Monday May 20, 2013

The 2013 Legislative Session ended on Tuesday, May 14 at 10:25 p.m. This culminated a full session of work with many accomplishments, the first and foremost being passage of a balanced budget without raising taxes. The shortfall we anticipated was offset by a welcome revenue picture that was far above forecast. This left a $10 million gap that we made up for with Administrative efficiencies, increased revenue collection, and other reductions.

The House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee had a very successful year, passing H.112, which requires the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering through the House. It is now on its way to the Senate, where it will, hopefully, pass next year.

We also passed S.157, which would legalize hemp production in the State of Vermont. Our committee felt very strongly that potential hemp growers should register with the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) so that farmers would be notified of potential risks before growing and so the location of plots of hemp would be known. If Governor Peter Shumlin signs the bill, and we hope that he will, the cultivation of hemp will still be illegal in the eyes of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Farmers should be aware that they could potentially lose their federal loans, programs, and insurance, and could forfeit their land if they were convicted of growing hemp, though this has not occurred in other states where farmers are cultivating hemp. It should be noted that the United States is the only developed nation that prohibits the growing of hemp.

An agreement was reached with the Senate regarding the Patient Choice and Control at the End of Life bill, also known as Death with Dignity. It lays out a clear process with strict conditions that allows a patient to apply for a prescription for medication that will end their life. The patient must be given six months or less to live by at least two doctors, be deemed "capable," and make three separate requests - two orally and one in writing. The agreement with the Senate requires a "sunset" of some of the requirements after three years. This caused concern on the parts of some, but it gives us a chance to assess the process and make changes if we feel they are necessary.

This budget brings good news to Vermont students who are attending college by giving a 3 percent increase, or $2.5 million, that will go to financial aid. We also appropriate money to pay for the student portion ($.40) of school lunch for those whose families are at 130-185 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. This will further ensure that students will take advantage of nutritious school lunches and not be stigmatized by the process of paying for lunch or opting not to eat lunch out of embarrassment. We were also able to provide $8.4 million in property tax relief from the FY2013 General Fund surplus.

In the health care arena, we provide a 3 percent across the board increase in Medicaid starting on Nov. 1, 2013. This is very helpful for our health care providers who treat Medicaid patients at a reduced reimbursement rate. As we transition to the Vermont Health Benefit Exchange, known as Vermont Health Connect, we will need people to assist Vermonters in the process. This budget funds the personnel who will help. The creation of the Exchange was part of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The Exchange is an online marketplace for health insurance that requires all vendors to provide "apples to apples" information about their products. We also provide $10.4 million for premium subsidies and cost sharing for transition to the Exchange.

A grave public health concern last summer was the deaths of two Vermonters from Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE). There has been good cooperation between the AAFM, which oversees the mosquito control program, and the Department of Health to combat this problem. We increase funding for control and monitoring of EEE, as well as West Nile virus.

We made changes to the Reach Up program by placing a five-year lifetime cap on benefits starting at the age of 18. We do provide some exemptions including one for people who meet their work requirement and for those caring for a family member who is terminally ill. The goal is to get people back to work without pulling the rug out from under them.

Another piece of good news is the increase in the appropriation for the Working Lands Initiative. We were able to increase the amount by $250,000, bringing the total to $1.425 million. As some of you know, there have been $12 million in requests for the $1 million we have for FY2013.

When the Legislature started its work in January, we faced another shortfall and an uncertain future with regards to federal funding. We were able to construct a budget that does not raise taxes, maintains necessary services, makes investments in Vermont's future, and puts money aside to help with future shortfalls. I would say this is a job well done!

I want to thank the Reformer for printing my column every week and wish you all a wonderful summer. Now it's time to shear the sheep and goats!

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