Monday January 14, 2013

The 2013 Legislative session began at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 9. It is always such a thrill to enter the State House the first day of the session - reconnecting with friends and my legislative "family." It is a privilege to serve the people of the Windham-3 district and I am honored by the trust you place in me.

The work of the Legislature got off to a quick start with Rep. Shap Smith being elected Speaker of the House for a third time. In his acceptance speech, the Speaker outlined several important areas the House will focus on. These include education, especially higher education and job training; creating a health care system that is cost effective, which provides quality health care for all Vermonters; energy and the effects climate change will have on our business/natural environment; and our transportation and communication/broadband infrastructures in preparation for future economic development. Also of great concern is the cleanup of Lake Champlain, drug addiction to both illegal and pharmaceutical drugs, the benefit structure that encourages reliance on public programs, and the fact that many jobs do not provide a livable wage.

The Speaker immediately announced committee assignments and I was pleased and honored to, once again, be named Chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Rep. David Deen will again Chair the Fish, Wildlife, and Water Resources Committee and Rep. John Moran will continue to be Vice Chair of General, Housing, and Military Affairs. In fact, there are no changes for the incumbent Windham delegation. Reps. Matt Trieber and Mike Mrowicki will serve on Human Services, Richard Marek on Judiciary, Valerie Stuart on Education, Mollie Burke on Transportation, Mike Hebert on Natural Resources and Energy, and Ann Manwaring on Appropriations. Our newest members include Rep. Tristan Toleno, who I am delighted to report will serve with me on Agriculture, and Rep. Tim Goodwin, who will serve on Judiciary.

On Thursday, amid great ceremony, Governor Peter Shumlin was sworn in for his second term. He delivered an inspiring inaugural address that laid out a positive vision for the future of Vermont. The governor mentioned some of the many firsts that Vermont is famous for: The first to not allow slavery, the first to mandate publicly-funded universal education, the first to enact civil unions, and the first to enact marriage equality without a court order. He talked about the many companies that are having great success in Vermont and the jobs that are currently available but aren't filled because we don't have the workers trained to do the jobs. In light of this, an "education system that grows Vermont's prosperity" will be a major focus for the administration during the coming biennium.

The governor spoke of four initiatives that he will support including, first of all, increased funding for universal early childhood education. Secondly, it is well known that children learn better when they are not hungry. Governor Shumlin proposes to cover the federal shortfall for "reduced" price lunches and encourages the sourcing of ingredients from Vermont farmers and producers.

In his third proposal, the governor aims to make higher education more available and affordable by doing two things. He plans to double the funding for dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credit by enrolling in for-credit, college courses while they are still in high school. In some cases, students can complete their senior year in high school and their freshmen year in college at the same time.

The Vermont Strong Scholars Program would allow a student who graduates from any public institution of higher education in Vermont with a degree in a science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) field, to be reimbursed for their final year of tuition over the course of five years, if they remain in Vermont. A similar provision is available to students who receive an Associate's Degree in a STEM field, with reimbursement over three years for their final semester. 

Finally, the governor proposes a 3 percent increase to the state's appropriation for the Vermont State Colleges, VSAC, and UVM, to be used entirely for financial aid and scholarships for Vermonters. The increase would be enough to hold Vermont students harmless from the anticipated 3 percent tuition increase next year.

As a long-time member of the Windham School Board, I am encouraged by the emphasis the governor has placed on education. My hope is that the cost of these initiatives will not require cuts in other important areas.

During the legislative session, we can be contacted at the State House by phone toll-free at 1-800-322-5616. The office of the Sergeant at Arms office will deliver your message and we will return your call as soon as possible. By mail, the address is 115 State St, Drawer 33, Montpelier, VT, 05633-5201. My legislative email is cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us and my website where I post these articles is www.carolynpartridge.com.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.