Monday March 18, 2013

The State House has been abuzz with activity - "crossover" being March 15 this year. "Crossover" is the date by which House bills have to be out of their policy committees if they are to be considered by the Senate this year, and vice versa. Needless to say, committee members have worked very hard to meet that deadline. There is an exemption option that allows a bill more time to receive additional policy committee review and still be taken up by the Senate.

I have requested an exemption for H.112 - an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering (GE). The GE food labeling bill passed out of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee on an 8-3-0 vote and was sent to the Judiciary Committee for their review. It is our hope that the bill will make it through the process and a vote will be possible on the Floor of the House this year. Over 90 percent of Vermonters, polled by the University of Vermont's Center for Rural Studies, indicated that they thought food produced with genetic engineering should be labeled as such.

In order to process all of the bills we passed out in time for "crossover", the next two weeks will see us on the Floor of the House for extended periods of time. We will also be considering the Budget, or "Big," Bill, which usually takes four hours just to report.

We are facing huge challenges that have no easy answers. The Transportation Budget alone presents a $240 million shortfall that needs to be filled if we want to maintain our roads, bridges, and culverts in a safe condition. In fact, we need to come up with $36.53 million to fully fund the FY2013 transportation budget or we risk having to turn away federal match money.

Part of the job as a legislator is to make hard choices - it is our responsibility. While I would prefer not to raise the gas tax, I haven't heard any other suggestions for how to raise the required revenue in order to maintain our transportation infrastructure and keep it safe for Vermonters, as well for the folks who visit our state. The gas tax proposal makes sense because it affects the people who use the road, including out-of-staters. In the future, we will have to figure out how the people who buy electric cars can do their part.

As the gas tax and other proposals are considered, Vermonters should be assured that we are doing our best and listening to your concerns. We have a tough job to do this year passing a balanced budget. After six years of budget cutting (this is the seventh), we are down to the bone and may require some revenue to be raised, but we will do it as judiciously as possible.

One bit of frustration involves a bill (H.236) I sponsored with other legislators regarding required professional audits for school districts. Historically, school districts were required to have a professional audit every three years. Last year, a mandate for a yearly audit passed quietly in the education technical amendments bill.

While everyone agrees that we want strict accountability for tax dollars, common sense also dictates that it is a terrible waste of Education Fund money to spend $8,500 on the audit of a $365,000 budget, which is what is being required of the Windham School, as well as several other local schools. With many local eyes on the school budget and pay orders, as well as the oversight of the Chief Financial Officer at the Windham Central Supervisory Union, every three years may be even more often than necessary.

If the cost of the audit was more reasonable, one might feel differently, but 2.3 percent added to the school budget for something that does not directly help the children is way too expensive, especially when we have not experienced malfeasance. From a logistical standpoint, it is sometimes a challenge to get even two bids on the auditing job when it is done every three years. One wonders if we will have the personnel available to do yearly audits.

Hopefully, we will be able to make an adjustment to this requirement. I have been speaking with Doug Hoffer, the State Auditor, and have made suggestions about a dollar limit for yearly audits. At this point, however, if we are looking for ways to save money in the Education Fund, this is the first place to look. 

On another note, a constituent recently tried to e-mail me but his message did not get through at either of my addresses. He fortunately called the toll free number, 1-800-322-5616, and left a message with the Sergeant at Arms that did get to me and I returned his call. I include this with the toll free number for those of you who may not get a response via e-mail.

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