BRATTLEBORO -- The 2012 legislative session begins today in the same fashion as the previous one did: Looking at another massive budgetary shortfall.
Lawmakers assembled on Tuesday for the second year of the biennium knowing the cleanup costs stemming from August’s Tropical Storm Irene would need addressing right away, some of which could have a toll on Vermont taxpayers.
"[Irene] certainly has an impact on property values to the extend where homes that are lost or damaged, those homes are no longer going to be on the grand list or at a reduced value. So that shrinks our tax base, there will certainly be some impact there," said Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica. "I think overall there’s just going to be quite a bit of pressure on the property tax in some of the smaller communities that have significant storm-related damage to infrastructure."
Even with aid coming in at the federal level, many Vermont towns still have significant unbudgeted expenses that will put pressure on municipal property taxes and add a greater burden for taxpayers.
"We’re looking at a very significant impact on the property tax in 2012," he continued. "We saw the first increase in the property tax rate this past session for many years, and the governor and his allies in the Legislature basically made a change to the formula this past session that is going to cost property taxpayers $27 million this coming year.
State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said while Storm Irene, and paying for its cleanup are huge topics on this year’s political landscape, lawmakers will continue work on the many other concerns important to Vermonters.
"All of those concerns and planning for them now, should be informed by the reality of climate change. This state had two major floods last year. Weather patters are changing and we are having more frequent and more adverse weather -- just as climate change scientists have predicted," he said. "If we don’t act and plan accordingly, in all areas of government, we won’t be ready for the next flood or drought and will fail our responsibility as leaders."
Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat, said paying for Irene reconstruction is one of the Legislature’s priorities, along with further work on health care and possible tax reform.
Currently, Vermont suffers from an unfair reputation of having high marginal tax rates, according to Galbraith, and the state could lower the tax rates and raise the same amount of revenue if it based taxes on adjusted gross income rather than federal taxable income.
"In effect, we would not allow the federal deductions in Vermont but in exchange we would have significantly lower rates," he said.
Regarding health care, the senator is optimistic he can move forward with strengthening the system as the legislation turns through the Statehouse, but also allow for exemptions when required. In 2011, he introduced amendments allowing certain categories of Vermonters to opt out of the proposed Green Mountain Care (GMC), such as military, federal employees and certain retirees.
"These are Vermonters who have good health care that is paid by the federal government or as part of a retirement package and it would cost GMC much more to include them than GMC would receive from whatever tax was levied," he said.
Mrowicki also is pushing for health care reform, noting the issue continues to hold high prominence as the General Assembly looks to create a sustainable system that provides better outcomes at a lower cost.
"One thing is clear to me -- Health care dollars need to be spent on health care, not paper pushers or executive pay," he said.
Galbraith also listed campaign finance reform as one of his top issues, saying Vermont is one of the few states that allows corporations to contribute to political candidates, a practice that has been illegal under federal law for 104 years.
"I have proposed an amendment to the campaign finance reform bill that would conform Vermont law to federal law. While my amendment was defeated in the Government Operations Committee on a 3-2 vote (Sen. Anthony Pollina co-sponsored and was the other vote in favor), the Senate leadership is refusing to bring the bill to the floor for fear that the Galbraith-Pollina amendment will be adopted," Galbraith added. "I will continue to push for real campaign finance reform including a ban on corporate contributions."
Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, will push for the passage of his bill to aid Vermonters who lost their homes to Irene.
"It would establish a special fund called the ‘Irene housing fund’ for the purpose of providing money to Vermont citizens who have lost their home as a result of Tropical Storm Irene," he said.
"The money will come from 50 percent of the revenue from the property transfer tax and any moneys appropriated to the fund by the General Assembly or received from any other source," he continued. "The fund will be administered by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development which shall develop rules and procedures for disbursing money to help Vermont citizens."
Hebert, who serves on the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, also has numerous concerns about the recently released energy plan from the Shumlin administration. He calls the plan politically motivated and not in the best interest of ratepayers.
"We need an energy plan that provides a diverse portfolio which takes into consideration real base load energy and the need for renewable generation." he said. "Requiring that we purchase our energy mainly from in state renewable generation is short-sighted and does not allow our utilities to shop for the lowest priced energy. This will only increase the cost of electricity to Vermonters and make it more difficult for businesses to remain viable in Vermont."
Meanwhile, in the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, Chairman David Deen, a Westminster Democrat, said they will look at the lessons learned from Irene in terms of location of infrastructure and personal property next to rivers and how the state can best flood-proof Vermont
"We will also be looking at riparian zone and flood plane protections since they protect us in an Irene situation. We will also be looking at strengthening any town’s ability to institute and implement flood hazard zoning," Deen said.
"There is interest in the Lake Champlain basin to put a water resources preservation program in place that would use a small surcharge on development activities to fund water resources protection, including helping farmers increase riparian zones along their lands and municipalities to do good storm water management programs," he continued. "We are going to take a look at high elevation storm water requirements. The impacts of both wind and cell tower development on small headwater streams may be showing us that we need to tighten the requirements for storm water control during the permit review process."
Ann Manwaring, a Wilmington Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, hopes to change the conversation around education funding.
"It does not make sense to me that we continue to aim the budget cutting arrows (sometimes in the form of a penalty) at one part of our education system or another without a better understanding of how each entity of the education organizational structure from legislative committees, through the state Board of Education, the state Department of Education, on down to supervisory districts and onto our many varieties of schools who have the ultimate responsibility for the outcomes of the $1.3 billion that we spend in Vermont to educate our children," she said. "I expect it to be a lively conversation."
All Windham County lawmakers were contacted for comment in this report.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.