Another very busy week transpired at the State House as the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) was finalized and voted out of the House Appropriations Committee. Work also continued in the Education Committee to address spending threshold penalties in conjunction with incorrect information that was given by the Agency of Education (AOE).
The hope was that we would be able to deal with the BAA without additional spending, however, the tragic deaths of two children and social worker, Lara Sobel, pointed to the shortcomings in our current system. The caseloads carried by our social workers are too heavy and additional workers are needed to assure the safety of children in state custody. Vermonters want those children, as well as state workers to be safe, and agree that investments should be made to ensure this is true. The addition of positions to help with the caseload does have a price tag but the cost is necessary and worth it.
A major portion of the BAA challenge, over $67 million, was additional costs in Medicaid. The good news is that more uninsured Vermonters, as a result of the Affordable Care Act and resulting expanded Medicaid, are now covered with health insurance. It is estimated that 97 percent of Vermonters have health insurance, which is a very good thing. The challenge is that we need to pay for it. $47 million of the $67 million gap will be covered by federal funds.
Another sticking point with the BAA is the fact that an anomalous 53rd week of Medicaid payments had not been included in the FY2016 budget. This oversight is worth $10.3 million.
The House Appropriations Committee worked hard to reach a compromise and, as a result, voted the BAA out unanimously. Congratulations to Rep. Mitzi Johnson and her hardworking team including my district-mate, Rep. Matt Trieber, for their great work!
The Education Committee, including our own Windham County Reps. Ann Manwaring and Emily Long, worked hard to find a solution to the concern about penalty thresholds and the incorrect information that was provided by the Agency of Education regarding the per pupil amount that could be spent in each school district. The original figures provided by the AOE for allowable spending growth included special education and construction costs for principal and interest, which should not have been included.
The compromise for allowable per pupil spending increases that was reached at the end of the week provides for growth in health care costs (.9 percent), requires the AOE to use the calculation that works best for each school district, and reduces the fines for districts that exceed allowable spending limits. With the Senate vote to entirely repeal the penalty thresholds, there was a lot of confusion as to how school districts would have been affected. We would have reverted to the old penalty thresholds, which may have been less advantageous. An attempt to prematurely pull the House compromise out of the Education Committee further confused the matter because legislators would not have had an opportunity to determine what worked best for their districts. Fortunately, that attempt was rejected and we will be voting on this early next week.
An issue that has gained a lot of attention worldwide and caused concern for the last several years is the decline in the pollinator population. This includes bumblebees, honeybees, and other insects that pollinate the plants that become the food we eat. It is a critical problem that deserves our attention because without the service they provide, our food sources will be drastically reduced and our diet will be very limited.
Research is being done internationally to determine what is causing the decline. There are different theories regarding this phenomenon but there is general agreement that it is probably a combination of factors that have created this bad situation. Changes in agricultural practices, loss of foraging habitat, disease and parasites, and the use of pesticides, in particular, neonicotinoids may be contributing to this decline.
There are a couple of bills in our committee that address this issue. One would completely ban the use of neonics, as they are known for short. Another, calls for the creation of a Pollinator Protection Committee, sponsored by Rep. David Deen of Westminster. The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee (HAFPC) has been taking testimony on the formation of the proposed committee and through it has learned a lot about the state of pollinators, both wild and domesticated.
Agricultural practices have changed over the last several decades and fields that might have been hayed twice are now being hayed three and four times, if not more. These fields would have probably flowered between hayings but now they're being mowed again before flowering can occur. Development has reduced the amount of forage that provided pollinators with nectar and pollen. Varroa and tracheal mites, as well as fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases have taken their toll and weakened bees. Neonicotinoids, which are less harmful to mammals than older classes of pesticides, are taking their toll.
The goal of the Pollinator Protection Committee would be to study and evaluate the situation in Vermont and potentially make recommendations to the Legislature on steps we could take to ameliorate the problem.