Saturday May 18, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- When Windham County's state lawmakers returned home Wednesday, they brought along a mix of satisfaction and disappointment about the just-ended 2013 legislative session.

And there was a bit of relief, too.

"We took up six or seven major issues, which made this a really exhausting session," said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon. "Normally, you get one or two in a year."

Hebert and other local legislators consistently were in the thick of things from Jan. 9 through the late-evening hours Tuesday, when both the House and Senate adjourned.

Lawmakers grappled with a lack of funding for new and existing initiatives: Hebert summed it up by simply saying "there was no money.

" They also tackled major social issues -- lethal prescriptions and decriminalized marijuana were two examples -- that provoked sometimes-emotional debate.

First, the money issues: Some Windham County representatives said they were most-pleased with what didn't happen -- proposed tax increases that had included an expanded sales levy and an increased meals and rooms tax.

The House had approved those taxes in March, but they were opposed by Gov. Peter Shumlin and gained no traction in the Senate. Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, was among those who opposed the taxes in the initial House vote.

"We got those all taken out and ultimately came up with a budget that passed overwhelmingly," Trieber said.


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Trieber also noted that an unpopular revenue proposal from Shumlin -- taxing so-called "break-open" tickets used as fund-raisers by many fraternal organizations -- was turned back by legislators.

"That's not happening at all," Trieber said.

Hebert derisively had labeled the expanded sales tax "an economic-development plan for the state of New Hampshire." He said he was pleased that the general-fund budget contained "no broad-based tax increases."

However, Hebert was one of only nine House members who voted against the state's fiscal 2014 spending plan as legislative business drew to a close late Tuesday.

He said he was concerned that the budget included 56 new government positions, $54 million in one-time funding and an increased allocation for emergency shelters for those who live in the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant's evacuation zone.

Hebert said the latter provision -- which would have to be funded by Vermont Yankee owner Entergy -- requires more study to determine actual shelter needs.

"Overall, it was a good budget," Hebert said. "But someone has to make the statement that we still have to pay attention to these things."

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, supported the state budget and said economic uncertainty had "hung in the air" since the start of the session.

"Working together with the administration, the legislature balanced the budget without deep cuts and with investments in the future to keep our economy strong," Mrowicki said.

The legislature did enact two tax hikes outside the general-fund budget: The education tax rose by 6.8 percent on primary residences, and a new sales tax was imposed on gasoline.

Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat, said he voted against the education-tax hike.

"The property tax squeezes middle-income families who already pay the largest share of their income in taxes," Galbraith said.

"I have fashioned legislation with two other members of the Finance Committee to direct $60 million to property-tax relief, primarily in the form of incentives to (school) districts that limit spending to inflation plus 1 percent," Galbraith added. "As the Finance Committee looks to reforming our tax system next year, I will work to make sure holding the line on the property tax is part of the mix."

The gas-tax hike already has taken effect, with prices rising about 6 cents per gallon on May 1. Diesel prices also went up, and fuel prices will rise again next year.

Rep. Mollie Burke, a Brattleboro Democrat and a member of the House Transportation Committee, said the tax increase was necessary to fill a big gap in the state's transportation funding. Also, Vermont would have been forced to turn aside tens of millions in federal funding if the state didn't raise more transportation revenue.

"It's also a user fee -- the people who are using the roads are paying for them," Burke said.

But she added that state officials must make long-term plans to raise funding for roads and bridges as drivers continue to use less gas, drive more fuel-efficient cars and switch to electric-powered vehicles.

"This gas tax is meant to buy some time to figure out how we pay for our transportation system," Burke said.

However controversial taxes may be, several social issues taken up by the legislature generated even bigger headlines. The most-prominent was a bill allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medication to terminally ill patients.

That measure was overhauled several times: The House favored a bill modeled on Oregon's "Death With Dignity" law that includes state-mandated safeguards for patients and doctors, while the Senate had passed a version simply absolving doctors of any liability for writing such prescriptions.

The approved compromise institutes those safeguards for three years. But the Senate's language takes effect, and the safeguards expire, in 2016 unless the legislation is amended between now and then.

Galbraith praised that approach.

"I fashioned the compromise on the end-of-life bill so that it is no longer is a state-sponsored process but rather a limitation of physician liability," Galbraith said. "For three years, doctors will have to follow an Oregon-style procedure to get the immunity, but after that, end-of-life decisions will be where I think they should be -- between a doctor and her patient."

Hebert and Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro Democrat, were among those who opposed the aid-in-dying bill.

"I think people have a right to make a choice, but I think there are some areas that the legislature should stay out of," Moran said.

He added that "people have a way to make these choices (already). I think this legislation complicates the issue to the point where it's something we shouldn't have done."

Also dividing lawmakers was a bill decriminalizing possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and up to 5 grams of hashish. The bill does not make such possession legal; rather, it substitutes civil fines for criminal penalties so that those caught with small amounts of pot won't have a criminal record.

Most Windham County lawmakers supported the measure, which received legislative approval and was sent to Shumlin at session's end. But Hebert said he's still concerned that teenagers will think small amounts of pot have been legalized.

"My concern is, what is the message that we're sending to our kids?" Hebert asked.

In the days after the 2013 session ended, local lawmakers reflected on a variety of other accomplishments and disappointments:

-- Shumlin had taken heat for his bid to restrict the amount of time residents can spend on Vermont's welfare program, called Reach Up. The legislature eventually enacted such restrictions, though not in the way the governor had proposed.

Trieber said there now is a 60-month "cap" on the program, but there are multiple exceptions to ensure that vulnerable segments of the population -- like parents or victims of domestic violence, for example -- are not booted from public assistance.

"I would refer to it as welfare reform with a heart," Trieber said. "I think we'll lead the country on how to make this program work into the future."

-- Rep. Valerie Stuart, D-Brattleboro, was happy that two education-related bills were approved: She said lawmakers expanded free lunches for low-income children and also passed a "flexible pathways" initiative aimed at helping high school students transition into post-secondary education.

Mandating free lunches for low-income students "is essential for our children to thrive and prosper," Stuart said. "And it costs such a small amount."

The flexible pathways program should help boost Vermont's college-graduation rate, she added.

"This really fleshed out how to get kids out of high school successfully, into college successfully and completing college successfully," Stuart said.

However, Stuart noted that a bill expanding access to publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs failed to win approval primarily due to financial concerns.

"We can still work on that next year," she said.

-- Stuart praised lawmakers for passing a bill mandating equal pay for women. Officials had said women in Vermont still make only 84 percent of what a male earns for equivalent work.

"I thought this was a great step forward," Stuart said.

-- Moran said equal pay was among the bills that were handled during a busy session for the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee, of which he is vice chairman.

Other bills moving through the committee included unionization rights for home-care providers and a measure addressing sexual harassment of women in the military.

"This has probably been the most-productive year for my committee since I've been in the legislature," Moran said.

-- Mrowicki said the state's health-care reform effort "took another step forward in Vermont by setting up Vermont Health Connect, our health exchange, as mandated by federal law."

"It's the next step as we move toward a universal, single-payer system," he said. "Vermonters will be able to buy health insurance online, and with the federal subsidy of ObamaCare, through the Vermont Health Connect web portal in 2014."

-- Efforts to reform campaign finances did not fare as well, with a bill failing to win approval before legislators departed Montpelier.

"I wish we could've come to agreement on campaign-finance reform," Mrowicki said. "I'm concerned that big money is starting to rear its head here in Vermont. Whether it's super PACs or wealthy individuals throwing their money around, money is not free speech."

Galbraith was deeply involved in several contentious campaign-finance debates. He introduced -- but ultimately failed to win approval for -- a ban on direct campaign contributions from corporations and unions.

The senator said he was "disappointed" that the legislature did not approve the campaign-contribution measure. There also was no widespread support for legislation that would have curtailed development of industrial-scale wind turbines, a bill Galbraith had backed.

But Galbraith said both efforts "went much further this year than in 2012, and there is much greater public awareness. These issues won't go away."

-- Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster, also expressed disappointment that the legislature did not pass a bill "designed to provide coordinated, scientifically based, site-specific shoreline protection regulation throughout the state."

The House passed the measure, but it stalled in the Senate. Deen, who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, said the issue is not dead.

"Over the summer and fall, members of the Senate Natural Resources and the House Water Resources committees will hold public meetings in five different locations around Vermont," he said. "These meetings are designed to inform the public as to the appropriate next steps we need to take to protect our lakes and ponds."

-- Deen said lawmakers did approve an important extension of the state's underground-storage-tank program "so it will continue to provide an immediate response to any leaking underground gas and above-ground home heating fuel tanks."

"If the program were not in place, all gas stations would need to provide their own million-dollar environmental liability insurance coverage," Deen said. "If that kind of coverage were available -- and it is not -- it would be hugely expensive for each individual dealer."

-- There also were changes in Vermont's hunting and fishing laws.

Those include "changes in the bear and turkey tags, allowing the Fish and Wildlife Board to adjust the boundaries of the wildlife-management areas, establishing a committee to make recommendations to the legislature on how to prevent ‘road hunting' and disallowing the importation of exotic wild boars," Deen said.

"The really new idea in the bill is establishing a therapeutic fishing license that will allow mental-health facilities to take people fishing as part of their therapy," Deen said.

Mike Faher is the political beat writer for the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.