Visits to Town Meetings were positive and productive. On Tuesday, as Rep. Matt Trieber and I made our way from Brookline, Athens, Grafton, and on to Windham, we conveyed a sobering message. I like to be a positive, "glass half full" person, but the challenges we face are serious. For the seventh year in a row, we are looking at a shortfall before we even start building the FY14 budget. The Transportation Fund also presents a structural problem that needs to be solved or we will face continued deterioration of our roads, bridges, and culverts.
We start this year with a $67 million hole. Over the last six years, we have cut hundreds of millions of dollars from our budget. Our Appropriations Committees are, in my view, miracle workers because they have been able to produce budgets under tough circumstances without seriously curtailing services to Vermonters. However, this year, all of the looking for efficiencies, shifting of funds, and cutting of services has been done - we are now down to the bone. Make no mistake, we always pass a balanced budget and we will do so this year, but it will be a tough job.
The Transportation Fund (T-Fund) presents its own challenge - there is a structural problem with its revenue source. Our gas tax is based on a per-gallon charge rather than a sales tax structure. When gas prices rise, people buy fewer gallons. Also, more fuel-efficient vehicles have decreased gas sales. Decreasing our use of polluting fossil fuels is good, but with fewer gallons sold, we have less money going into the Transportation Fund, which is used to maintain our transportation infrastructure. What we need to do is switch to more of a sales tax structure so that when gas prices go up, so will revenue for the T-Fund.
In recent years, we have realized that many of our bridges have reached the end of their lifespans. Over time our transportation infrastructure has been underfunded. If we don't repair it soon, we will have to replace it at a much higher cost.
We are looking at a $240 million shortfall per year if we don't fix the revenue problem and failure to do so will mean that we can't match federal dollars. Most people at Town Meetings seemed to understand the need for and accept the idea of an increased gas tax. We are all Vermonters pulling together to make sure our roads, bridges, and culverts are safe.
Questions included how we would get electric cars to contribute, since they will still be using the roads and is all the gas tax revenue going to the T-Fund? One person made a suggestion that we register bicycles since they use the roads and bicycle lanes are being included in road construction. One Athens resident wanted to be sure that farmers would be exempted from any increase.
Of great concern is the proposed additional taxation of break open, or "rip" tickets. I attended a press conference in Bellows Falls where the American Legion and other fraternal organizations spoke about the importance of the proceeds from the sale of these tickets. There is a strong belief that if these tickets were taxed more than the current 6 percent sales tax, charitable contributions to our local communities would be seriously, negatively affected.
The contributions include money for various veterans' efforts, including funding for homeless vets' services, fuel assistance, Thanksgiving dinner for vets, bedwarmers for the Veterans' Home in Bennington, the VA Hospital, Memorial Day services, etc. Funding for youth activities include band uniforms, field trips, education scholarships, Pee Wee football, Legion baseball, Make a Wish, Project Graduation, 4-H VT, etc. Donations to SEVCA, the library, Our Place, the firefighters, Bellows Falls and State Police, the Senior Center, Meals on Wheels, Old Home Days fireworks, Special Olympics, the Scouts, FACTV, lights for the high school football field, holiday decorations, and the animal shelter all benefit the local community in general.
While I support the idea of funding thermal efficiency and fuel assistance for low-income Vermonters, I heard loudly and clearly that this is not the way to raise the money. This is also the case regarding the proposal to fund increased subsidies for childcare with cuts to the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for low-income working Vermonters. About 45,000 Vermonters would each lose an estimated $350 per year in order to help 7,000 with increased subsidies. It has been pointed out that Vermont is recovering from the recession more quickly than neighboring states. This may be, in part, because beneficiaries of the more generous Vermont EITC have had more money to spend in our economy.
Town Meetings were good with one sad exception - the loss of John Fuchs at the Rockingham Town Meeting. John was a wonderful man who, with his wife, Deirdre, actively participated in the civic process. He died with his boots on doing what he knew was very important. He will be missed.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.