Vermont State Legislators returned to Montpelier this week 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.