Commentary

Vermont State Legislators returned to Montpelier on January 3, 2018 facing significant, although not unexpected, challenges. 

While last year, thanks to the leadership of Governor Phil Scott, we passed a state budget that did not rely on any increased taxes or fees, it is clear now that it was merely a first step in trying to restore fiscal responsibility and sustainability to our state government. For too many years prior, we increased state spending by a far larger percentage than our economy grew, simply giving the bill to our hard-working Vermont families and businesses in the form of increased taxes and fees.  Not surprisingly, this resulted in investment being constrained, and anemic economic growth.

Now, even as we worked together to find real savings last year, we still face a $45 million budget gap for Fiscal Year 2019, so the finding of greater efficiencies and belt-tightening must continue.

At the same time, however, we must make greater investments in policies that will support our entrepreneurs and small businesses so that they are encouraged to seek greater capital and invest in their employees, and in equipment and infrastructure.

Some of the initiatives I would like to focus on in this regard include regulatory streamlining and reform, reducing the capital gains tax if those gains are reinvested in a Vermont company; securing increased funding for our tourism and economic development marketing; and avoiding any increased taxes and state mandates that will make it more difficult for Vermont families and businesses to succeed and prosper.

As important as the development of a responsible state budget and sound policies to encourage growth are issues about which I continue to have serious concerns.

The first of these is our unsustainable education funding system and ever-increasing property taxes.  While frustrating, it is no surprise to me that we are facing another 7.32% increase in property taxes next year (an average of 9.4 cents).  For the last 11 years, I have fought diligently for meaningful reform to our education funding system – reform that would provide real property tax relief.  After all, it is the actual funding system that causes the spending increases, and therefore, the property tax increases each year.  When an individual is not connected to money spent as a result of the budget voted upon, than you will always see spending increases.  Consider the analogy of living in an apartment for which somebody else pays the electric or fuel bills.  Inevitably, there will be lights on when not necessary, and thermostats turned up extremely high.

Yet, year after year, these repeated efforts at meaningful reform have been unsuccessful, as too many in Montpelier don’t believe the system is unsustainable; don’t believe the system is broken; don’t believe it needs real reform.

I’ve never understood the dismissal by Montpelier of the underlying structural problems in our system.  After all, we stand on the sidelines and watch as educational spending and property taxes on Vermonters skyrocket, and our student’s educational outcomes have had no discernable improvement.  In fact, recent news suggests our state’s educational outcomes are actually falling.

Meanwhile, from those sidelines, we place the blame at the foot of our school boards and local voters.  But, in reality, those local boards and voters have simply been trying to provide students with the education they deserve and support their schools within the framework we have given them.

And, even when we do claim to have a resolution, it is inevitably a “solution” that wrests more and more control from local districts and voters and puts it in the hands of state government.  Act 46 is a perfect example.

While progress on this has been stymied in the past, I am an eternal optimist, and am hopeful that this year we will put politics aside and come together to support meaningful reform that ensures decisions are made at the local level, and that reconnects voters to the budgets voted upon and money spent.  Vermonters deserve no less.

In addition, I have significant concerns about the direction in which our so-called “health care reform” effort is heading.  For example, it is very difficult for me to comprehend why it’s a bad thing, according to the Green Mountain Care Board (GMCB), to build a successful orthopedic surgery practice in our region.  Why is it a bad thing that individuals want to have their surgeries done at Copley instead of the UVM Medical Center?  Why is it bad that patients have that choice?  Clearly, the demand is there because the surgical center provides a high quality product with high quality health outcomes.  Only in the scary world of centralized planning is this a bad thing.

On this issue, my plea to Governor Scott and to my colleagues in the legislature is to really understand what the consequences are to Vermonters of what we are doing in the name of reform.  From the time the GMCB was first proposed, I expressed significant concerns with the power this 5-member, unelected body was going to have over our health care.  And, clearly, the adverse impacts about which I had concerns are being realized.  My goal this year, therefore, is to ensure that Vermonters will continue to have the ability to choose our own doctors and providers and not be forced by the GMCB to facilities and/or providers with whom we do not feel comfortable, or in whom we don’t have confidence. 

Of course, there are many more issues on which we will all be focused this session.  If anything is of interest to you, please contact me with any questions or concerns.  I can be reached at 253-9314 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

May 17, 2016

The gavel fell on the Vermont General Assembly's 2015-2016 Legislative Biennium late Friday, May 6, 2016.  And, while there are usually myriad opinions of how successful legislative sessions are, there is not much disagreement about this one being one of the least productive in recent memory.

This is especially the case in my view when considering the lack of any substantive measure at all that would have helped to grow our state’s economy.

So what did we do?

April 21, 2016

With just a few weeks remaining until the 2015-2016 Legislative Biennium concludes, various items are still being developed in both the House and Senate.  Unfortunately, none of the items being considered will put us back on a path of fiscal responsibility and real economic growth.

The Fiscal Year 2017 budget that passed the House raises General Fund spending by 4% this year, meaning a Comparable Annual Growth Rate over the last five years of 4.6%.    As most of us clearly understand, this is continues to be well above both the rate of inflation and the underlying economic growth in Vermont.

In fact, the total budget – excluding federal funds and education spending – is $2.45 billion in FY 2017.  This is an over $575 million increase since FY 2011.  And, how do we pay for this spending?  By instituting additional and higher taxes and fees on Vermont families and businesses over the last six years.  The tax and fee increases being proposed this year total $48 million, making a two-year total increase of $96.7 million.

April 7, 2016

I am pleased to report that a bill designed to increase housing opportunities for the Vermont workforce is progressing very well in the House of Representatives.  In fact, it is expected to come up for action this week on the House floor.

The bill, H. 865, does two things.  First, it would put into place pilot projects that would help fund infrastructure improvements in municipalities to support the development of workforce housing.  And, second, it would extend the very successful First Time Homebuyer Down Payment Assistance Program to ensure it becomes the revolving loan fund that we envisioned when we began the program last year.

March 24, 206

As much of the focus of activities in Montpelier are on the budget and taxes, I am very proud to report that the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, on which I serve, passed out a bill, unanimously, that clarifies the laws governing employers, employees, and independent contractors with regard to workers' compensation and unemployment insurance. 

Along with colleagues from across the political spectrum, I have fought diligently throughout the years, to do something that would ensure the many protections for workers historically in place are maintained, while ensuring that we position our state as a place in which the new, independent and collaborative workforce is encouraged to grow and invest.

The bill that was voted out of our committee, H. 867, does just that.

March 3, 2016

As the Vermont Legislature breaks for Town Meeting Day recess after eight weeks of work, it is appropriate that we ask ourselves what we have accomplished for the people of Vermont in that time.

February 18, 2016

Jessica is a website developer.  After years of working for a company, she leaves that employ to open her own website development business.  After some time, she finds great success in obtaining contracts with various entities to do website design work.  One of these entities is her former employer.  That former employer contracts with her to do work on their website, newsletter, and blog.  The only direction she receives from that company is a deadline to get the job done, and the content that is to be used.  How and when the items are completed are her decisions. 

Do Vermonters know that because Jessica had done this type of work for her former employer in the past, she must be classified as an employee of the company now? 

Do Vermonters know that, although Jessica has hung her own shingle and contracts with several other entities, that she cannot be considered an independent contractor in this case?

This is the new dilemma we are facing as a state.

February 4, 2016

One month into the legislative session, with most school budgets already completed and ready for March Town Meeting Day, a legislative “fix” to the spending caps included in last year’s education reform law, Act 46, passed the House last week.  While Governor Shumlin and the Senate had preferred an all-out repeal of the allowable growth percentage provisions of Act 46, the final agreement increased that allowable percentage by .9%, and lowered the penalties for exceeding the percentage to 40% of every dollar spent over the threshold.

Meanwhile, the two issues with the new law about which I have heard most – the 900-pupil threshold in the Preferred Governance Structure defined in Act 46, and the impossibility of many communities that have enjoyed a long tradition of school choice to continue that tradition if they want to merge with another district – have yet to be discussed in any depth. 

I was, therefore, pleased to be invited into the House Education Committee to present two pieces of legislation I’ve introduced to address both of these challenges.

January 21, 2016

Frustrations are mounting in Montpelier, and throughout the state, over the real-life consequences of the ill-advised and poorly thought out education reform law passed last year (Act 46).  While the intention of the law was clearly to merge school districts and eliminate much of the little amount of local control we have left as communities, many other challenges are now rearing their heads.

Just seven months ago, Governor Shumlin and legislative leaders were patting themselves on the back for the excellent work they did on education reform.  Now, however, that tone has changed.  The challenges resulting from the spending threshold has seen the Governor call for a repeal and others for significant modifications to it, and the disingenuous assertion that school choice would be maintained under merged districts still have communities reeling.

Now, a new wrinkle has emerged.