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BENNINGTON — As they returned to the Statehouse this week, members of the county's legislative delegation cited a wide range of pressing issues they will be following during the 2018 session.

Those included Act 46 school merger possibilities, school spending and education taxes; impacts on the state from the federal tax code overhaul; options for combating opioid addiction, rules affecting school choice; economic development programs, the cost of protecting streams and waterways, and the state's continued response to PFOA contamination issues.

Rep. Alice Miller, D-Shaftsbury, said she'll push hard for Act 46 revisions that would allow four local towns to receive tax incentives if a rejected school district merger is ultimately approved by voters. While more than 67 percent of voters overall approved a merged district, the proposal failed when Woodford and Pownal rejected it, by two and four votes respectively.

Bennington and Shaftsbury overwhelmingly approved the merger.

Woodford will, however, vote again on the plan on Jan. 9, which could result in approval for the proposed unified district. The tax incentives in Act 46 would have cut 20 cents off education tax rates over four budget years, Miller said.

"I am going to do everything in my power to restore those incentives," she said. "We should not be penalized when most voters wanted this."

Efforts to raise the state's minimum wage, programs for the homeless and winter fuel assistance during a bitter winter are other priorities, Miller said. After-school and summer school programs are "very important," she said, when both parents work in a high percentage of local families.

She'll also support efforts to introduce career programming in schools at the middle school level to better prepare those students who do not graduate from college for the workplace.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-West Dover, said her constituents weighed in via a survey in November on the issues they felt the Legislature should spend the most time on. The top four issues were healthcare, property taxes, drug abuse and broadband.

"I plan to continue my advocacy for reform of our education financing system as well as encouraging the expansion of last-mile broadband build-out," she said.

"Anxiousness around healthcare seems well founded given the unpredictability in Washington," she said, adding that federal funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program has been reauthorized only through the end of March. Sibilia said that could mean Vermont will need to find up to $21 million to maintain the currently structured Dr. Dynasaur program, which provides healthcare for children and expectant mothers.

The federal repeal of the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, which required almost all individuals to have health insurance or pay a penalty, will likely have the effect of shrinking the overall size of the insurance pools, she said.

Concerning opioid addiction, she said, "Gov. Scott's Opioid Coordination Council will be recommending myriad tools to reverse this crisis increasing drug prevention education, treatment, job placement for recovering addicts and drug trafficking investigations."

Rep. Brian Keefe, R-Manchester, said that "as always, the budget and taxes are the biggest issues. Related to that is education policy, as our statewide education financing system continues to put a big pinch on local taxpayers."

As a member of the House Human Services Committee, he said, "I expect we will be reviewing Governor Scott's new plan addressing our very serious opioid problem. As well, we will continue to review the effectiveness and adequacy of safety net programs, especially in light of recent federal tax changes."

Keefe said other hot topics in 2018 "include a push for a new `carbon' tax on gasoline and heating fuels, along with bills to legalize pot and efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour."

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said "the state desperately needs tax reform and spending reform. The problem that I see is that Democrats and Progressives tend to want to do tax reform, while Republicans want to do spending reform. We must do both together to ensure that state tax dollars are raised and spent effectively and equitably in service to Vermonters."

All of these issues are exacerbated, she said, "because of the complex tax changes in Washington, and the possibility of upcoming federal budget cuts that would affect Vermont's budget. It is a great grief to me that we did not do more reforms several years ago, so that our situation would be stronger now."

Towns in her district "are particularly concerned with how transportation spending will fare at both the federal and state level," Browning said.

Concerning education, she said, "I believe that the inclusion of spending items that are not pre-K through 12 education in the Education Fund has led to higher education property tax rates than would otherwise be in effect. I believe that these items should be removed from the Education Fund; property tax rates can come down, and simultaneous income tax reforms could allow the same policy goals to be achieved."

She cited her bill, H.538, "for an outline of how this might be done."

Browning added, "All in all, I think that this will be a difficult session because the problems before us are difficult, but also because this is an election year. Even at the best of times, I believe that too much of what is done in Montpelier is guided by politics, ideology, and wishful thinking, rather than hard headed and realistic common sense. This is why so many of our ongoing problems do not get solved."

Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Dorset, said federal tax cuts and effects on Vermont program funding, such as medical programs, are a major concern.

"Vermont relies upon federal funding for children's and other medical programs," she said. "With the tax cuts, Vermont will have to do some serious analysis on what potential other programs might have to be cut to allow for the funding to continue for those seriously affected by the federal funding cuts."

She added, "It is crucial that legislators pay close attention to the potential to raise property taxes, which will greatly influence the ability for Vermonters to remain in or move into our wonderful Green Mountain State."

Independent school choice "has been a pillar of Vermont society for decades," she said. "Each school brings with it a unique and specific brand that enhances our educational opportunities. The Act 46 mergers should not be used to eliminate educational opportunities and choice. Independent schools are a much needed part of the educational mix in Vermont. Always have been and always should be."

Vermonters' property taxes "pay for these independent schools, and Vermonters should not have their choices stifled when it comes to educating our most precious resource —our children, our future," she said. "The more opportunities for our children the better."

Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Londonderry, was appointed by the governor in late November to fill a legislative opening when former Rep. Oliver Olsen of Londonderry left office, citing increased time demands on him because of his business career.

Pajala said she is finding the legislative process both "exciting and really interesting."

Thus far, it has been "kind of a baptism by fire, but you learn quickly," she said, adding that "everyone has been very helpful."

Pajala said she'll serve on the House Committee on Human Services, and she has joined the Rural Economic Development Working Group, with reps from rural towns or rural legislative districts, which focuses on the needs of those communities.

Those issues include dealing with water, wastewater and similar infrastructure issues, and expansion of broadband services, she said.

Pajala's House district includes Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston and Winhall.

Among her other priority issues, she said, are the implications of Act 46 for Winhall and Stratton, preservation of school choice options and education funding, and helping to increase the demand for forestry products.

"In a nutshell," she said, the top issues are "the education system (funding, school choice, and consolidation concerns) and economic development."

Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington, said, "I think one of the biggest things we are feeling right now is happening in economic development, because it touches on many different areas of our community that are negatively impacted by an economy just trying to find its foothold."

She added, "I think that looking at what is happening with wages for workers, we find that while there are many vacancies for positions throughout the county, many of them are not paying a living wage. So it keeps individuals in a cycle of poverty that is really putting a downward pressure on everything else we are working hard to improve."

Efforts to raise the state's minimum wage "are definitely part of that entire piece," she said.

"But we also need to be able to support our small businesses," she said, "in the sense that many of them don't have the mechanisms or tools to create strategies to survive in our volatile economy."

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The opioid addiction crisis, she said, is another that the area is struggling to overcome, and "symptomatic of what is happening around poverty and around trauma."

Another key issue is education, Morris said. Referring to the failed Bennington area Act 46 merger proposal, which she strongly supported, Morris said she would like the towns involved to still be eligible for the tax incentives that would have kicked in if the merger plan was approved prior to a deadline of Nov. 30.

Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal/Woodford, said "areas to watch for Pownal, Woodford and the county are the opiate crisis and efforts to improve treatment and recovery services."

He added, "Also, we need to focus on strategies to address demographic trends. We need to keep and attract young working families. That means adequate wages, affordable child care, paid family leave when needed, and workforce development and training through [career and technical education], post-secondary education, apprenticeships, and connecting businesses to training."

Botzow is chairman of the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.

"I am also concerned about information privacy and data security," he said. "My committee will be addressing data brokers — those who buy and sell your personal information."

In addition, he said, "Overriding all our efforts will be doing what we can to address the many impacts of federal policy and budgetary changes in Washington."

Rep. Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington, believes "much of what happens during the session could be "predicated on what happens at the federal level," in light of the massive tax overhaul passed in December."

There will be a push to increase the state's minimum wage to $15 an hour, he said, and likely a similar effort on behalf of paid family leave legislation. And debate will focus on how to fund statewide efforts to clean or protect the state's waterways and lakes, Corcoran said, adding, "The leadership has made it clear they don't want to kick that can down the road."

But raising any additional tax revenue "will be an extremely tough sell," he said.

Corcoran said he is encouraging his constituents to voice their preferences on those "hot button issues" and others they might be thinking about.

The Bennington lawmaker also has filed a bill in the House identical to one Bennington Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears have filed in the Senate to further regulate the storage of hazardous materials in railroad cars — legislation prompted by recent storage of propane in about 80 tanker cars parked along an unused rail spur in North Bennington.

Rep. Rachael Fields, D-Bennington, said, "I suspect that this year's legislative session will be focused on protecting the state's people and resources from the current federal actions."

As the federal administration "is painting regulations as the enemy of economic growth, we will want to ensure that our natural resources are protected and that there is a legal standard of zero tolerance when it comes to polluting the waters and endangering the welfare of our residents as we saw happen with the PFOA contamination," Fields said.

Because of the federal cutbacks, "we have uncertainty with projecting the state's revenues, so we will be (and should be) vigilant in protecting our local resources to those most vulnerable," she said. "From our designated agencies to our healthcare systems and our Veterans Home to our aid to the homeless population, we have to protect these vital services in our community as they are continuously faced with financial threats to their success."

The area has a "growing need and shrinking resources," she said, adding, "I expect that we will take greater action to address the opioid addiction crisis which is breaking the heart of our community's families right now."

Bennington "has a very strong heartbeat of community," she said, "and many in this town have worked hard to do much for our vulnerable population. I think there has been successful work done by both our businesses and our citizens to bring this town forward and spur economic growth. That has tremendous heart and power and will continue through the unknown circumstances of this new year."

Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, listed as priorities:

- "Economic development, creating good, sustainable jobs and work opportunities that will help to grow back our economy for a brighter future for our region."

- Finding stronger treatment opportunities and resources "to battle our region and our state's opioid crisis. Our region ranks very high for opioid deaths resulting from overdoses. We have to also find stronger ways to get the dealers off the streets and out of our communities."

- Fighting harder on behalf of "all of our residents who are dealing with the PFOA contamination."

- "Finding ways to improve upon our health care, including mental health care and our education system, including childcare," focusing on "delivery of services while making it sustainable and affordable, with no unfunded mandates."

- "Renewable energy policy that works with communities on siting and with attaining actual benefit to a region in order to create a strong, sustainable and hopefully cost-reducing energy plan for our state."

Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said his priorities include continuing to work on PFOA and toxic chemical emissions reform that began during the 2017 session.

Hazardous material management legislation he and Sen. Dick Sears filed in response to rail cars with propane parked in Bennington County is another priority, he said, along with "working with our area schools on Act 46. Making certain that mergers such as the Clarksburg [Mass.]/Stamford merger happen."

The two communities are proposing a cross-border district, which will require approvals in Vermont, Massachusetts and at the federal level to allow an interstate education compact like one in effect with New Hampshire.

Campion said he will "continue our efforts to get clean water to all residents contaminated with PFOA," referring to contamination of soils and well water around former ChemFab Corp. plants in Bennington and North Bennington.

The Senate Committee on Finance, of which he is a member, "will likely look at issues related to Internet privacy," he said.

He added, "I am also interested in having Finance look at the taxing of Social Security and see if we can start to give some relief to those Vermonters that pay tax on their Social Security."

Campion also said he'll continue to advocate for adequate funding for the Vermont Veterans Home, "making certain it has the money it needs to continue to do the good work it is doing."

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said the top local-impact issues in 2018 include continuing to work on "holding polluters responsible" with strict liability legislation he and Campion introduced.

Legislation they filed that passed last year would hold anyone releasing PFOA into the atmosphere responsible for the costs of providing clean drinking for affected residents.

"Making sure the homes in Bennington east of Route 7 get clean water" is another priority, Sears said, referring to those in the eastern section of the state-identified PFOA contamination zone around two former ChemFab plants in Bennington.

"The opiate crisis, in terms of treatment, alternatives to incarceration and dealing with associated criminal activity," is another major issue, he said. "Also, the need to work to reduce demand through prevention programs."

In light of anticipation of federal budget cuts and a state budget gap, "keeping what we have" in resources for the Veterans Home, health care and other services is a priority, he said.

Sears said he also will focus on the impacts of education funding and Act 46 on local communities and other issues, such as the Stamford/Clarksburg school district merger proposal.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont and @BB_therrien on Twitter.


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