It is clear that we are coming down the homestretch of this Legislative Session. We will be in Montpelier for another week, potentially adjourning on May 9th or 10th. Everyone is aware of the fact that we need to wrap things up in an efficient way. If a bill doesn't pass by the end of the Session, it will die. It can, of course, be sponsored again next biennium but it will need to start again from square one.
Some of the things we continue to work on include education governance, economic development, and the Child Protection Act.
The education governance bill (H.883) passed the House by a fairly slim margin. It was not a partisan issue, but rather broke down, for the most part along large versus small community lines. The House version proposes to do away with local school boards and merge the more than 270 existing school districts into 45-55 expanded districts. The bill requires implementation over the course of six years. If a district refuses to merge, a "Design Team" will make that decision for them.
As I have written over the past several weeks, I think this top-down, "Montpelier knows best" approach is a bad idea. I have concerns about how the bill was developed with great credence paid to hearings held in Montpelier in the late afternoon and evening when parents are taking care of their children, feeding them dinner, and putting them to bed. I heard from several Windham parents who were not able to attend for just those reasons. According to one Education Committee member, not one teacher testified on this bill.
The Senate Education Committee is working on a proposal that was sent to them by the Shumlin administration. Apparently, it proposes a voluntary merger scenario rather than a forced one, which may be an improvement.
I am still of the belief that a grassroots-up approach would bear more fruit and gain more buy-in from Vermonters. The two stated goals of H.883 were to increase educational opportunities and reduce spending. It is clear that what my constituents want is property tax relief not a governance change, which may end up costing more money with questionable results regarding educational opportunities.
The Economic Development bill, S.220, focuses on three primary areas: Workforce development, access to capital, and telecommunications. These are three areas that the Commerce and Economic Development Committee has identified as places where we have needs and potential strengths.
A big challenge is finding qualified workers for jobs that require special technical skills. At the same time, there are workers who would potentially like these jobs but require training in order to do them. The bill helps with workforce education, internships, and training programs, all to create a better workforce. The Commissioner of Labor will become the leader in all workforce education and training in the state. The bill creates the "Vermont Strong Scholars and Internship Initiative" which will allow forgiveness of certain post-secondary student loans.
In testimony from local business people, access to capital was cited as a major challenge, especially for smaller start-up endeavors. Small businesses are the backbone of Vermont's economy and they need our support. The bill creates an entrepreneurial lending program and investment tax credit program in the Vermont Economic Development Authority to meet capital needs of new businesses that are at critical stages in their growth.
Finally, our cellular and broadband infrastructure needs to be expanded and strengthened so that all Vermonters have coverage. This will help us capitalize on our growing technology sector. The bill allows towns to have better access to the siting process for telecommunication towers and gives them the right to be a party to that process. The Public Service Board is required to better explain important decisions to towns and a "citizen's guide" to the process will be generated by the Department of Public Service.
S.239, an act relating to the regulation of toxic substances is also known as the Child Protection Act. It requires that manufacturers of children's products such as toys, pacifiers, clothing, car seats, and feeding equipment notify the VT Department of Health if they contain chemicals of great concern for children. This requirement may seem like a no-brainer but for years we have been waiting for promised action on the federal level, which has not materialized. Our bill is very similar to the one enacted in the state of Washington.
The 2014 Working Lands Initiative Enterprise Investment grant recipients were named recently and they included Windham County's own Boyd Family Farm of Wilmington and Big Picture Farm of Townshend. Congratulations to them both!
This week, we had the great pleasure of having the Select Choir from Kurn Hattin Homes for Children come to the State House to sing devotions. It was also a very special day because a Resolution was read for their director, Lisa Bianconi, who was nominated for a Grammy as Music Educator of the Year. The children sang their hearts out and sounded wonderful, and there was hardly a dry eye on the Floor of the House. Lisa is to be congratulated for her dedication to these children - she is so worthy of recognition.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.