BRATTLEBORO -- Can a sequel live up to the original? When it comes to the two halves of Vermont's biennial legislative session, some say no. The first half of the 2013-14 biennium included several heated tax debates as well as votes on hot-button issues such as marijuana decriminalization and lethal prescriptions for the terminally ill.
So the expectation is that the coming session, which begins Jan. 7, may not be as lively. "I'm not sure we'll see a lot of controversy this session. We're coming into an election year," said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon. "Most of the controversial things happen in the first half of the biennium." That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be plenty to do for the state's 180 part-time lawmakers when they return to Montpelier.
In fact, others say the fact that the biennium ends when this session ends adds a sense of urgency to legislative deliberations.
"We have, really, incredibly little time to get our work done. Because this is the session where anything that doesn't get finished dies," said Rep.
Dick Marek, D-Newfane. "So there is incredible pressure to deal with things that have been working through the system." Windham County's representatives and senators recently took time out to detail some of their biggest priorities, their biggest concerns and the biggest issues facing the Legislature in 2014.
Topping the list for many is the state's bottom line: Vermont officials continue to face cash shortfalls while seeing greater needs for investment, and there are no easy solutions.
"The day we walk in the door, we're looking at a possible $50 million to $70 million budget gap" in planning for the state's fiscal 2015 spending plan, said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Added Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham: "The biggest issue is going to be putting together a budget that works -- (a budget) that will take care of our most-vulnerable citizens but also be mindful of our taxpayers' pocketbooks." Those pocketbooks took a hit last session with an increase in the statewide educational property tax and with a new tax imposed on gasoline. The latter helped bridge a major shortfall in state transportation funding.
Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat who serves on the House Transportation Committee, said funding for highways and bridges remains a problem because, simply, "people are driving less." While that is a "good thing," Burke said, it also means less revenue for the state. She expects a closer examination of alternative transportation-funding options.
Many lawmakers also want to take a closer look at Vermont's education spending and the state's education-funding system, which collects and redistributes local tax revenues under a complex formula meant to equalize school spending. In thinking about education spending and outcomes, "we need a new conversation about public education and how we pay for it," said Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington.
"One reason is that the world of work now requires different skills, no longer just the three "Rs," Manwaring said. "Now, critical thinking skills, an ability to work in groups and using individual creativity are necessary. " On the funding side of the issue, Manwaring said she is concerned about "Vermont's very high and growing dependence on the property tax to pay for public education." "Many Vermonters believe that that property tax is the most onerous tax that they pay and the only one for which you can lose your home," Manwaring said.
"A new look at the education-fund framework is needed to understand why the underlying principle of equity is the same for the revenue side of the equation as it is for the spending side." Rep. Tim Goodwin, a Weston independent whose district includes several Windham County towns, also has expressed concerns about the state's education-tax system.
"I will be looking for co-sponsors for a bill that would exclude the cost of audits from education spending for purposes of computation of towns' tax rates," Goodwin said. "This expense can add significantly to the tax rate of small school districts, and I think that it is an expense that has increased due to towns' acting as collection agents for the state." Tax issues also are on the mind of Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat who said lawmakers "should look to closing tax loopholes and limiting tax expenditures that often benefit the most well-off Vermonters." "Last year, I opposed all new tax expenditures -- i. e. tax breaks for special interests at the expense of everyone else," Galbraith said.
Galbraith added that "I don't think the budget gap should be closed at the expense of essential services, and especially those for the least well-off Vermonters." That was echoed by several lawmakers who said cost-cutting alone is not effective. They want more state investment designed to help property owners and workers and to stimulate the economy.
Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, is co-chairman of the Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus. He wants to put more money in residents' pockets with an income-sensitive property tax, a more "fair" income tax and a higher minimum wage. "To me, the larger issue here is a bread-and-butter issue," Moran said.
"We've reached the point now where we really have to address the economic inequality that's going on, not only in the state but within the country." Moran, who is vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, also wants to see a bill that guarantees paid sick time for all Vermont workers.
"That will probably be the biggest bill in our committee, and it will cause a lot of pain and suffering on the floor of the House," Moran said.
Continuing the state-investment theme, Rep. Valerie Stuart said funding for job training and education are among her top priorities.
Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said lawmakers must focus on "creating more good jobs here in Vermont that will help keep our young people here and attract more young entrepreneurs and job creators to the Green Mountain State." She also wants to work toward "eradicating the scourge of poverty." "The key to lifting the growing number of Vermonters -- and Americans for that matter -- out of poverty and stemming the rising tide of costly social and economic ills associated with poverty is giving all Vermonters access to educational opportunities, starting in pre-school and continuing on through to post-secondary education or job training," Stuart said.
Partridge, who chairs the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee, is pushing for more investment in the land and those who work it. She points to the success of the state's new "working lands" grants.
"I would like to see more money devoted to that, and I'd love to see a sustainable revenue source," she said. "I think it's one of the big economic-development pieces in the state that basically takes our strengths and expands upon them." In addition to discussing financial concerns, Windham County lawmakers presented a grab-bag of other issues and interests:
* Mental health: Officials have said the state's mental-health-treatment system is in need of greater capacity. According to some lawmakers, it also requires a whole lot of fine-tuning to ensure that Vermonters get the help they need.
"We have a crisis in mental health, both in the population that is in the prisons . . . and with our hospitals in general," said Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney-based Democrat.
Mrowicki wants to work on several related bills including one covering the administration of mental-health medications for those under care of the state. "One of the things I've consistently heard the most . . . is from families who have people who are suffering from mental illness," Mrowicki said, citing some patients' struggles with a cycle of on-again, off-again medications and brushes with law enforcement.
* Health care: Both White and Galbraith said they are concerned about financing for Vermont's move toward single-payer health care. And Hebert said he has lingering concerns about changes happening under the new Vermont Health Connect initiative.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions there -- paying for it, what the benefit plans actually are going to look like," Hebert said. "People still don't understand what their policies are." -- Post-Vermont Yankee: State legislators have held hearings in Vernon to consider the impacts of the nuclear plant's pending closure and ways to help local towns and residents. Hebert is closely involved with that effort. He also is concerned about the impact of Yankee's closure on the power grid.
* The environment -- specifically, water quality -- is a concern for Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster.
Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said he will continue to push for passage of a lake-shoreland protection bill. "We spent the summer and fall working with the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy and did six listening sessions around the state on the shoreline-protection bill," Deen said.
He noted that, while the House approved that bill last year, "the Senate did not have time to take action. They were also really nervous about certain parts of it." Deen said he won't be deterred by arguments that the state's budgetary "cupboard" is too bare for environmental cleanup and resource protection.
"Ten years from now, when we can no longer swim or fish in the waters of the state, that's my definition of a bare cupboard," he said.
* Labeling of genetically modified food: Last year, the House approved a bill mandating labeling of many genetically modified foods, setting up a big debate in the Senate in 2014. White -- a supporter of GMO labeling -- expects that food-industry opponents of the bill will work hard to defeat the measure.
* Elections, campaign finance and open meetings: White is hoping for movement on bills covering those topics. In terms of election guidelines, senators "didn't make a ton of major changes but made some pretty substantial changes, and we're going to try and push the House to get that done this year so that town clerks will be happier for the next election," White said.
* Transportation safety: Burke wants to examine ways to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety including enacting stronger penalties for impaired drivers and giving municipalities more authority to lower speed limits on town roads without a traffic and engineering study.
Goodwin is interested in making it a primary offense to not wear a seatbelt.
The state's current seatbelt penalties can be enforced only if a driver is stopped for another offense.
"It tugs at my Libertarian streak, but I find it hard to read auto accident reports in the paper wherein it is clear . . . that had a victim been wearing a seatbelt, they'd probably be alive or much less gravely injured," Goodwin said.
* Compost: With a state law mandating more composting in the near future, Partridge wants to ensure that herbicides don't widely contaminate compost as happened last year in Vermont.
Also, she has a financial concern.
"Currently, compost is being taxed while it has very similar properties to chemical fertilizers, which are not," she said. "We know that we're going to be composting all of our food scraps . . . and we want to make sure (composters) are treated fairly."
* Recycling: The law that requires such composting, Act 148, also imposes new recycling-pickup standards on trash haulers. Hebert worries about the financial impact on those companies.
"I know Act 148 is going to be talked about quite a bit," Hebert said.
"Local haulers have a serious issue with this."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com