Saturday March 30, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- In a cash-strapped state, the latest tax-hike vote resulted in a split among Windham County's representatives.

The difference of opinion was extreme: One lawmaker called the House-approved tax package a "prudent and fiscally responsible proposal."

An opponent put it this way: "This is a direct assault on our businesses and our citizens."

Both were referring to a variety of tax changes that the House pushed forward in affirmative votes on Wednesday and Thursday.

The deal includes more revenue from higher-income residents, an additional 50 cents of tax on a pack of cigarettes and imposition of the state sales tax on soda, candy, bottled water and dietary supplements -- items that currently are exempt.

Also, the plan raises the state meals and rooms tax by .5 percent.

The proposal has spurred criticism from Republicans and opposition from Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin, who reportedly declared on Wednesday that "I would go for the highest building that I could find to jump to make sure that I wasn't here to see that tax package become law."

But those who back the package say the state needs the revenue to fund important programs including child-care subsidies and low-income heating assistance. Those sentiments carried the day on Wednesday: In a preliminary roll-call vote, the House approved the measure 85-55.

Nine of Windham County's representatives supported the bill. Several detailed their reasons in the wake of the vote.


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"No one likes to pay taxes, but this bill proposes to both make Vermont taxes fairer while also spreading burdens fairly and with minimum burdens on any one group of Vermonters," said state Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane.

"Explaining why you oppose taxes always is easy," Marek added. "Paying for good government never is."

While some opponents of the bill lamented its impact on working Vermonters, Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat, noted that he is co-chairman of the Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus and voted in favor of the bill. Moran praised the proposal "for moving us toward a more progressive tax structure in Vermont."

Asked to elaborate, Moran said he favored higher taxes and tax-deduction limitations that would be imposed on wealthier residents.

"The progressive part of it is, we also are looking at changing the tax brackets so that we're collecting a higher tax on higher-income people," Moran said.

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat, said the House Ways and Means Committee's work on the tax plan "resulted in a prudent and fiscally responsible proposal to provide the necessary resources for doing the people's business."

He said the decision to vote for the plan was relatively easy.

"I vote yes to keep Vermont and Vermont values moving forward," Mrowicki said.

But in the wake of this session's votes to raise the statewide education tax and to raise Vermont's gas tax, some say they've seen enough.

Three Windham County representatives -- each carrying a different political affiliation -- voted against the tax bill on Wednesday. They were Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon; Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham; and Rep. Tim Goodwin, I-Weston.

"As I rode up a ski lift Monday, a friend asked me how things went up here and if they're going to have to leave (due to high taxes)," said Goodwin, whose three-county district includes the Windham County towns of Jamaica, Londonderry and Stratton.

"It's going to be tough when the whole bill falls to working Vermonters," Goodwin said.

Hebert told the Reformer that the tax plan "is a direct assault on our businesses and our citizens. They just can't afford it."

And in an objection recorded by the official House journal, Hebert pointed to the lure of nearby shops in New Hampshire, which has no sales tax.

"I voted ‘no' because I represent Guilford and Vernon, Vt., not Hinsdale, Chesterfield, Keene or any other town in New Hampshire, the very communities that would benefit most as a result of the passage of this bill," Hebert said. "This is an economic development plan for the state of New Hampshire."

He added that the bill "places a greater burden on our hard-working Vermont taxpayers. This bill places greater burden on Vermont businesses and provides their competitors to the east more of an unfair advantage."

Trieber followed a similar logic. Earlier in this session, he and Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, signed onto a measure that would redirect some state sales-tax proceeds to a Connecticut River Development Fund to boost the economy in border communities.

Trieber said the tax-hike votes on Wednesday and Thursday were "just one more example of Montpelier being out of touch with how these ideas affect communities along the border."

Some representatives who voted for the tax package said they were trying to look out for the interests of eastern Windham County during the debate.

Reps. Mollie Burke, Tristan Toleno and Valerie Stuart -- all representing Brattleboro -- introduced an amendment that would have stopped the proposed imposition of sales tax on clothing. That came at the request of local merchants, Stuart said.

But the amendment failed. As the bill now stands, it includes a tax on clothing that costs more than $110.

Burke said she ultimately voted in favor of the tax bill because the state needs the revenue.

"It's difficult to raise taxes," she said. "But I think that, overall, this was a very fair package."

Mrowicki defended the House's overall revenue plans for a tight fiscal 2014 budget.

"On the revenue side, we also raised less revenue than the (Shumlin) administration asked for, as there were significant questions and lack of consensus as to the funding sources proposed," Mrowicki said. "We settled on expanding the income tax contribution of high-income earners and broadening the sales tax."

A day after the final revenue-package vote, the House also approved its version of the fiscal 2014 budget and sent it to the Senate. Two Windham County representatives -- Hebert and Trieber -- voted against the plan.

Burke was absent with leave for that vote. The remainder of the local delegation approved the spending plan.

"The House budget was less spending than the administration's original proposal," Mrowicki said. "The House also saved more than proposed in our reserves account, recognizing that federal funds are not dependable right now or for the foreseeable future. With the threat of future sequestration and a continued slow recovery that could bring further instability to our budget picture, the House is looking hard at any spending increases."

In other legislative news related to Windham County and its lawmakers:

-- In the scramble to find adequate funding for state programs and new legislative initiatives, there have been budget casualties.

That includes the proposed restoration of Guilford's Sweet Pond Dam, a state park recreation spot that was drained nearly two years ago when Vermont officials declared the structure unsafe.

There had been hope that the state would fund an estimated $330,000 restoration project in the fiscal 2014 budget. But Hebert earlier this month broke the news that the project has been delayed due to cuts in the state Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation budget.

On Wednesday, a group of Guilford residents traveled to Montpelier to meet with Deb Markowitz, state Agency of Natural Resources secretary. The purpose, Hebert said, was to ensure both sides understood the Sweet Pond situation.

"I wanted Deb to meet (Guilford residents) in person and see their sincerity," Hebert said. "But I also wanted them to meet Deb."

That's because Hebert believes there still is strong support at the state level for the Sweet Pond project. He predicts that the dam restoration has not been canceled but rather delayed -- possibly until 2016.

"It was a positive meeting," Hebert said.

Markowitz expressed a similar sentiment.

"It was great to meet with Guilford residents who are so passionate about restoring the dam and Sweet Pond," Markowitz stated in an e-mail to the Reformer. "I was disappointed that we were unable to find resources this year to restore the dam, but will continue to work with Rep. Hebert to fund this project as soon as possible."

-- Though Sweet Pond may remain dry for another few years, House members this week were thinking about Vermont's waterways when they approved a comprehensive bill designed to protect lakes and shore land.

The bill came from the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, which is headed by Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat.

"This is an important first step toward protecting the waters of Vermont," Deen said Friday, a day after the bill received final House approval. "An undisturbed, vegetated zone between land use and the water is nature's No. 1 defense against the release of pollutants, nutrients and toxins (into) the waters of a lake."

While one opponent raised concerns about possible infringement on private property rights, Deen said there is widespread support for such a bill.

"Most of my mail and e-mail has been people saying they cannot believe that Vermont does not have these requirements in place," Deen said. "New Hampshire and Massachusetts have had these requirements since the 1990s. And now Vermont has joined the 20th century, and we will be moving on to rivers and bringing Vermont water protection all the way into the 21st century."

Mrowicki, who serves with Deen in the Windham 4 House District, said he was "proud" to support a bill that "takes another step toward long-term protection of Vermont waters and shorelines."

"The bill was subject to a long, tough debate on the floor of the House," Mrowicki said. "Rep. Deen ably defended the bill against detractors, made a strong case and prevailed on a strong vote."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.