Commentary

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.

The 2017 Vermont General Assembly adjourned its legislative session on May 18, 2017.

Frankly, that day’s adjournment was a very disappointing end to an otherwise relatively good legislative session.  And, as most who know me know well, I don’t say that lightly. 

I have spent years frustrated by the ever-present desire by the Democratic legislative leadership to simply raise taxes and fees on our hard-working Vermont families and businesses to pay for unsustainable increases in state spending.  Thankfully, this year was different.

With two weeks left in the 2017 Legislative Session, it is time for Vermonters to really start paying attention.  After all, this is the time that just about anything can happen.

The most recent dust up came late last week when the Vermont NEA, the statewide teacher's union, blasted Governor Phil Scott for working with the Vermont School Boards Association and the Vermont Superintendents Association to develop and propose a new Statewide Health Benefit for teachers and school employees that will provide $26 million in savings to Vermonters.

The proposal would create a new Vermont Education Health Initiative (VEHI) plan for school employees that would cost substantially less than the current plans, while ensuring that all teachers and school employees would not pay more.  In the end, the proposal would save Vermonters $26 million to invest in other priorities.

As expected, two weeks ago, the Vermont House passed a Fiscal Year 2018 Budget that does not rely on any new or increased taxes and fees.  As I said at the time, I don't recall the last time I voted for a budget – it certainly has been years if I have – but, I was pleased to lend my support to it this year.

My goal throughout my years in the House has been to start to rein in our state spending and live within our means.  I have long felt that we can create responsible state budgets that increase investments in certain areas, find efficiencies in state government and its programs and services, reduce spending where responsible, and protect the most vulnerable – all without raising taxes and fees.  And, while I probably would have made some different decisions in this particular budget, the Appropriations Committee has started us down the path to fiscal responsibility.

With just seven weeks remaining in the 2017 Legislative Session, there remains a great deal to do.  And, while much of what might be on the horizon is problematic, there is some good news to report.

One of the most challenging tasks before us this year – to develop a budget without increasing taxes and fees – seems to be relatively on track, at least on the part of the House.

While the budget that will be presented to the full Vermont House this week has not been completed as of this writing, from all reports, it will be a budget that does not rely on any new taxes or fees.  This is very good news!

In all of my years in the House, I do not recall a time when the Democratic leadership in the House did not fight for (and pass) significantly increased revenues to pay for significantly increased spending.  This year, however, with Governor Phil Scott in the corner office, it has been made clear that a veto is imminent if it increases taxes and fees on Vermonters.

As Vermont Legislators return to Montpelier this week after the Town Meeting Day break, there are a number of items on the docket.  I, for one, am hopeful that one of them is going to be significant progress on the important issue of independent contractors.  Specifically, I would like to see progress on H. 119, a bill I introduced with a bipartisan group of cosponsors.

 

As Vermonters know very well, our state has a long tradition of independence.  One manifestation of that independence throughout the years has been in work. 

 

For greater flexibility and autonomy, and greater control over their destinies, many Vermonters have chosen to work for themselves, and be what we now call independent contractors.

 

Over the course of the years, conflict has arisen with our worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance laws.  In the past, this conflict has mostly been in the construction industry – with general contractors hiring sub contractors to do specific parts of the job.  The Department of Labor or insurance companies themselves then determine through an audit that a subcontractor should have been classified as an employee.

 

This conflict has now reared its head in our new economy as well.  This new 21st century economy is fast growing, but is very different.  Instead of the traditional economy of an employer with many employees, in many ways it is an independent workforce coming together to collaborate on projects.

Couple this with the sharing economy, and we’ve got a new kind of independent workforce around which we must tailor our laws. 

 Every state in the country is trying to address this issue, but I have fought for years to have Vermont lead the charge.  If we can position ourselves as the place to come to work both independently and collaboratively, and do so successfully, we can attract this new workforce and start to address our significant demographic challenges.

One critical way to do this is to establish a common definition for independent contractor under both workers compensation and unemployment insurance.  This would do three things:  1) alleviate some of the incredible confusion among employers surrounding the various definitions and bring absolute clarity to the definition; 2) encourage and grow the independent workforce; and 3) ensure that those who should be classified as employees are classified as such by their employers.

Throughout the two months we have been in session this year, I have been focusing much of my attention on the implementation of, and time-frame within, Act 46 – the school district consolidation bill that was passed in 2015.

While I did not support the bill, and, in fact, fought vigorously against its passage, Act 46 is now law, and we must deal with it.  Unfortunately, many school districts are really struggling in this regard right now.

Make no mistake, communities throughout Vermont are working diligently to comply with the law in a way that works for their communities and students, but dozens are having significant issues doing so.

As this relates to Stowe and the educational opportunities we offer our students, we must be sure that any rules written to govern the creation and approval of Alternative Structures under Act 46, are conducive to our goal of being approved as an Alternative Structure.

As we enter our sixth week of this 2017 Legislative Session, the differences in priorities between Governor Phil Scott and the Democratic majority in the legislature seem to be getting clearer.

 

As Governor Scott has demanded no new taxes and fees on Vermont families and businesses this year, legislative efforts that seem to be gaining traction include increasing the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour and instituting paid family and medical leave for workers.  And, as the Governor proposed a level-funded Fiscal Year 2018 state budget, the legislature last week dealt a serious blow to his proposal by defeating his proposal to change the date of school budget votes.

As expected, it has been an extremely busy couple of weeks in Montpelier.

 

Our new Governor, Phil Scott, and his team are working in earnest to ensure his priorities are front and center, and in doing so, are making it very clear that things are going to change.

 

In one of his first orders of business, he issued three Executive Orders that would restructure State Government.  The goal is to “create more responsive, nimble organizational structures that allow us to more directly align our economic development and workforce efforts, and provide more efficient, effective, and outcome-driven service to Vermonters.”

The 2017-2018 Legislative Biennium began last week with great anticipation as our new Governor, Phil Scott, was sworn in.

In his first Inaugural Address, Governor Scott was sincere in his conviction and humbled by the task before him.  He reflected on his youth in Barre, and the strength, kindness, and compassion of Vermonters he has experienced first-hand throughout his life, as the American flag that draped his father’s casket, after the double-amputee died of injuries sustained in the D-Day invasion, flew in front of the State House.

 

Governor Scott then continued with honesty about the challenges we face, and he made clear again that his priorities would be exactly what they had been on the campaign trail: a renewed focus on economic growth, a promise to end unsustainable increases in state spending, a vow to protect our most vulnerable, and a commitment to make Vermont affordable again.