In the annual sausage-making race at the Statehouse, some years are more than productive than others. Sometimes fistfights over the budget or tax bills grind everything else to a halt. Or a single important issue, like gay marriage or health care reform, can gum up the works by blocking the amount of attention lawmakers can give smaller bills and push back passage of the Big Bill, the budget, one of the last pieces of legislation to go through the General Assembly each year.
The 2012 legislative session hasn’t had one of those show-stoppers yet, and has been remarkable for its machine-like productivity. By the Town Meeting Day week break, the House had passed 36 bills (including unusually uncontroversial redistricting legislation); the Senate (which is on a different timeframe) has approved 22. The governor has signed six pieces of legislation, and as of March 2, four bills were awaiting his endorsement.
Speaker of the House Shap Smith is pleased with the first half of the session. Representatives have passed bills on the Vermont State Hospital replacement plan, the budget adjustment act, a property tax proposal, a health care reform provision, legal protections for vulnerable adults, funding for towns hit by Irene and solid waste recycling. (Not to mention two declarations the state couldn’t function without: the state fish is now the brook trout and walleye pike, and the state sports are skiing and snowboarding.)
“It’s been a really productive beginning of the session and relatively smooth and extraordinarily tripartisan,” Smith said.
So far, so good. So good, in fact, Smith is predicting a 16-week session — an April 27 adjournment. The last time the Legislature adjourned in such an attenuated time frame was 2008. Lawmakers have 18 weeks to get their business done, and in recent years, sessions have more often than not hit the 17-week mark. Historically, adjournments have been all over the map — in the early 2000s, legislators stayed in Montpelier into June; in 1998, lawmakers left after just 106 days.
There are, as any lawmaker knows, no guarantees as far as the schedule goes. A lot can happen in the coming seven weeks — the death with dignity/physician assisted suicide bill (I use both terms of endearment, since no one can agree on what to call it), the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund or the state office complex replacement plan could blow up. You never know.
But given the size of the Democratic majority (Republicans like to call it the supermajority), accord with the Progressives and a peace agreement from the House GOP, speedy adjournment seems more likely than not. House Minority Leader Don Turner says as long as his members get a fiscal note on any bill that has an impact on the budget and has enough time to read bills, especially the most complex and controversial legislation, his caucus will allow the House to suspend the rules as needed.
“Shap wants to be done April 27, and I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t get there,” Turner said. “We’re not going to hold it up, we believe it’s important to get these bills done. Once we’ve made our case on the floor, we’ve done it. I don’t see using process to stall things is going to do any good once we’ve aired our concerns.”
That Kumbaya mood sets the stage for fast passage, and given the Senate’s partisan makeup (only eight GOP members) and the ability to push through bills in one sitting, a pre-May end date is a realistic.
Typically, House representatives pitch between 300 to 400 bills a biennium. (The all-time low was 134 bills in 1976 and the high was 602 in 1991.) Over the last 20 years, about 17 percent of bills proposed on average make it past the gauntlet of full passage in both the House and Senate and approval by the governor.
Some bills, of course, are must-pass. The Legislature has to OK an annual budget for state government, for example. Adjustments to the state’s tax and fee systems are per usual. And then there are the transportation and capital bills, which are a laundry list of the state’s investments in infrastructure projects.
Other bills are gravy on the train to adjournment and address the concerns of constituents, businesses, nonprofits, school leaders and the courts.
This week is that crucial turning point in the Legislature, known as “crossover,” when bills either come “off the wall” (each committee has a bulletin board covered with bill numbers) and get voted out of committee or languish until the next biennium.
In this roundup of key legislation, VTDigger.org takes stock of what bills are in play between now and the end of the session. We will be publishing a summary of what bills have already passed in part two of this series.
Scroll down to State Office Complex
Scroll down to Patient-directed death legislation re-emerges
Scroll down to Health care exchange proposal on track in Senate
Scroll down to School district restructuring, take two
Vermont State Hospital
The House and Senate conferees are ready to rumble. The two bodies have agreed to disagree on one main sticking point — just how many beds the state will build for a psychiatric facility that will replace the Vermont State Hospital, which was damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. The two bodies are in alignment on the main thrust of the legislation, H.630, but they beg to differ on the size of the facility.
The House wants 25 beds; the Senate wants 16 beds, the same number the governor has supported. Both sides, at this point, are standing firm, though a likely compromise would be a 16-bed facility with an option to expand to 25 beds.
Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell said it comes down to philosophical differences. He characterized the House push for 25 beds as more focused on institutionalized care, while the Senate model is a shift toward a more diffuse, community system.
“This is the first issue where we’ve had some real clear differences with the House over support for 25 beds,” Campbell said. “Clinically, what we’re also looking for is a more community-based model. I believe if we went larger than 16 we could be jeopardizing that model. It’s a point of difference but one I believe we’ll be able to work through on both sides.”
Speaker Smith expects a vigorous debate. The House’s strong vote on 25 beds, he said makes sense clinically. “This is the most core function of state government,” Smith said. “We have to be fiscally prudent, but it can’t be the only thing that drives decisions.”
According to a report on Sunday by Peter Hirschfeld of the Vermont Press Bureau, officials at the Department of Buildings and General Services are submitting site plans that call for a 25-bed facility.
Campbell says the permitting plans aren’t necessarily an indication of which way the legislation will go. “I think it’s smart on their part that they did that,” Campbell said. “It’s easier to go back down than repermit. Since the number 25 is in air, it’s logical they would permit for that number.”
Alice Emmons, chair of the House Institutions and Corrections Committee, says the permitting site plan doesn’t mean the deal is a fait accompli. “That’s just a reporter’s report,” Emmons said. “We have not made any decisions.”
It’s typical for Buildings and Grounds to move ahead with larger permits and to build structures in anticipation of changes down the road, Emmons said. She cited the Springfield prison, Southern State Correctional Facility, as an example. The prison was permitted for 500 inmates, but was built to house 350. She also pointed to the Statehouse cafeteria addition, which was built with enough load bearing capacity to accommodate a second story.
The conferees will duke it out on Tuesday and Wednesday in a series of practically back to back meetings. The meetings are at noon and 5 p.m. on Tuesday, and 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. on Wednesday.
The conferees include: Emmons, Rep. Sandy Haas (a Progressive and member of House Human Services), Rep. Ann Pugh (chair of House Human Services), Sen. Claire Ayer (chair of the conference committee and chair of Senate Health and Welfare), Sen. Bob Hartwell (chair of Senate Institutions), and Sen. Kevin Mullin (a Republican and a member of Senate Health and Welfare).
State Office Complex
Questions outnumber answers as lawmakers try to absorb the 500-page feasibility study that was released last Friday for the replacement of the Waterbury state office complex damaged by Tropical Storm Irene. Estimates for four different proposals to replace the facility, which once housed about 1,500 workers, came in at a whopping $108 million to $142 million, and it’s unclear just how much the state’s insurance company and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will compensate the state.
Rep. Alice Emmons, chair of House Institutions, said lawmakers will hear a presentation from the Burlington firm Freeman French Freeman at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The state office complex is the main infrastructure investment the Legislature will address in the Capital Bill. The committee is set to vote out the bill the week of March 19.
Emmons said the feasibility study gives the committee a good place to start. Freeman French Freeman assessed the existing buildings at the Waterbury complex, their vulnerability to future flooding and estimated the cost to rehabilitate each of the structures. “It gives you a basis to really look at the flood mitigation issue,” Emmons said.
She particularly appreciated the historical analysis. In 1927, for example, the water came into the tunnel system under the complex, just like it did with Irene. From the 1930s to the 1970s, the state built closer and closer to the Winooski River, she said, and this exacerbated the concentration of flooding.
The big takeaway for Emmons is the long-term costs associated with maintaining the Waterbury site — whether the state rebuilds there or not.
“No matter what we do with the complex, even if we decide to put it up for sale, we still have to invest money in it,” Emmons said. “We know we have to move the power plant. We know we have to renovate the mechanical infrastructure. It would be a tremendous investment, even if we put it on the market. If we mothball it, there will be ongoing maintenance.”
Building a brand new facility elsewhere has its own problems, Emmons said. The state would need to buy land, install water and sewer systems and pay for permits that she says would cost a lot more than $120 million (the Freeman French Freeman estimate).
“To have those comparisons is very helpful,” Emmons said. “We’ll see where people go. We need to get a direction in place before the end of session so FEMA knows what we’re doing.”
Campbell, the leader of the Senate, is disinclined to rebuild in Waterbury. He’s worried the facility will be vulnerable to molds and toxins that could threaten the health of state workers. He pointed to the Bennington state office building and employees who contracted sarcoidosis, a lung ailment, as a result of mold and and other toxins.
“I don’t support putting our people back where their health could be in jeopardy,” Campbell said. “I think the only option is … complete rebuilding.”
Campbell said his “heart goes out” for people in Waterbury, and the state will do everything it can to help the town, but “we have to really look at whether we can afford to finance that kind of a project (renovation).”
Stormwater study would look at fees for “impervious surfaces”
Rep. David Deen, chair of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee, says he’ll introduce a bill on Tuesday that would set the stage for a new program designed to prevent pollution from flowing into Lake Champlain. He expects the draft legislation to come out of committee on Friday.
The bill calls for the formation of an advisory committee that would find ways to pay for new stormwater treatment infrastructure that would prevent runoff — and the noxious phosphates that go with it — from flowing into Lake Champlain.
“Impervious surfaces push (the runoff) into the waterways quickly and makes the rivers more “flashy,” they go up more quickly and go down more quickly,” Deen said.
The study committee would determine whether the state should move ahead with a small annual fee that would be assessed on impervious surfaces.
Deen says homeowners and businesses could pay a fee based on the square footage of rooftops, roadways and parking lots. The money would be used to create settlement ponds, swales and roadside ditches that would slow stormwater runoff from rushing into the lake.
Vermont has hundreds of square miles of impervious surfaces, Deen estimates, and if all parcels were included in the bill, an annual fee for property owners on average could cost roughly $30.
The city of South Burlington already has a stormwater utility in place that sets a fee against impervious surfaces, Deen says stakeholders, namely businesses, municipalities and farmers, are interested in helping to build a similar program for the state, but they say a more comprehensive stormwater control program isn’t ready for prime time. Hence, the study.
“We have a model, we know that it works, but the interest groups don’t seem to be ready to do it on a statewide scale,” Deen said. “If we did this, we are still on a 50-year timeframe to deal with the pollution that’s going into Lake Champlain. If we never start, the years get longer.”
Patient-directed death legislation re-emerges
Sen. Dick Sears will hold a hearing Wednesday morning on a “patient-directed death” bill and then take additional testimony in his committee, Senate Judiciary.
S.103 would allow patients with a terminal illness to end their lives with legally obtained prescription drugs. Disability rights groups and religious institutions oppose the legislation.
Sears told Seven Days he didn’t think the bill had the votes to pass in the Senate, but he’s holding the hearing on behalf of a group of constituents from an independent living center in Burlington.
Until now, the legislation has languished because Senate leader Campbell has been outspoken in his opposition, and he has done little to encourage lawmakers to move it forward. Campbell said though he could have put the “kibosh” on Sears’ hearings this week, he wouldn’t stand in the way of the bill if it has support in the Senate. Eleven senators have endorsed the bill.
“If they want to have hearings, I don’t mind the debate,” Campbell said. “I don’t think there are the votes there but who knows people can change at the last minute.”
Campbell made a promise to his dying mother he would never support legislation that would allow people to take their own lives.
“I’m personally going to vote against it,” Campbell said. “I have an issue with the bill itself from a legal standpoint. It puts physicians in awkward position especially those with longtime relationships with patients.”
If the bill gets to the floor and two senators had a change of heart, the vote could be close and could open the possibility of Lt. Gov. Phil Scott resolving a tie.
Under a commerce bill, contractors would be certified; laid-off workers can receive benefits and start new businesses
What’s the difference between a contractor and an employee?
That’s the question the House Commerce and Economic Development attempted to answer when it drafted H.762. The “housekeeping” bill cleans up language for reforms to the workers compensation and unemployment insurance programs.
One of the provisions in the bill would require contractors to certify that they are operating independent businesses. Rep. Bill Botzow, chair of House Commerce, says too many workers are being misclassified as contractors in Vermont. Lawmakers want to tighten up the rules so that companies that are doing the right thing aren’t inadvertently put at a disadvantage.
“Those classifying employees correctly are paying more than they need to into a pool,” Botzow said. “Those who are misclassifying contractors that should be classified as employees hurts all the people in the program.”
Botzow says the bill will hopefully foster a climate of compliance with the workers compensation law and make the system fairer for employers. Right now some employers are paying more than others for workers compensation. He called the intentional misclassification of employees as contractors a “cost shift.” On the other hand, some employers were reluctant to hire independent contractors for fear they might get caught with penalties if the Department of Labor questioned whether the workers were employees.
The new annual authorization program would be a process by which a contractor certified that he or she was operating an independent business in an agreement with another company.
The bill also makes emergency volunteers — firefighters and emergency medical technicians — eligible for workers compensation.
In addition, the legislation would allow laid off workers to start their own businesses without losing unemployment benefits from the Department of Labor.
2013 Budget: Shumlin administration backs off some human services budget cuts
Rep. Martha Heath, chair of House Appropriations, has seen a lot of budgets over the years, and this one, she says, is one of the least controversial she’s been involved in drafting for a while. “I hate to say that too soon,” Heath said. But after four years of heavy lifting and hundreds of millions of dollars in reductions in the growth of state government, this year’s $50 million gap between revenues and expenditures makes the work of the hardest working committee in the Statehouse a lot lighter.
Meanwhile, state revenues have dropped $9.9 million since the beginning of the year, and the warm winter weather and the poor ski season could contribute to further downgrades. Heath said lawmakers can cover the loss in revenues with reserves, if needed. The state has set aside $13 million in the Agency of Human Services caseload reserve, $3.9 million for revenue shortfalls and $1.9 million for federal cuts. There is also $3 million in unanticipated revenue coming from the attorney general’s settlement with big banks.
Heath holds out hope that the economy will improve. “Last year things weren’t looking great in January and February, but March and April pulled us through,” Heath said. “April will be the big month. People will be keeping an eye on that.”
The Shumlin administration has backed off reductions to a suite of human services programs, Heath said, including $900,000 in reductions to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and about $800,000 in combined cuts to area agencies on aging, case management for senior citizens living in enhanced residential care facilities (which don’t receive the same scrutiny by the state that nursing homes do) and adult day centers for elderly Vermonters with dementia and Alzheimers.
The House Human Services Committee pushed back on the cuts. Read the House Human Services memo to House Appropriations, February 2012.
The so-called autism mandate was another budget cut that dissolved as the administration took a harder look at the actual cost to provide support for children with the developmental disability. The $10 million in Medicaid expenditures that Shumlin looked to excise dropped to less than $500,000. Heath said the House appropriations bill will include a delay for implementing the requirement for Medicaid services because there is a separate bill in the Senate that addresses the expenditure change.
Don Turner, the House GOP leader, said his caucus has proposed bills to reinstate government efficiency programs reminiscent of Challenges for Change that would encourage department managers to look for ways to save money across state government.
Heath said that kind of belt-tightening has been standard operating procedure in state government for some time. “Managers have been doing that constantly for the last five years when as we’ve been trying to close budget gaps,” she said.
House Appropriations will vote the bill out of committee next week. “That’s the plan,” Heath said. “We’ll see hopefully nothing too hard to solve will raise its ugly head.”
Tax legislation includes cigarillos, environmental fees, downtown tax credits, changes to income sensitivity
Taxes and budget go together like peanut butter and jelly. You can’t have one without the other. And typically, the tax and fee bills go first to ensure that the state has budgeted on adequate projected revenues.
This year, because the session started early (right on the heels of the New Year, if you recall), the tax and budget debates are the third week of March (that is, next week), instead of the last week of the month.
The House has already passed revenue-generating legislation — namely a fee bill for the Department of Motor Vehicles that increases rates for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations, a one penny increase to the statewide property tax and a provision that would push surplus funds toward the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund to make up for $27.5 million in “rebasing” that will have a 3-cent impact on local property taxpayers.
Speaker Smith is unmovable on the rebasing issue, despite opposition from the Fifth Floor and the Senate.
“The House will work to ensure that we do everything in our power to bring the transfer up,” Smith said. “If there are surpluses in future years, I expect any final budget will include language allocating some of surpluses to an increase in the transfer.”
Another bill that came out committee before the Town Meeting Day break would allow the state to collect local property taxes. The legislation passed 6-5, and though it will likely make the floor soon, its passage is uncertain. Language to provide exemptions to lawyers and real estate appraisers under new privacy requirements for property taxpayers under a Vermont Supreme Court decision is tacked onto the bill.
Part two of the fee bill — the environmental permitting fees — will hit the floor this week, once the House Ways and Means Committee has resolved questions regarding the thermal discharge fee for Vermont Yankee. The administration originally proposed a fee north of half a million; now it is looking at $210,000, and in reaction to the mood swing, the committee wants to hear a justification for what the funds will be used for.
A change in the fees for gravel or earth extraction is causing consternation among businesses that cut granite or dig sand out of the ground. The fee is now 20 cents a cubic yard of estimated material extracted for the largest amount removed year in a five or 10 year period. The Department of Environmental Conservation wants granite companies and gravel pits to pay a lower fee — 3 cents a cubic foot — but for the total amount of material extracted over the life of the permit, which in some cases can be 25 or 30 years.
Janet Ancel, chair of House Ways and Means, says her committee is looking for middle ground on that proposal.
Lawmakers are concerned about tire dumps at landfills in Milton, Bristol and around the state that they say could become a health hazard — think mosquitoes and West Nile virus — and a potential threat to air quality, should a fire break out in one of the “tire piles.” The department is looking at a $200,000 solid waste project to identify the sites and measure the number of tires. Eventually, the Legislature may look to increase tire fees to pay for statewide cleanup, Ancel said.
The miscellaneous tax bill is, well, miscellaneous. The legislation which will be voted out of committee later this week, will increase the tax on cigarillos, redefine the petroleum distribution fee, and raise the downtown tax credit program for property owners in towns hit by Irene from $325,000 to $500,000.
Ancel said her committee has rejected an administration proposal that would lower the maximum amount of the income sensitivity rebate from $8,000 to $6,000 and generate about $1 million. An analysis showed that the change would hit lower income households, she said.
The miscellaneous bill will also sunset an income sensitivity provision that included an income and dividend calculation for taxpayers who own property worth more than $500,000. Though the legislation keeps the cap on property values at $500,000, it allows the interest and dividend measures of wealth to lapse. Ancel said the program, which was adopted at the last minute by the Senate a few years ago, was “terribly complicated” and hit retirees hardest.
House Ways and Means will take up separate legislation addressing the so-called “cloud” tax on software.
Health care exchange proposal on track in Senate
Conservative senators may look to water down H.559 further — perhaps allowing businesses to buy insurance from brokers off the exchange — but given the political makeup of the Senate that shift seems unlikely.
The Shumlin administration already made a preventive strike last month when it decided to allow high deductible benefit plans and kept mid-sized companies with 50 to 100 employees out of the exchange market.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, says he wants the state to base its exchange on the minimum requirements under the federal law.
“The (insurance) pool is the same whether businesses are inside or outside exchange,” Mullin said. “Someone has to sell me on requiring everyone to be in the exchange. There may be a very good reason.”
The House is taking up a bill on Tuesday that would limit health insurance broker’s fees.
Floodplain insurance, river management tied together in one package
Tropical Storm Irene and damage wrought by spring flooding last year, including record water levels for Lake Champlain, have brought the issues of river management and flood insurance into sharp relief.
Senate legislation, S.202, to be introduced as a committee bill, will bring the state into compliance with FEMA so that residents can be eligible for flood insurance.
Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-S. Burlington, said towns must have floodplain bylaws that regulate development in order for residents to obtain federal flood insurance. The new legislation does not however, mandate that municipalities adopt development regulations, she said. Instead, most towns are moving toward better planning voluntarily before Irene, there were 38 towns without zoning. Now just 14 towns don’t have development regulations.
Lyons also wants the state to map all river hazard areas, or locations where a river could change course in a severe storm (as happened during Irene).
School district restructuring, take two
The Senate Education committee is considering a mandatory redistricting bill for Vermont’s schools. S.194, proposed by Sen. Mullin from Rutland, would reduce the number of supervisory districts from 60 to 16. Mullin envisions a system that would be organized around existing tech centers around the state to, as the bill states, “promote increased efficiency, convenience and cost-effectiveness and to facilitate K-12 curriculum planning.”
It’s an idea that’s been in circulation for some years now (remember former Department of Education commissioner Richard Cate’s white paper on the subject?), and it’s just as controversial as ever.
Mullin said his proposal has been met with alarm by the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association.
“They see it as a conflict with Act 153, and they want to give Act 153 a chance,” Mullin said.
The Legislature passed a voluntary school consolidation program for schools that are willing to become part of REDs or regional education districts. The law, Act 153, includes modest financial support for schools that are interested in consolidating. Taxpayers in local districts must approve the REDs. So far, few consolidation efforts have been successful.
Other education legislation in the hopper this year includes school choice, a bill that would enable high school students to enroll in college classes for credit, and legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a secretary of education.
Editor’s note: Sections on tax and education bills were added at 6:45 a.m.