Monday April 8, 2013

This week the House passed the last of the big money bills - the Capital Bill. This legislation determines where we will spend money on "bricks and mortar" projects for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. It utilizes bonded money and is spent on projects that are anticipated to last 20 years or longer. This is one of the biggest Capital Bills we have ever done, in part, because we are still recovering from Tropical Storm Irene.

Last biennium, we tried something new by constructing a two-year Capital Bill, with a budget adjustment in the second year. It has been very successful, in part, because it creates efficiencies that allow the House Corrections and Institutions Committee to focus on the "Corrections" aspect of its purview during the second year of the biennium.

Each year, the Debt Affordability Committee makes a recommendation as to how much Vermont may bond for while still maintaining its high bond rating. This year, we were approved for $159.9 million. The Administration makes a proposal as to how to spend the money and the House reviews the proposal, making changes it feels are necessary. In this Capital Bill, the governor's recommendations were accepted by the House for the most part. It includes a total of $173.2 million in spending - $159.9 million in general fund bonding, $5.7 million from unspent funds bonded for in previous years, and $7.6 million in bond premiums.

A significant portion of the spending, $69 million, or nearly 40 percent, is related to the effects of Tropical Storm Irene on the Waterbury State Office Complex. We are aware of the fact that the $69 million figure is a place holder and will depend on Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding as well as payments from the state's insurance company. Besides the Office Complex, which is anticipated to cost $124.7 million, we need a new lab for the Agencies of Natural Resources and Agriculture, Food, and Markets; money for renovations at the National Life building that will house the Agencies of Natural Resources and Transportation; and funding for the five facilities that will replace the Vermont State Hospital.

It is hoped that a combination of Capital Bill, FEMA, and insurance money will cover all but a small portion of the price tag for these necessary Irene replacement projects.

Also included in the Capital Bill is more than $17 million for state aid for school construction. This is to cover our past commitments - there is still a freeze on new school construction with some exceptions. Funding for the construction of a Brattleboro/Rockingham consolidated State Police Barracks, as well as money for construction, renovations, and maintenance at UVM and our State Colleges is also included. In addition, we fund mold remediation at the Vermont Veterans Home and a number of other worthy projects.

The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee passed two important bills this week. One has to do with the sale, transfer, or importation of pets. It clears up statutory language in Title 20 that, for years, has had constitutional issues. It encourages, in a supportive way, the proper care of animals. It specifies guidelines for animal care, provides resources for breeders, and requires a pet dealer permit for people who have three or more litters of dogs, cats, and/or wolf hybrids. It also provides for inspections to be done, if necessary, by local animal control officers, law enforcement, or the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets.

Our goal for inspections is to help permit holders comply with animal care standards, not in a "gottcha" way. Through this process, we hope to insure the health and well-being of animals and prevent Vermonters from facing criminal charges for not adequately caring for their animals.

Our other bill forgives state tax liability, penalties, and interest for H2A workers from 2008-2011. H2A workers are documented seasonal workers who come to Vermont to work in our orchards and on our farms. Most workers come from Jamaica but some also come from Central America including Mexico. The H2A program began during World War II to help US farmers harvest crops because so many people were overseas.

Since the 1940s, these workers have not had to pay taxes on their earnings and, in fact, there has been no mechanism for withholding from them. Since immigration has become such a politicized issue, recently things have changed. The federal government, and hence the state, reached back to 2008 and asked these workers to pay taxes for years when no one knew they had to. We felt this was patently unfair, the Vermont Tax Department agreed, and, hopefully, this will become law.

The consequences of federal "sequestration" on Vermont are now becoming clearer. We anticipate seeing cuts in education: Special education funding ($1.4 million), Title I programs for low-income students ($1.1 million), HeadStart ($800,000), and higher education ($305,000). Also cut are benefits for the long-term unemployed, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and funding for the Departments of Health; Environmental Conservation; Fish and Wildlife; Children and Families; and Disabilities, Aging, and Independent Living. Non-profits will be affected as well.

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