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.

 

Education Reform

Revisions to Act 46, the education reform law that passed last year, took a considerable amount of time during the first month of the session.  In the end, while there were some modifications made to the spending caps in Act 46, there has yet to be any movement on ensuring that school districts that currently provide high quality education in an efficient and cost-effective way, like Stowe and many others, will be able to remain in tact and continue to do so.  Legislative leadership has also refused to support any change to Act 46 that would allow the long tradition of school choice in the 90+ Vermont communities that have enjoyed it, to be maintained regardless of merger decisions.  I have introduced a bill with a bipartisan list of co-sponsors that would do this, but it continues to be ignored in the House Education Committee.

State Spending/Budgets

As has been the case for the last several years, we returned to Montpelier in January facing another year of spending that outpaced revenues.  Unfortunately, this has become the new normal in Montpelier.  Unlike families and businesses across this state that have to live within their means, we refuse to ensure that our state government does the same.

As a result, once again this year, we were required to adjust the current year’s budget significantly.  In fact, the Budget Adjustment Bill that the House completed work on just last week increased expenditures for this current year by $91.8 million.

With regard to the Fiscal Year 2017 budget, the House Appropriations Committee continues its work on that front.  The Governor’s budget proposal increases spending by 4.1% over the FY 2016 Budget passed last year, and 3.2% over the Adjusted 2016 Budget that we just passed.  Of course, as has become the norm, these increase exceed the underlying growth in our economy. 

Health Care

If you recall, in the spring of 2015, in response to many of us calling for change, the Governor set a deadline of May 31, 2015 to have Vermont Health Connect’s “change of circumstances” functionality in place and working.  He also indicated that the automated system that would allow for customers to sign up for plans online would be in place by the fall 2015.  And, most importantly, at that time Shumlin made clear that if either of the two deadlines were missed, we would begin the process of transitioning to the federal exchange or to a state-federal hybrid model.

Even more strident at the time was House Speaker Shap Smith.  He made it very clear that if the May deadline passed, we would begin the transition.  "If nearly two years after we try to bring the exchange online, we still don't have an exchange that works in an effective way, then I believe that we need to move to another system," he said on Vermont Public Radio.

So where are we now after over two years, an estimated $198.7 million setting up Vermont Health Connect, and an additional projected $103.6 million on 2015 and 2016 VHC operations?

Well, the “change of circumstances” function is still not working, thousands of Vermonters continue to be in the limbo “backlog,” and VHC is essentially a mess.  Yet despite the problems and promises, we continue to double down and dig deeper. 

Economic Growth

There is some work being done on this front in both the House and Senate Economic Development Committees.  Unfortunately, it is really too early to tell what of substance might emerge.

I am hopeful that by the end of the session we will have come together to take advantage of the incredible opportunities provided to our small state by the new, independent workforce.  I am also hopeful that we build on some of the initiatives we put into place over the last few years with regard to tax policy, housing, and access to capital.