Lawmakers praise gov's pitch for road, ag funding
BRATTLEBORO -- Given the state's recent struggles in finding transportation money, Gov. Peter Shumlin's budget speech on Wednesday included some good news for a lawmaker like Rep. Mollie Burke.
The Brattleboro Progressive Democrat, who serves on the state House Transportation Committee, noted that Shumlin proposed boosting Vermont's transportation budget by $32.6 million.
That means sustained funding for some programs, and a proposed financial boost for others including rail service.
"The increase in the rail budget includes $2.1 million to complete track upgrades on the Vermonter route, which will prepare the way for the train that goes through Brattleboro to eventually get to Montreal," Burke said.
Shumlin's budget for fiscal year 2015, which must be approved by the Legislature, includes what he calls "the biggest investment in our transportation system in our state's history."
The Legislature last year imposed a new tax on gasoline to cover a big shortfall in transportation funding. And Burke has said that, due to a decrease in gasoline use, officials must work to come up with alternatives to raise money for maintenance of the state's roads and bridges.
That remains true, as Burke noted that Shumlin's pitch for a transportation-funding boost is "mostly due to federal grants received from the Federal Railroad Association, the Federal Aviation Administration and FEMA for specific projects."
There are benefits, though, for critical road programs.
"The town highway aid program is level-funded, sustaining the (fiscal year) 2013 increase of $1 million," Burke said.
Also level-funded are the town highway structures program and the town highway bridge program, she said.
In his budget speech, Shumlin mentioned expansion of "car- and van-pooling, and our bus network, which saw increased ridership again last year."
Burke also sees growth in Vermont's bus services.
"In the public-transit realm, the state has just successfully accepted proposals for the continuation of intercity bus service through Brattleboro, from White River to Springfield, with better connectivity to Burlington and Montreal," she said.
"There will also be two new intercity routes in the state," Burke added. "One from Burlington to Albany, and the other from Rutland to White River. These routes have been without service for a number of years, since Greyhound/Vermont Transit discontinued them."
While the governor's transportation proposals made headlines, Shumlin also requested an increase in funding for the relatively new Working Lands Initiative, a grant program that has met with overwhelming demand.
Local recipients of those grants have included Sidehill Farm, Vermont Woods Studios and University of Vermont Extension staff members Vern Grubinger and Chris Callahan.
The proposed funding boost for the Working Lands program, though relatively small at 5 percent, was lauded by state Rep. Carolyn Partridge, a Windham Democrat who chairs the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee.
"Last year, there were over $12 million in requests for approximately $1 million in available money," Partridge said. "Given the increased demand for high quality, locally-produced food, this is a significant opportunity for economic development and job growth. I am also very appreciative that Gov. Shumlin has put the money in the base budget, making it more permanent. This is a great step."
For some, however, Shumlin's speech fell a bit short on key issues.
"The budget address was positive in many ways, particularly with support for business opportunities and needed investment in our infrastructure," said Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro. "However, (there was) little attention to economic inequality or the needs of working Vermonters."
Moran is co-chairman of the Working Vermonters Legislative Caucus and is vice chairman of the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee.
He has pushed for more focus on "bread-and-butter" economic issues.
"Until we come up with sustainable housing for all Vermonters, we need to deal with the immediate problem of homeless children and adults, especially in the winter," Moran said. "And thus, our committee has supported restoring funding for emergency housing. We are also working on a livable minimum wage and earned, paid sick time off for employees."
Boosting the local economic outlook for employees and employers is the aim of Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., which also got a nod in the governor's speech.
That came via his proposal to increase funding by 9 percent "to our hard-working regional development corporations."
Under Shumlin's plan, the state's 12 such corporations -- including BDCC -- would get a total funding increase of $165,000, said Lucy Leriche, deputy secretary at the state Agency of Commerce and Economic Development.
For BDCC, a private, nonprofit organization, that would mean raising the state's allocation from $104,000 to $119,000, Leriche said.
"In the past number of years, the state has seen some really lean times -- the budgets for development corporations were cut significantly," Leriche said.
With an increase in funding last year, "this is two consecutive years of increases meant to bring them back up to those pre-cut levels," she said.
"We really value our economic-development organizations across the state," Leriche added. "We rely on them to foster economic development and to work with businesses."
Overall, Shumlin, a Windham County native, mentioned Brattleboro three times during his budget speech. Those references came in the context of general downtown development, redevelopment of the Brooks House and mental-health care:
-- "Our downtowns are on the comeback as vibrant centers for jobs, retail and residential life, from Brattleboro to Barre, Newport to St. Albans and Rutland."
-- "We provided funds for Vermont Technical College and Community College of Vermont to expand and locate campuses in the renovated Brooks Building, healing the burned-out heart of downtown Brattleboro."
-- "We are also on track to create the best community-based mental health-care system in the country. We are building state-of-the-art bricks and mortar and expanding community-based care: Securing 14 acute-care beds in Brattleboro and six in Rutland; opening a seven-bed Secure Therapeutic Center in Middlesex; and expanding the number of our statewide intensive residential and crisis beds. Our new, therapeutic, 25-bed hospital in Berlin will open this summer."
There also was a reference to Windham County in the context of Vermont Yankee's pending closure. Shumlin opened the passage by saying the state is "aggressively moving to green, clean, local renewable energy, and the job growth that comes with it."
"Vermont's difficult debate about the continued operation of Vermont Yankee is coming to a close," the governor said.
"We now can focus on our need to embrace a decommissioning process that best serves Vermonters, and to help those affected by the loss of jobs where I was born, grew up, ran a business and raised my daughters, in Windham County," the governor added. "They now need our help. We pressed Entergy for timely decommissioning and significant support for jobs and economic transition that will bring more than $20 million for Windham County, clean energy development and the state. It is now time to move past years of disputes with Entergy and strive to find common agreement wherever possible going forward, to get this right for Vermont."
Shumlin's budget address came in the middle of the first full week of the 2014 legislative session. A few other notes from the week:
-- Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend-based Democrat, said he was introducing a bill to ban "neonicotinoid pesticides."
"This new class of pesticides is linked to the dramatic decline of bee populations in Vermont," Galbraith said. "The (European Union) has placed a moratorium on their use in Europe, and a recent EU study says these pesticides are linked to slow fetal brain development."
Local House members lent their names to a variety of bills. Examples, with their accompanying bill numbers, include:
-- H. 590: Safety and regulation of dams (Rep. David Deen, D-Westminster).
--H. 591: Recognition of licenses issued by foreign jurisdictions (Partridge and Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro).
-- H. 592: Eligibility for court diversion prior to the filing of delinquency or criminal charges (Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney).
-- H. 595: Establishing the Agency of Controlled Substances (Moran).
-- H. 599: Permitting a surviving spouse to retain possession of residential property subject to a reverse mortgage loan (Partridge, Toleno).
-- H. 600: Water-quality improvement (Deen).
-- H. 602: Municipal budget committees (Partridge; Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington; Rep. Dick Marek, D-Newfane).
-- H. 604: Regulation of net metering (Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon).
-- H. 605: Purchase, possession and furnishing of tobacco to persons less than 21 years of age (Mrowicki).
-- H. 608: Long-distance, intrastate telephone service (Hebert, Moran, Toleno).
-- H. 615: Public education innovation zones (Rep. Tim Goodwin, I-Weston).
-- H. 616: Increasing the smoking age from 18 to 21 years (Burke, Mrowicki).
-- H. 620: Payment-error rates in 3SquaresVT (Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham).
The full text of all of the Vermont Legislature's introduced bills can be found by searching via bill number, title, keyword or sponsor at www.leg.state.vt.us/ResearchMain.cfm.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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