From Vermont State Representative Alison Clarkson
2014 TOWN MEETING REPORT
Dear Friends and Neighbors –
Thank you for the opportunity to serve you in the Vermont Statehouse. While the challenges are enormous, so are the opportunities. For the last few years, the economy has forced us to be creative and ‘think outside the box’ on how we deliver services essential to our lives.
Given this economic climate, we are being asked to make some difficult choice. Our job as legislators is to make sure these decisions are informed, balanced and thoughtful. This is tough but stimulating work and I am excited to be representing Plymouth, Reading and Woodstock at this point in Vermont’s history.
This report briefly summarizes some of the many issues we are working on. I welcome your thoughts on these and other issues in this 2014 Legislative Session.
Vermont is a wonderful place to live. Nonetheless, we face several ongoing dilemmas. We are only now returning to pre-recession revenue levels. Despite the adversity that we have faced in the last 6 years, Vermont has made great strides and is poised for exceptional progress going forward. At 4.5% our unemployment rate is the lowest in New England and remains one of the lowest in the country. We are moving in the right direction, and we have much to celebrate.
By the summer of 2013, the state recovered roughly 11,000 of the nearly 15,000 payroll jobs lost during this last economic downturn—a rate of recapture of 77.9%. For the year as a whole, employers created 3,700 new jobs for a growth rate of 1.2 percent. Vermont is in the top ten of entrepreneurial states in the Kaufmann Index of Entrepreneurial Activity. We rank 7th in the country in patents per capita.
Our renewable energy sector is growing at a significant clip with Vermont having the highest rate of jobs in the solar industry on a per capita basis. With the help of investments that we have made in working lands, our agricultural sector is growing jobs at a rate that has exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. And, by the end of 2013, 92.4% of Vermonters had access to broadband.
Our education system continues to provide some of the best opportunities for kids in the country and, with the investments that we make, has the opportunity to provide the best opportunities in the world. We graduate 91% of our students, giving us the highest graduation rate in the country. Last year, Vermont’s students ranked 2nd in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Similar test scores showed that if Vermont was its own country, our students would rank 7th in world in academic performance.
While there were significant delays and problems in the rollout, Vermont Health Connect is now functioning for the individual market and Vermont is enrolling citizens at a per capita rate higher than the rest of the country.
We have significantly increased our investments in roads and bridges. Since 2008, the percent of structurally deficient bridges has declined from 19.7% to just over 8% in 2013. And, since 2009, the Vermont roads that are in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ condition went from over 50% to 21%. And, we are working to decrease our carbon footprint by increasing public transport and adding parking spaces in our Park-and-Ride facilities.
FINANCING VERMONT’S PRIORITIES
Vermont’s budget is where we fund the policies which illustrate our priorities and create outcomes for Vermonters. Of Vermont’s total budget $7 billion, 32% goes to education, 28% to Medicaid, community based & in patient mental health, addiction treatment, developmental disabilities services and long-term care, 12% to transportation, and 28% covers a wide range of things: public safety, commerce, weatherization, housing, public health, natural resources, agriculture, police and state emergency services, agriculture, and corrections. Pressures on state government have outpaced revenues for a number of years. This year that “budget gap” is $70 million. We close that gap each year by adjusting spending to balance the budget. Sequestration and federal cuts put even more pressure on the state.
There are bright spots in the budget, such as investment in the Working Lands to stimulate agriculture and forest industries, more people transitioning off of public assistance into employment and the opening of the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. There are plenty of challenges, too. Retired teachers’ health care, currently paid from the retirement fund, needs a separate sustainable fund. Treatment and long term recovery from opiate addiction is a priority, as untreated addiction has incredible social and financial costs. Water quality is critical. Homelessness and emergency housing costs are on the rise, and we need prevention strategies to keep people from losing housing. The caseload of people seeking developmental services and community based long-term care is growing. Many critical IT systems are long overdue for upgrade or replacement.
FUNDING PUBLIC EDUCATION
Every year the Legislature has to figure out how to pay the bill for education spending, the school budgets we vote at Town Meeting. In an effort to better connect the cost of education and the tax rate, this year the House Ways and Means Committee will set the tax rate after Town Meeting.
Vermonters are proud of our schools and recognize that education is the most important economic development investment we make as a state. However, the continuing escalation of education costs and decline of students is creating a perfect storm with education property tax for us this year.
In the upcoming year, it is projected that Vermont will spend $47.6 million in new education spending, $10 million more in additional pressures like special education, and $20 million to fill the Education Fund reserves. And, we have significantly fewer students – about 80,000 from a high 14 years ago of 104,000. This challenge is exacerbated by a lower grand list value, lost federal revenues and the common level of appraisal affects in our communities this year. These escalating costs may result in a seven cent increase per hundred dollars of home value on the homestead property tax.
The Legislature continues to address cost drivers in spending, improving educational outcomes for our students and consolidation of school districts and supervisory unions.
One of the major cost drivers are salaries. Last session we asked the Agency of Education to report on and recommend minimum staff/student ratios. We have one of the lowest staff/student ratios in the country. I encourage you to read this report, and review all the education funding information with which we are working on the House Ways and Means Committee website which you can access through the legislative website: www.leg.state.vt.us
Last year, in our efforts to rein in school spending, we lowered the excess spending penalty. This year we are considering a number of other measures – from eliminating the small school grants to reducing the rebate to increasing the base income tax rate from 1.8% to 1.9%, to using $11.8 million in one-time money which was designed to help offset property tax increases. We are also contemplating an education financing proposal H.164 – which would have all resident Vermonters pay their education property tax by income. Currently, about 64.5% statewide pay their education property tax by a percent of their income: 71% in Plymouth, 71.1% in Reading and 62% in Woodstock. Many of us would prefer finance education by our ‘ability’ to pay.
AN UPDATE ON VERMONT HEALTH CONNECT
All of us are frustrated and disappointed by the technological challenges experienced during the Vermont Health Connect roll out. This ambitious project has had significant and serious bumps along the way. And yet, despite the problems, there are many Vermonters who, once getting past the technical glitches, are now enjoying the benefits of the Affordable Care Act.
We continue to track both the challenges and the improvements in the system. The call center now measures a wait time in seconds. Turn-around time between payment and coverage is also working far better. We are seeing ever increasing enrollment numbers.
Vermonters who are still uninsured, on VHAP or Catamount need to get to the Vermont Health Connect website and enroll by March 15th for coverage beginning on April 1st. If you need help resolving an application that is in process or need to enroll, you can contact me or our Community Care Coordinators at 457-3030.
In January it became clear that the Vermont Health Connect website would not be working in time to allow our small businesses to enroll employees for coverage on April 1st. The Governor announced that businesses would be able to enroll directly with the insurance carriers, bypassing the website that is not functioning. If your business renews its insurance coverage later this year, you may still go directly to the carriers until such time as the website is up and working properly. Both Blue Cross and MVP have staff on call to help businesses enroll their employees.
FINANCING HEALTH CARE
In 2015 the Legislature must fund Green Mountain Care, our unified, universal health care system. GMC is designed to capture current health care spending (individuals & businesses) and create a system that provides all Vermonters health care regardless of employment.
The current estimated cost for the public financing component of the $6 billion system is $2.2 billion. This year we are trying to get a handle on costs, cost savings, potential payers and beneficiaries, and the considerations with different funding mechanisms.
RESOURCES for you or a neighbor:
• To sign up for health care www.VermontHealthConnect.gov
• Health Care Advocate 1-800-917-7787
• Legal Aid 1-800-889-2047
• For Energy savings www.efficiencyvermont.org
• Food, fuel and life assistance call 211 or the Benefit Service Center 1-800-479-6151
• At our Legislative website: http://www.leg.state.vt.us you can access our exciting new Committee web pages which feature current testimony, updated drafts of bills we are considering and related reports.
Please let me know what you care about, your concerns and thoughts.
You can reach me by email: email@example.com, by phone: (Tues – Fri) 1-800-322-5616 or (Sat-Mon) 457-4627