Saturday March 16, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- The way state Rep. Mollie Burke sees it, delaying work on Vermont's roads and bridges is as foolish as putting off essential repairs on a home.

"Eventually, you're going to have to spend the money," the Brattleboro Progressive Democrat said.

That's why she was among 10 members of the House Transportation Committee who voted this week to impose a new 2 percent sales tax on gasoline.

There were no committee votes against the plan, with one member absent. And Burke believes there is similarly broad support in the House for the plan, which is designed to help plug a gaping hole in the state's transportation budget for next fiscal year.

"I think a lot of people who are opposed to taxes in general can swallow a gas tax, because they know it's going toward a dedicated fund," Burke said.

The state's transportation-funding issues are due to the fact that people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient vehicles, which in turn is driving down gas-tax revenue.

Transportation Committee members were tasked with finding a way to cover a $36.5 million shortfall in the proposed fiscal 2014 transportation budget. They came up with a three-pronged solution: Cut $4.4 million in spending, borrow more than $10 million from a transportation infrastructure bond fund and impose a 2 percent tax on the retail price of gas.

With drivers already paying the state's 19-cent per-gallon tax, the new 2 percent levy would raise the cost of a gallon by roughly another 7 cents at current prices.

Burke said the tax proposal now contains both a floor and a ceiling.

At the low end, revenues from the sales tax cannot sink lower than 6.7 cents per gallon. If they do, it would become a flat, per-gallon tax to ensure state revenues stay steady.

But the sales tax also cannot exceed 19 cents per gallon, Burke said.

"The ceiling number protects the consumer," she said. "And the lower number protects the state."

The changes wouldn't stop in fiscal 2014. For fiscal 2015, the gasoline sales tax would rise another 2 percent, but Burke said the per-gallon tax would decrease by nearly 6 cents to alleviate the impact on drivers.

Future increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

That's a concern for state Rep. Mike Hebert, who said such mandated, built-in hikes for future years take the matter out of lawmakers' hands.

"With automatic indexing, the legislators don't get to vote on it," Hebert said. "It's just going to occur."

The Vernon-based Republican also was critical of past administrations using the transportation fund for other purposes.

"They dug into that fund when it was flush," he said. "And now, it's coming back to haunt us."

Hebert could not predict whether he will vote for a gas-tax increase when the matter comes before the full House.

"That's going to be a tough one," he said. "I'm not sure how I'm going to come down on that one."

State Rep. Tristan Toleno, a Brattleboro Democrat serving his first term, said he understands the plight of residents straining under stagnant wages while taxes and prices rise.

"I think there's a lot of concern shared across political parties about how we fund government and what we need to do," Toleno said.

"On the other hand, there's a real cost to maintain our road infrastructure," he added. "We're underfunding it, and we have been for some time."

Given that quandary, Toleno said he will support the tax hike at this point. He also reasoned that the gas tax is a way to ensure that Vermonters aren't the only ones bearing that cost.

"Our roads are part of our business and tourism infrastructure," Toleno said. "Gas taxes are one of the few ways we have of tapping into the out-of-state people who use our roads."

Burke said the Transportation Committee carefully examined its options and "heard a lot of testimony on what it would mean to not do this." For instance, she said Vermont would lose $56 million in federal funding if lawmakers didn't find a way to cover the state's $36.5 million transportation shortfall.

Still, she acknowledged that the gas-tax hike creates "a difficult situation."

In addition to transportation-funding debate, Windham County's lawmakers were busy with a variety of issues as they worked to meet "crossover" deadlines designed to ensure that both the House and Senate have time to consider bills before the end of the current session.

For the most part, lawmakers said, a bill had to be approved by its committee of jurisdiction by Friday if there were hopes of it passing during this session:

-- State Rep. Valerie Stuart, a Brattleboro Democrat, said she was happy that her Education Committee approved two bills at opposite ends of the educational spectrum.

The first expands access to "high-quality, publicly funded" pre-kindergarten. It calls for at least 10 hours per week, 35 weeks per year of instruction for any child ages 3, 4 or 5 (if not yet enrolled in kindergarten).

Parents or guardians "would retain complete discretion whether to enroll the child in a pre-kindergarten program and could select from prequalified public and private providers who have available space," the bill says.

"It's really an exciting thing whose time has come," Stuart said. "It gives (students) a boost and helps make their continued educational success more likely."

For college students, the committee also approved a "Vermont Strong Scholars" bill. Initially proposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin, the program would reimburse some college-tuition debt for Vermont residents who graduate and stay in the state to work.

The proposal initially applied to those studying in the "STEM" fields -- science, technology, engineering and math. Stuart said her committee expanded that to include "fields that prepare Vermonters in targeted workforce areas."

"In five years, we may need more people in different fields," she said.

The state secretary of education and secretary of commerce and community development, along with the state labor commissioner, will determine which fields of study qualify for the program as the labor market changes, Stuart said.

-- Hebert said his Natural Resources and Energy Committee has been preoccupied with an energy bill. Funding concerns were a major hurdle.

"Right now, throughout the state, everybody's looking for money," Hebert said. "There are no new sources."

Hebert said the bill eventually was split. He was on the losing side of an 8-3 committee vote to approve a bill that includes a new, 55-cent surcharge on each electric meter to raise money for a clean-energy development fund.

"There are some companies that have a lot of meters, and they would pay a lot of money," Hebert said. "I didn't feel it was right to put more of a financial burden on people."

However, Hebert said he did vote to approve a bill promoting thermal efficiency in homes and buildings. While some money is available for that purpose, the measure did not include any large-scale, new funding sources, Hebert said.

"As far as the funding, that will be something the state needs to take a look at," he said.

-- State Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat, chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee. That committee "has moved eight bills so far this session," Deen said in an e-mail to the Reformer.

"The bills we have gotten out include an omnibus Fish and Wildlife bill that includes altering different hunting seasons, carrying a sidearm while bow hunting and changes in the duties of the Fish and Wildlife Board," Deen said. "We have extended the life of the Petroleum Cleanup Fund for five years so it can continue to immediately respond to leaks from underground gasoline storage tanks and home heating oil tanks."

The committee also approved "a bill that asks towns and regional commissions to add flood resiliency to their plans so events like (Tropical Storm) Irene will not catch us unawares again," Deen added. "That bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate Natural Resources Committee."

-- State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, a Putney Democrat, said his House Human Services Committee "has been working hard in collaboration with Appropriations and Judiciary Committees."

"Appropriations has asked for recommendations on the Human Services policy implications of the budget, most especially in regards to services for the developmentally disabled," Mrowicki said in an e-mail to the Reformer. "These can have, literally, life-or-death implications for those Vermonters who cannot take care of themselves."

Mrowicki also said work continues in cooperation with Judiciary Committee members on a "wide-ranging bill to address prescription opioid drug abuse."

"From prescribing patterns to better coordination of treatment options and a host of other attendant concerns, we are taking action to address this growing statewide problem," Mrowicki said.

-- In other legislative news, Deen was among five legislators introducing a bill that would "create a regulatory structure for the wholesale and retail sale of marijuana that includes licensing and oversight by the Department of Liquor Control." The bill also would allow regulation of and licensing for industrial hemp "regardless of whether federal regulations have been adopted."

In a related matter, Burke, Mrowicki and Democrat John Moran of Wardsboro were among those introducing a bill altering regulations on the "therapeutic use of cannabis." The bill allows registered caregivers to care for up for five patients; permits medical marijuana use for post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and insomnia; and removes a cap on the number of patients eligible to receive medical marijuana from dispensaries.

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