Saturday January 12, 2013

DYLAN J. BAKER

Manchester Journal

MANCHESTER -- Vermont lawmakers returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday for the start of the 2013 Legislative session, with a wide range of issues and problems to sort through.

Before the gavel came down to officially launch a new legislative biennium, local state representatives gave their views on the priorities they see on the horizon.

Among the major issues that will be addressed will be physician-assisted suicide, decriminalization of marijuana, health care reform, and the increase in property tax among others, several said.

This will be the first year that Cynthia Browning and Jeff Wilson will both be representing the Bennington 4 District that includes Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate, and a part of Sunderland since a reapportionment redrew the boundaries of local districts last year. Wilson, who formerly represented Manchester, and Browning, who represented Arlington, Sunderland, Sandgate and a part of West Rupert, will now be thrown together into the new two-member district.

"We communicated well even before the redistricting, so not much changed," said Browning. "What was different for me is that every Saturday I do legislative office hours at Chauncey's Restaurant in Arlington and I am getting for people from Manchester visiting me."

Wilson seemed unfazed by the changeover as well.

"It has affected me in the sense that I have gone and visited each town and we are both fielding questions from a broader base of constituents," he said. "Not much has changed, but we are representing a larger population so we have to keep that in mind."

This will also be newly elected Representative Charles "Tim" Goodwin's first visit to the legislative session and he admits that he might be a bit nervous. Goodwin will be representing the Windsor-Bennington-Windham District 1, which includes the towns of Weston, Winhall, Stratton, Londonderry and Jamaica.

"I am pretty excited to get there and see what it's like," he said. "I would be lying to you if I said I wasn't a little nervous and that I have a little anxiety, but I'm just really excited to get up there."

One topic that has some locals worried is the five cent increase in the property tax and how that might effect our schools, he said.

"Education is very important in my district and in our state," said Goodwin. "If something were to jeopardize the great education system we have that would be disappointing."

Wilson is also worried what some of the decisions that have to be made will effect the people in Vermont.

"It's a tough one," said Wilson. "When you have a situation where the tax base of the state is declining because property values have declined but spending continues to grow its just simple math that there is going to be an increase in property tax rates. When push comes to shove there are just certain things we can't afford and you have to make some tough decisions."

Health reform is likely to be another topic of discussion and it is something Browning thinks needs to be changed in order to be beneficial.

"I would like to make participation in the new health insurance exchange voluntary instead of mandatory and allow more variety of plans, including the high deductible low cost policies that many businesses are using," she said. "This would reduce uncertainty for businesses and allow for an easier transition period."

Some different topics of discussion that may throw the legislature a curveball include the topics of the decriminalization of marijuana and physician-assisted suicide. Both topics test differences in moral boundaries and tend to have strong opinions either way.

"I do think it will be decriminalized and it's only a matter of time," said Goodwin. "There are a lot of things that are going to have to be considered and there needs to be a lot of input from different sectors."

Goodwin is a Vietnam veteran and witnessed first hand the effects harder drugs have on people compared to marijuana. 

"When I got to Vietnam I pretty much witnessed first hand what marijuana did to people, which wasn't much, and what heroin did to people, and you just watch them go down the tubes," he said. "I thought for a long time that resources would be better spent addressing the issue of harder drugs."

Others have different opinions on the matter because decriminalizing marijuana goes against federal law.

"I would tend to want to go very slow on that," said Browning. "I don't think it makes since to do that given the structure of federal law. I don't believe in going against federal laws and I think that marijuana is as not as benign as people think it." Wilson, on the other hand, would still like to get more information before making a decision.

"I have mixed feelings to be honest," he said. "I would like to see how it plays out in other states. It may send the wrong message to our youth. On the other hand some people say that it is crazy to spend an enormous amount of time and money on it and we might be better off trying to concentrate on our larger drug problems."

The topic of physician-assisted death is a topic that may pose some difficult moral questions and is a topic that stirs up strong feelings.

Wilson supports "death with dignity," as physician-assisted suicide is often referred to, and feels that patients should have the right to decide what to do.

"I am in favor of it and was a co-sponsor in the past and will support it going forward," he said. "I think in this day and age one should be able to make that choice, as opposed to the suffering and painful experience in the last days or weeks of their life. It is a decision that should be left with the individual."

Wilson's district mate, Browning, has a different opinion on the matter and said that there are too many factors that cannot be controlled. "I was actually in the legislature the last time this came up for a vote and I voted against it," she said. "I did so because although I had great sympathy for the desire and the need of people to have such an option, when it came to the actual mechanics of how to regulate and how to monitor it and the possibilities that something could go wrong, I just could not support it."

On Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to discuss, following his swearing-in ceremony, the estimated $50 to $70 million budget shortfall that Vermont is facing, a topic that local legislators are worried about.

Browning has some strong ideas on how this problem might be able to be solved.

"One priority will be the transformation of our system of state financing so that every dollar spent is productive and effective and our tax code is simple, efficient, and equitable," she said. "All spending programs must have performance goals and cost controls. The tax code should be reformed by reducing subsidies and broadening the tax base so that we could lower the sales, income, and property tax rates. What if all income tax rates could be lowered? What if property tax rates could be lowered by 20 cents? What if the sales tax rate could be 2 percent or 1 percent? I think that such changes may be possible, but it will not be easy."

Wilson said that Vermont has to do a better job in long-term financial planning and do a better job with the budgeting process.

"We have to look at the trends and where some of the spending is coming from," he said. "We have been through this for the past four or five years with the recession and we have to prioritize and figure out what we can afford."

The journal was unable to coordinate a conversation with Rep. Patti Komline, who represents Dorset, Landgrove, Peru, Danby and Mt. Tabor, in time for this article.