Saturday January 26, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When it comes to improving education in Vermont, state Rep. Valerie Stuart has an important question.

"How can children go to school and be hungry?" the Brattleboro-based Democrat asked on Friday.

She believes the answer may lie in companion bills in the state House and state Senate mandating that all low-income children receive a free school lunch.

Stuart, a member of the House education committee, said the initiative would address a critical need without requiring a huge investment.

"We'll be feeding over 6,000 additional kids who right now are in the reduced-price lunch bracket, and it will only cost us about $322,000," she said.

Other Windham County-based House members who signed onto the bill are Dick Marek of Newfane, Mike Mrowicki of Putney, Carolyn Partridge of Windham and Tristan Toleno of Brattleboro. All are Democrats.

Hunger Free Vermont, a South Burlington-based nonprofit, says kids who are eligible for reduced-price meals "participate in lunch less frequently then their classmates who receive a free lunch."

Reduced-price lunches cost students 40 cents, with the federal government picking up the remainder of a school's costs. If the proposed legislation passes, the state would reimburse schools another 40 cents for each reduced-price meal, allowing for a free lunch.


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Hunger Free Vermont estimates that the state's annual $322,250 investment would leverage another $388,140 in federal contributions to the state's schools.

According to calculations on the www.hungerfreevt.org website, a family of four's household income must be less than $31,178 for kids to qualify for free lunches. For the same household size, reduced-price lunches are available to families earning $31,178 to $42,643.

Stuart said the programs have widespread impact in Windham County. For example, she said 54 percent of students in the Brattleboro town school district qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

Expanding free lunches "is one of the things I'm most excited about, because I think it's just a good thing for our society," Stuart said.

Stuart also is noting what she calls a "real convergence" of officials and interest groups who are focused on improving the overall quality of Vermont's educational system.

"We know what we need to do," she said. "We just have to do it."

State Rep. Ann Manwaring, a Wilmington Democrat, supports the lunch legislation and generally wants more investment in early education.

"There's a great deal of research that shows that will have long-term effects," Manwaring said.

In other news from Windham County's state legislators:

-- After Gov. Peter Shumlin delivered his budget address Thursday, Mrowicki characterized it as "both a sobering reminder of the work ahead of us to sustain our economy and a challenge to think outside the box to meet the challenges of how to do it."

In particular, he cited Shumlin's "support for education as an economic driver and a diverse energy future that addresses climate change." Mrowicki also expressed concern, though, about shortfalls in transportation funding.

"Like President Obama has shown nationally, a way forward is a balanced approach that addresses both sides of the budget ledger," Mrowicki said. "Now that the governor has proposed his budget, it gets sent to the House for the heavy lifting on how to find that balance."

-- State Rep. Matt Trieber, a Rockingham Democrat, said legislators haven't had much time to process Shumlin's budget plans. In particular, he said proposed changes to the state's welfare program and earned-income tax credit require thorough review.

"We're going to be evaluating a lot of what the governor has proposed," Trieber said.

He also noticed some surprise among legislators when Shumlin proposed taxing "break-open tickets" -- betting tickets sometimes used as a fund-raising tool by nonprofits -- to fund energy programs.

The initial reaction was more bafflement than opposition, Trieber said.

"There was a ripple across the crowd, trying to figure out what these break-open tickets are," he said.

-- A much more common topic in Montpelier is Vermont's projected transportation-funding shortages. It's attributed to the fact that people are driving less and are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, which drives down gas-tax revenues.

Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Progressive Democrat, said plans to close a projected $36.5 million transportation shortfall include borrowing from a transportation-infrastructure bond fund and making several adjustments to the gas tax.

The latter move could raise the state's gas tax by 6 to 8 cents, she said.

There is a sense that residents may be "willing to pay a little bit more in gas tax to fix some infrastructure," Burke said.

But she added that "there are a lot of unknowns."

-- Manwaring sees few unknowns in a succinct House bill she supports.

The three-page bill prohibits "the handheld use of a portable electronic device to engage in voice communications while operating a moving motor vehicle."

In other words: No talking on your cell phone while driving.

"It's common sense," Manwaring said. "It's about distracted drivers."

The bill makes an exception for drivers age 18 and over who use a "hands-free" device.

-- Marek intends to tackle an entirely different topic -- wayward skiers.

When the Vermont state police director testified before the House Judiciary Committee, Marek discovered that there have been 47 skiers this season who needed help after straying out of bounds.

"Many of these have been up at Killington, but they've been scattered all over the state," Marek said. "This is really constituting a huge drain on state police and other law enforcement and rescue resources. We're diverting our resources to protect people, frankly, who are unwilling to obey the rules and intentionally put themselves and the rescuers in harm's way."

Marek said he will be introducing a bill that would allow police and other responders -- including volunteers -- to "directly bill the ski resorts when they have to do rescues for the time and costs."

Resorts have the right to require lost skiers to cover those costs, Marek said.

"They can also either better control the situation, or they can build the cost into their ticket structure," he said.

-- Mrowicki said his House Human Services Committee explored diverse topics including opioid addiction.

The committee "will also be looking at the growing overprescribing of opioids and how a systemic approach is needed to work on this problem," Mrowicki said. "We also heard from advocates for the elderly and will be especially looking at adult protective services, revisiting the bill the governor vetoed last year."

-- Legislators also received a "sneak preview" of the state's online health-care exchange, Mrowicki said.

"It looks very user-friendly and seemed very similar to what anyone who banks online or has shopped online is already familiar with," he said.

-- In Senate news, Democrat Jeanette White of Putney signed onto a bill that would decriminalize the possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana. And Democrat Peter Galbraith of Townshend was appointed to serve on the Joint Committee on Judicial Retention.

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.