated. Closings subject to this guideline have been held up or canceled.  Act 123 puts into statute current common law that says if no written agreement exists, maintenance will be handled “rateably,” – should a disagreement arise, courts will take into all relevant factors, thus satisfying Fannie Mae.
GMO Labeling

Today 80 percent of all packaged foods sold in this country are products of genetic engineering, yet it is extremely difficult to make informed choices about these products because they are not labeled, or are mislabeled as “natural.”  This is a concern to many Vermonters and the impetus for the Vermont Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Labeling bill.

No bill moved forward this year, however action and testimony taken lays out a legally defensible case for a statewide labeling requirement of foods produce through genetic engineering. Most importantly, a record is being established and reviewed this summer to prove Vermont’s “legitimate state interest” for future enactment of these requirements. Based on testimony from dozens of expert witnesses, there is genuine cause for concern regarding the public health and environmental consequences of genetic engineering. Furthermore, reputable polling conducted by UVM indicates that nearly 97 percent of Vermonters favor labeling. Other states are pursuing similar legislation. Expect to see a bill taken up for reconsideration in the next biennium.

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