Alison Clarkson’s Legislative Update

Report for May 2013 

The 2013 Legislative Session adjourned May 14th.  Speaker Shap Smith gaveled us out after the rather restrained pomp and circumstance that marked the end of a very challenging session.  The last few days were spent negotiating many bills up until the last possible moment, passing a vast number of bills, cleaning up our desks and watching the Legislative Slide Show which I pull together for my Statehouse colleagues.  Traditionally the final moments of the session are devoted to speeches full of summary and gratitude from party leadership.  Vermont has three major parties: the Progressives, Republicans and Democrats, and they speak in order of their size.  Then, we hear from the Speaker and, finally, from the Governor.  And, after fond farewells, our citizen legislators left to return to their lives as teachers, farmers, barbers, town clerks, lawyers, chefs, parents, and active community members.

We accomplished a great deal in four and a half months.  It was a session that could be characterized as socially progressive but fiscally conservative.  It was a session that passed Death with Dignity, decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, created driver’s licenses for migrant workers, passed a number of labor bills, and made police records more public.  However, we chose not to fund some major initiatives in weatherization, water quality and education, passed a $5.2 billion FY14 budget which raised no new income or sale taxes, and a bill designed to rein in education spending.

For the seventh year in a row, the Legislature began the 2014 budget process with a projected gap between estimated revenues and expenditures.  Each year, the Legislature has struggled to find the right balance between maintaining necessary services while making investments for the future.  As in previous years, the Legislature balanced the state budget and made difficult choices.  Here is a summary of the spending choices that were made in our FY14 budget.

Human services and health care spending is roughly $2 billion per year, or about 40% of the statewide budget.  This includes Medicaid, Long Term Care, VHAP (Vermont Health Assistance Program), Catamount Health, 3Squares, Reach Up, and General Assistance.   This year’s budget invests $18 million state dollars in Medicaid expansion to leverage $68 million in federal dollars, helping to transition Vermonters who are on state sponsored VHAP and Catamount as well as uninsured or underinsured Vermonters to the new Vermont Health Connect.  The final budget addressed the Medicaid cost shift by increasing the long overdue provider reimbursement by 3%.  This will affect not only hospitals and doctors but also our direct care workers who serve the developmental services and choices for care populations.

Childcare is another important part of the human services budget.  The Legislature invested an additional $4.5 million in childcare in 2014, expanding both who qualifies for childcare subsidies and raising the subsidy by 3%, a benefit to childcare providers.

For the first time, the state appropriated $6 million dollars for LIHEAP (low income heating assistance program) in the base budget; recognizing that what was for many, many years a federal responsibility must now be partially paid for by the state in order to keep Vermonters safe and warm.

The Legislature invested in housing by redirecting General Assistance from crisis management to housing supports.   Along with this, the Legislature added support for Vermonters with substance abuse and mental health issues.  The funding for the new state hospital, Reach Up supports with additional substance abuse focused case workers, and the addition of a manager for the Hub and Spoke initiative are a few examples.

Education spending is 34% of the $5 billion statewide budget.  Each year, the Legislature examines closely both the quality and quantity of education spending, making sure Vermont provides the best education possible for all students while ensuring both local control and affordability.  In 2013, the Legislature improved access to free lunches for children in need; expanded access for high school juniors and seniors to take college courses; added $1.5 million in scholarships to Vermont colleges; and provided $8.4 million in education property tax relief.

Transportation spending is 12% of the statewide budget. In fiscal year 2014, the State of Vermont will leverage $260 million in state transportation funds in order to obtain $370 million in federal transportation money, for total combined spending on the maintenance and construction of Vermont highways and bridges of $630 million.  A new tax on gasoline and diesel fuel will allow the state to maximize federal matching funds that would otherwise be left on the table.  A driver using 40 gallons per month would pay an additional $2.36/month in taxes used to fund transportation infrastructure.

The Legislature appropriated funds to address Jobs & Economic Development in Vermont.  We’ve taken steps to both build jobs and get people back to work.  By continuing and increasing our investment in working lands, using further investment from the federal government to rebuild from Irene and supporting employers hit by that storm we are building industries and jobs of which Vermont can be proud.

I appreciate hearing from you.  I can be reached by email:  aclarkson@leg.state.vt.us or by phone 457-4627.  To get more information on the Vermont Legislature, and the bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website:  www.leg.state.vt.us

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