The legislative session began on Tuesday, Jan. 7. It is always exciting to return to Montpelier to begin a new year. It's a great honor to serve the people of the Windham-3 district. Perhaps, one of our greatest challenges this year will be to build a balanced budget that meets the needs of our most vulnerable citizens while keeping in mind our taxpayers' pocketbooks.
For the last seven or eight years we have made significant cuts to our budgets and additional cuts for FY2015 will be very difficult. The largest agency in government is the Agency of Human Services, so it is expected that cuts will be made there. The most vulnerable Vermonters rely on the agency for services so we need to be careful not to make cuts that will have adverse effects down the road.
The Appropriations Committee worked on the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) at the beginning of December so we have a head start on that task. The Administration had the proposal ready in a very timely manner, which contributed to a very efficient and cooperative process. The Budget Adjustment process reviews all of the areas of government to see where there is either excess money or a need for more. This year we have seen a significant increase in the need for emergency housing. Increased need was also seen at the Vermont Veterans' Home and for post-Irene rent for the Agency of Natural Resources.
The Agriculture and Forest Products Committee started the year with testimony regarding compost. Last year, we were concerned about the presence of persistent herbicides (aminopyralid and clopyralid) in compost. Research done by the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets (AAFM) revealed that the contamination came from horse manure from within the state of Vermont. These herbicides are on the Agency's "restricted use" list, so people must apply for and obtain an applicator's license in order to use them. It is critically important that these herbicides be kept out of compost because, even in minute concentrations, they will kill broadleaf plants.
Our committee also received a briefing on the rule-making regarding maple grading. We will be adopting a new maple grading system that not only references color, but also flavor. This new system is not without controversy but the overwhelming majority of sugarmakers are in favor of it because it will conform to international grading systems and increase the amount of syrup we can market out of state and internationally.
The demand for maple syrup is way up - we heard that 10,000 cases of syrup had been recently shipped to Australia! The new rules also allow for the retail sale of the old Grade C, or commercial grade, syrup. Committee members felt strongly that sugarmakers should be able to use the old grades, including Fancy and Grade B, as descriptors if the new grading labels are present as well. Hopefully, everyone is relatively happy. Change is never easy but a good compromise has been reached on the new rules.
Last week, Governor Peter Shumlin gave his State of the State address. This was an opportunity for him to lay out policy goals. While he stated that he wanted a Vermont with the best schools; families that are safe in their homes; a clean environment with a renewable energy future; good jobs that pay well; and affordable, high quality health care, his focus was on the very tough issue of opioid and heroin addiction and its related crime.
The governor cited a frightening list of statistics including the fact that we have seen a 770 percent increase in treatment for all opiates in the last 13 years, as well as a 250 percent increase in heroin treatment during the same period. Tragically, the number of deaths from overdoses in 2013 was double that of 2012.
The governor stressed that we need to focus on prevention and treatment. A week of treatment for heroin costs about a tenth of the cost of a week in prison, so it is clear where we should concentrate our efforts. With a waiting list of over 500 addicts, the governor will be putting extra resources in the Budget Adjustment proposal for treatment to eliminate the backlog, as well as additional money for recovery.
During the legislative session, I can be contacted at the State House by phone, toll-free at 1-800-322-5616. The office of the Sergeant at Arms office will deliver your message and I will return your call as soon as possible. By mail, the address is 115 State St, Drawer 33, Montpelier, VT, 05633-5201. My legislative email is email@example.com and my website where I post these articles is www.carolynpartridge.com.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.