The Session Begins

By Kate Webb

The start of the 2013-14 legislative sessions began quietly with limited pomp and circumstance. In place of the expensive governor’s inaugural ball, the State House opened modestly to visitors to travel the halls, admire the recent renovations, and partake in conversation, Vermont cheeses, and desserts.

On Wednesday, House Speaker Shap Smith challenged House members to address complex issues related to education, health care, climate change, and infrastructure. In contrast, the governor was silent on most of these issues, focusing his entire speech on education to develop a workforce for the future.

As much as I applaud the governor’s support for education, his specific proposals present us with some provocative challenges, which we will confront over the coming weeks and months. Our first task is to use our committees of Education, Ways and Means, and Human Services to fully explore the details of these proposals and the opportunities they may present. I would anticipate lively debate and extensive testimony from educators, employers, agencies, and advocates to help identify real-life impact on the near and long term for Vermont and Vermonters. In this column, I’ll keep you up to date on these issues as they are discussed.

A variety of summer study committees or reports commissioned in the last biennium are now coming in. Here are a few issues up for discussion this week:

Appropriations: The committee has begun to review the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) for the current year. This is essentially a mid-year correction completed each year to address changes in revenue and expenditure predictions made last May. Although the upward and downward pressures are essentially neutral, there is a troubling upward trend for future budgets coming largely from human services and now also from judiciary.

Ways and Means: A summer study committee reported that sales tax revenue for Vermont and nationally has eroded due to changes in purchasing from goods to services and local shops to online. The committee recommended not increasing sales taxes to include services; exercising significant caution in creating any additional exemptions; and pressuring Congress to enable states to collect remote and online sales taxes.

Natural Resources and Energy: The committee is reviewing a report from the Thermal Efficiency Task Force, helping Vermonters weatherize their homes. The committee is likely to focus less on electricity and more on thermal energy this year. Other areas include land use planning and paint stewardship.

Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources: How do we prioritize and fund remediation and protection of our water? A report due this week will identify areas of challenge and 16 different funding options.

Transportation:  Three reports are due this week. The first addresses driving privileges for drivers without social security numbers. The second analyzes user fees for those using alternative un-taxed fuels. The third addresses trends and bonding for transportation infrastructure.

Please join Representative Joan Lenes and me on Tuesday mornings at 7:30 am at Brueggers. I am also available by appointment, through email:  katewebbvt@gmail.com or cell phone 233-7798. My website is www.katewebbvt.com.

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