Monday March 25, 2013

We were extremely busy in Montpelier this week. Long days on the Floor of the House were necessary for us to consider the many bills that passed out of committees in time for crossover. Those bills are now on their way to the Senate. While action was proceeding on the Floor, the two money committees -- Appropriations and Ways and Means -- worked hard to meet their own crossover deadline of this Friday.

Ways and Means has the unenviable task of looking for ways to fill a $20 million hole in order to balance our budget. A number of different options have been considered to achieve that goal including a tax on satellite services, reduction of the mortgage interest deduction, and a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. Many of these proposals do not raise a significant enough amount of money to make them worthwhile and have been taken off the table. As I write, the committee is considering some proposals involving adjustments to the income tax.

The Transportation, or "T," Bill drew a lot of debate. In recent weeks in this column, I have focused on the challenges presented by our transportation infrastructure, the structural problem with the Transportation Fund, and why we need to raise the gas tax. To recap, in the 1970s, we had a relatively new infrastructure but it is now showing its age. In recent years, we should have been more focused on the repair and maintenance of our roads, bridges, and culverts but we put it off and now things have come due.


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At the same time, we have sold 40 million fewer gallons of fuel per year due to more efficient vehicles and decreased consumption with the advent of higher gas prices. Because we have a per gallon gas tax, the amount going into the Transportation Fund has decreased significantly and we find ourselves with a $240 million shortfall per year for the next five years.

The source of the majority of the debate and amendments was the proposed gas tax, which will become a percentage tax and increase, based on certain assumptions, from the current 6.7 cents per gallon to a net 6.9 cents in 2014, 7.7 cents in 2015, and 8.8 cents in 2016. There will also be price ceilings and floors to protect both consumers and the state. While we would prefer not to raise the gas tax, it will provide much needed revenue to match federal dollars and keep our roads, bridges, and culverts in decent, safe condition.

The Equal Pay Bill also generated a lot of debate. It requires that people who are doing the same work be paid the same amount. In Vermont, women are currently paid 84 cents for the same work men are paid $1. It's better than the national average of approximately 79 cents on the dollar, but not good enough. The bill also encourages the allowance of flex time for workers where possible.

We passed a very important bill relating to opioid addiction and methamphetamine abuse (H.522), which was overwhelmingly supported though took time to debate. The legislation regarding the strengthening of Vermont's response to opioid addiction and methamphetamine abuse was a teamwork effort on the parts of the Human Services; General, Housing, and Military Affairs; and Judiciary Committees. The bill takes a comprehensive approach to the problem by providing measures to prevent abuse of prescription drugs, improving access to treatment and recovery, and providing for the safe disposal of prescription medicine.

Prevention and treatment of opioid-related overdoses through the use of opioid antagonists, which neutralize the effects of the drug in the body, will save lives. An electronic registry system monitoring the purchase of ephedrine will slow down the production of methamphetamine. Hopefully, these, and other measures included in the bill, will make our communities safer.

We also passed a companion bill (H.65) that gives limited criminal immunity from liability for reporting a drug or alcohol overdose. It provides an incentive for people to call for help rather than let someone die of an overdose for fear of prosecution. One witness was a young man whose friend overdosed and was dying. He thought seriously of leaving his friend but knew it was the wrong thing to do. He called for help, his friend was saved, but he was sent to jail. This is remedied in H.65. The bill allows for the administering of an opioid antagonist by lay people, as well as emergency and medical personnel.

The Thermal Efficiency bill (H.520) is legislation relating to the reduction of energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. It increases the amount of state weatherization assistance from $6,000 to $8,000 per unit and increases program eligibility from 60 percent to 80 percent of state median income so more low income Vermonters can weatherize their homes. This saves money, keeps folks warmer, and decreases our carbon footprint.

We anticipate next week will be equally busy on the Floor of the House as we take up the Budget, or "Big," Bill, tax bills, and more post-crossover legislation.

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