Local reps reflect on most recent legislative session

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BRATTLEBORO -- Whether it was passing a solid waste bill that will increase state recycling rates, a ban on hydraulic fracturing, job creation initiatives or a state adoption of the federal health care exchange system, local politicians all agreed that despite two massive floods and tough economic times, they were able to rally and work together during the most recent legislative session all the way to the last day on Saturday.

"Balancing the budget with all the extra costs from the two major floods last year without raising taxes was a huge success," said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney. "The Legislature worked well with the governor and the federal government to get help where it was needed and now to pay for it with minimal impact to Vermonters. If any Vermonters question the role of good government, this was a shining example of Vermonters needing help and government stepping up to do just that."

On a state level, in addition to rapidly rebuilding the state's roads and bridges, Rep. Valerie A. Stuart, D-Brattleboro, said replacing the Vermont State Hospital with a new community-based system was a "noteworthy achievement."

"Tropical Storm Irene did suddenly what the Legislature has wanted to do for many years; it closed the Vermont State Hospital and provided a capital funding opportunity never previously available," Stuart said. "The enhanced continuum of community and peer services and the range of acute inpatient beds throughout the state will ensure Vermonters with mental health needs are better served."

She said the change will also provide more jobs and professional development for the Brattleboro Retreat with a 14-bed unit for acute care.

Rep. Sarah Edwards, P/D-Brattleboro, who was first elected to the Statehouse in 2002 and announced she won't be seeking a sixth term, said the biggest challenged politicians faced was the state energy bill.

"We lost the bid to introduce a modest renewable portfolio standard that would have required that we retain 35 percent of our renewable credits," Edwards said. "But we did increase the standard offer to 127.5 megawatts over the next 10 years. This encourages small-scale renewable electricity projects (up to 2.2 megawatt) by providing long-term stable pricing."

Two bills from the House Education Committee, 440 and 753, which restructured education governance on the state level and which encourages school districts and supervisory unions to provide cooperative services or consolidation, were essential to the quality of education statewide, said Stuart.

The bills will also enable the governor to appoint a Secretary of Education, a position that will start Jan. 1, 2013.

"Vermont spends $1.5 billion each year on education and relative to our investment we have successful outcomes," she said. "But we can do better.

According to Stuart, the state spends on average $17,000 per student, the highest in the country.

"Although by national standards Vermont is always ranked amongst the top five states in education outcomes, we are mid-range in New England," she said. "Achievement in our state based on the income gap has remained unchanged for the past 10 years. With a Secretary of Education in the governor's cabinet, he or she can convey a unified vision to deliver better education outcomes."

House Bill 753 will provide financial and other incentives for school districts to merge and supervisory unions to offer joint services and strengthen the state's education system, she added.

"By encouraging Vermonters to look beyond the walls of a school or the boundaries of a town and to collaborate with their neighbors, it'll expand opportunities for our state's students and increase their level of achievement," Stuart said.

Currently there are a dozen studies under way for merger consideration and although no district has voted to merge into a unified union district, there has been an increase in shared services and resources among districts, she said.

In addition to everything else the Legislature was working on, just before the session ended last week the House of Representatives voted 103-36 to make Vermont the first state to ban the practice of hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" for natural gas.

Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from deep within the earth by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under high pressure into dense rock formations to release the gas.

Sen. Peter Galbraith, D-Windham, said the bill was originally stalled in the Natural Resources Committee where it initially lost on a 2-3 vote that was later reversed in Senate Finance after a compromise was reached.

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"The compromise enabled Vermont to go forward with small scale clean energy projects by expanding the standard offer and provides an opportunity to revisit next year the larger scale that would have been encouraged by the so-called renewable portfolio standard," he said. "The compromise will save ratepayers money and will give the state the chance to examine the environmental consequences of industrial wind and large scale biomass."

Although geologists have said there is "little" natural gas under Vermont, there are some shale deposits in the northwest corner of the state that could be of interest for natural gas extraction, but Stuart was firmly against any exploration.

"I feel strongly that we need to know what chemicals are being injected into the ground before opening the door to this practice," she said. "After all, this is about protecting our most precious resource, our groundwater. Until we have answers to many questions regarding the effect of fracking on air and water quality, as well as seismic activity, we should not permit this practice. I am glad Vermont set a precedent by banning fracking."

Mrowicki said he voted to ban fracking because of the effects that towns in New York and Pennsylvania are seeing as neighbors are pitted against one another while "toxic chemicals" are pumped into the earth.

Looking ahead to the next legislative session, Edwards said there are two bills that she wished would have gone forward but is confident will be brought up again.

"Death with dignity and the labeling of (Genetically Modified Organisms) I think both of these issues will return again over the next few years," she said.

Edwards added that she's also concerned about the state getting stuck with the decommissioning costs when Vermont's only nuclear power plant, Vermont Yankee, is finally shut down.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has consistently under estimated these costs," she said. "With all of the problems over the years, the cost is likely to be higher than is predicted by the NRC."

Mrowicki said he wished the Legislature could have been able to address the growing prescription drug abuse problem in the state.

When asked what they thought were the biggest problems facing the state, most responded with global problems affecting the state locally.

With low unemployment rates, a sustainable economic plan and health care reform, Mrowicki said the biggest problems facing the state are global climate change, worldwide economic instability and energy uncertainty outside of the state.

"Localization and stronger communities will hold us in good stead but we are affected by world trends," he said.

Galbraith said aside from environmental degradation, the biggest problem comes from well connected companies like utilities that get their way too often.

"Legislators should be the people's lobbyist," he said.

Edwards agreed with Mrowicki and Galbraith about global climate change and its economic impacts and added health care to what she thought was among the biggest challenges.

Stuart said it was creating good paying jobs that make it possible for young people to settle in Vermont and raise a family after college.

In Windham County in particular, there's a trend of people younger than 44 years old leaving the state and people older than that moving in, she said.

"As a state we need to reverse this trend or we will face a workforce shortage," Stuart said. "We also need to do a better job as a state in terms of workforce development so that Vermonters will have the skills necessary to do the jobs that are already here and need to be filled."

Josh Stilts can be reached at jstilts@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.


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