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Fabiola Carrion on July 12, 2010 - 1:14pm
The Vermont legislature was able to compromise on next year’s budget somewhat expeditiously. For fiscal year 2011, beginning in July, the state will face a $154 million budget gap and will have to borrow about $71 million. Many successes took place in the realms of health care, job creation, broadband coverage, criminal justice, and environmental issues, including a successful stop to the re-licensing of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant.
Legislators engaged in a process called “Challenges for Change,” an attempt to save money for the state while encouraging government efficiency. Authorized by Act 68, "Challenges for Change" asks that certain agencies, like school districts, deliver desired outcomes for $38 million less in general funds, while relieving $11 million or property tax pressure.
Reinvesting in a Diversified Economy in Vermont: The Vermont Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2010 aims to serve as an economic development tool that will create jobs and opportunity for struggling Vermonters. The bill uses $8.6 million in federal stimulus funds to make investments into growing green businesses, job training, and broadband expansion in rural areas. Specifically, the money will be invested as follows:
- $2.85 million for the Vermont Telecommunications Authority to expand broadband access. The Vermont Telecommunications Authority will publish requests for proposals to provide broadband coverage to all of Vermont households and businesses within target community. A municipality where broadband services are currently unavailable or where business districts are underserved could be part of a proposal if it met the criteria.
- $1 million for the Vermont Jobs Fund
- $1 million for loans to allow farmers to finance their debt
- $950,000 for the Vermont Training Program to provide employment training
- $850,000 for an entrepreneur’s seed capital fund to provide money to growing green and agriculture businesses.
The Vermont Recovery and Reinvestment Act also reiterates the availability of funds for municipal bonding. Recovery zone economic development bonds reduce by 45 percent the cost of the kind of tax-exempt bonding normally done by towns, counties, school districts, and the state and may be used to fund capital expenditure for real and personal property, public infrastructure and facilities, and expenditures for job training and education programs.
Health Care: Vermont enacted Act 128 (Senate Bill 88) to study three different health care options aimed at universal coverage, including the public option and single payer system, and assessing the best way to finance that option. In addition, the law expands transparency in drug samples by requiring pharmaceutical companies to report annually to the Vermont Office of the Attorney General certain information related to free samples of prescribed products provided to health care providers during the preceding calendar year. The measure also calls for improved coordination of services for people with chronic health conditions.
Also enacted was Senate Bill 262 – now Act 127 – relating to insurance coverage for autism diagnosis and treatment. This new law requires insurance companies to provide coverage of evidence-based, medically necessary early intervention autism therapies. Further, insurances are obliged to cover diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorders in children 18 months to six years. Many insurance companies explicitly exclude autism coverage. Like Vermont, 19 other states have moved to enact autism insurance and assist families seeking to provide their children with necessary treatment.
Criminal Justice: Acknowledging that crowded jails incur a lot of cost to the state, the Legislature introduced and passed what is now Act 157, providing for more alternatives to incarceration and funding for transitional housing. Prison reform will occur in a variety of ways; for instance, nonviolent detainees who cannot pay bail and offenders who have met their minimum sentences will await their court dates or serve their remaining sentences in their homes and communities. In order to calm the fears of Vermonters who think their communities will become dumping grounds, the law places some limits on how many people can be released in certain places.
A bill (Senate Bill 153) that would have enhanced safeguards in the state's original Innocence Protection Act (passed in 2007) met stiff opposition from the law enforcement community and failed to pass the House. Portions of the bill, however, were attached to the new judicial restructuring law. The results were mixed: independent oversight of the state's crime lab was nixed, a requirement that custodial interrogations be recorded (at least for two years, when the issue will be considered again) did not make it at the end, and state officials were ordered to draw up best practices for eyewitness identifications (such identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions).
Environmental Issues: Among the biggest, and most popular, legislative victories of this year was the refusal to re-license the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant. Various environmental organizations celebrated the blocking vote, especially as the leaking of radioactive tritium into groundwater was discovered after Yankee officials stated that no pipes carried such materials. Yet, these advocates remain prepared to put pressure on the legislators to close the reactor as a similar bill to continue the operation of the reactor is likely to reemerge in the next legislative session.
HB 781 (Act No. 159) is another legislative effort to expand renewable energy use and production. A step forward in clean energy use, the bill simplifies renewable-generation procedures by making the permitting process more predictable and efficient. Thanks to the bill, the Vermont Air Guard will be allowed to develop a significant solar project through a net-metering process (where a producer of renewable energy sells back excess energy to the utility company). Also when it comes to solar energy, existing state solar tax incentives will be capped and reformed in order to determine costs to the Clean Energy Development Fund and to relax deadline-related pressures on the Public Service Board. The act also promises to provide much needed price stability to the pioneering farmers in the Cow Power program. Lastly, the bill reduces the costs of meeting transformer efficiency standards, which will help IBM and other large employers in Vermont.
Similar to Connecticut's BPA law, SB 247 was enacted to ban the manufacture or sale of BPA-containing reusable food and beverage containers, and infant formula and baby food in plastic containers by July 2012 and infant formula and baby food in cans by 2014.
And lastly, SB 77 requires manufacturers of certain electronics - including televisions, computers, computer monitors, and printers - to implement a fund a system for the collection and recycling of those electronic devices. Already in place in more than 22 states, the Vermont law will take effect in 2012.
Voter’s Rights: A campaign finance reform bill (Senate Bill 92) passed the Senate but did not make it through the House, would have set reasonable limits on campaign contributions and would have regulated other campaign expenditures. The legislature also failed to pass a National Popular Vote (Senate Bill 34) bill which was held up in the House Government Operations Committee and an Election Day Registration (Senate Bill 124) bill.
Although opportunities were missed for electoral reform, the Challenges for Change Law halted the Governor’s effort to eliminate public notices – i.e. public hearings – in local newspapers. Public hearings are crucial to keeping policy review processes visible and accessible to the public.
VT Digger - Vermont Senate passes amendments to jobs bill
Smart Growth Vermont - Legislative Update
Vermont Common Cause - Wrap Up of the 2010 Session of the Vermont General Assembly
ACLU of Vermont - 2010 Legislative Wrap Up
Vermont League of Cities and Towns - 2010 Legislative Wrap UpChallenges for Change - Progress Report
Vermont Natural Resources Council - Thumps Up, Thumbs Down: A Look at 2010 Under the Golden Dome