Monday January 21, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Should the state track the number of miles you drive each year -- and then charge you accordingly?

That’s just one question under consideration as Vermont lawmakers debate how to address a serious transportation funding shortfall that could cripple construction projects statewide. As the state Legislature ended its first full week of the new session, finding money for roads and bridges was on the mind of state

Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat.

"There are just a lot of things to consider," Burke said. "We’re going to look at all the options." Burke, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said a special committee that examined the issue is projecting a $240 million annual shortfall in transportation funding.

"That’s huge," Burke said. "And there’s a lot of unknowns with federal transportation funding."

Among the factors driving the funding shortfall are two basic facts,

Burke said: People are driving less, and they are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles.

While those can be viewed as positive developments, "that means the gas-tax revenues are down," she said. "This is the conundrum."

The state House and Senate transportation committees held a joint hearing on the matter Thursday, Burke said, while adding that "we haven’t really had a chance to consider the (special committee’s) recommendations."

Some of those recommendations, though, are sure to be controversial. For instance, Burke expects serious discussion about raising the state’s gas tax, which stands at 20 cents per gallon. Burke said raising vehicle-registration fees or varying them based on the size of a vehicle also are a possibilities. And the committee has floated the idea of a "vehicle miles traveled" tax.

"You would pay based on how much you drive," Burke said.

It’s been estimated that a tax of 1 cent per mile traveled would generate $64 million annually for the state.

Vermont Transportation Secretary Brian Searles said the system would use GPS devices to track mileage and then levy a tax on each mile, The Associated Press reported. But the AP also reported that officials in other states say there are alternate technological approaches that wouldn’t raise the privacy issues of GPS tracking.

For instance, an Oregon bill would let motorists choose from a range of technologies.

In other news from Windham County’s lawmakers for the new session, which began Jan. 9: -- State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat, returned to the House

Human Services Committee and said members "got right to work" advising the Appropriations Committee on adjustments needed in the current year’s budget.

"With spikes in service requests for the developmentally disabled, child care and the homeless, we have to add some funding to the budget passed last May," Mrowicki said.

"As we head into the new year, (the committee) will again be looking at adult protective services, assistance for preschoolers and elder care and closely following reform efforts for our health care for those Vermonters experiencing mental-health issues." -- State Rep. Dick Marek, a Newfane-based Democrat, said the House

Judiciary Committee is hearing testimony "on the issue of potential forfeiture of pensions by all public employees who commit acts of public malfeasance in the performance of their jobs -- primarily financial malfeasance."

The debate is prompted by the recent case of former state Trooper Jim Deeghan, who was accused of adding hundreds of hours of fake overtime to his time card. Reportedly, the thefts exceeded $200,000.

Deeghan pleaded guilty this week and will spend two years in prison. Marek said the pension-forfeiture legislation is "a very early draft" and has not yet been formally introduced. The committee has heard testimony from the attorney general, secretary of administration, the governor’s legal counsel and others, Marek said. 

-- Other committee assignments for Windham County’s House members are as follows: Tim Goodwin, an independent who serves the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district (Judiciary); Mike Hebert, a

Vernon Republican (Natural Resources and Energy); Ann Manwaring, a Wilmington Democrat (Appropriations); Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat (Agriculture); Valerie Stuart, a Brattleboro Democrat

(Education); Matt Trieber, a Rockingham Democrat (Human Services). Three local House members have committee leadership positions: David Deen, a Westminster Democrat, chairs the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee; Carolyn Partridge, a Windham Democrat, is chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee; and Wardsboro Democrat John Moran is vice chairman of the General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.

-- In the state Senate, Democrat Peter Galbraith of Townshend will serve on the Finance Committee as well as the Natural Resources and Energy Committee. And Putney-based Democrat Jeanette White is chairwoman of the Senate Government Operations Committee while also serving on the Judiciary Committee.

-- As expected, Galbraith assisted in introducing two bills regulating the expansion of wind power.

He signed onto a previously announced bill calling for a three-year moratorium on any development of commercial-scale wind power. Galbraith also introduced a bill banning construction of commercial turbines on land owned by the state and requiring the consent of "affected communities" before building any wind facilities.

The legislation says "construction for any commercial purpose, including the generation of electric power, shall not be permitted within any state park or forest, wilderness area designated by law, natural area ... or any area conserved to protect its wilderness, scenic, or wildlife-habitat characteristics or on any land managed by the Agency of Natural Resources."

The bill also says that "industrial wind turbines should be built only when all affected towns consent, and not only the town or towns in which the turbines will be located."

-- White introduced a diverse series of bills. Examples include acts mandating freedom of expression for public school students and "gender-neutral nomenclature for the identification of parents on birth certificates." While also is calling for authorization of industrial hemp licenses.

-- In the House, Deen introduced a bill connecting Act 250 and oil pipelines along with legislation aimed at "acceptable management practices for timber harvesting." Burke signed onto a bill establishing a uniform, statewide standard for culvert replacement, while Marek got involved in seat-belt

legislation.

Hebert lent his name to a bill regarding "I Support Veterans" license plates. Mrowicki and Trieber supported "Commission on Fatherhood" legislation.

And four local House members -- Burke, Moran, Mrowicki and Toleno -- helped introduce a bill increasing the number of write-in votes a candidate needs to win a primary election.

A write-in candidate would need to garner the same number of votes as the number of signatures that had been required for that office on a primary petition.

Currently, the law says a primary write-in winner needs votes totaling just half the required number of petition signatures.

-- Marek and Mrowicki predicted a busy session. Marek said his committee likely will be discussing marijuana decriminalization, "death with dignity," GMO labeling and campaign-finance reform -- among other issues -- in the coming months.

Mrowicki’s legislative "big picture" includes education and health-care reform, clean and sustainable energy policies, gun safety, anti-obesity measures and sustainable agriculture policies.

"The 25 committees of your citizen Legislature have a full slate of work ahead of us," he said.