Another session convenes
The Vermont Legislature convened on Wednesday, Jan. 9 to much fanfare: Above, legislators are sworn in for another session. Also last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin was inaugurated for his second term. Lawmakers had varied reactions to his proposals, which mostly focused on education. (Photo by Toby Talbot/AP)

The Vermont Legislature convened on Wednesday, Jan. 9 to much fanfare: Above, legislators are sworn in for another session. Also last week, Gov. Peter Shumlin was inaugurated for his second term. Lawmakers had varied reactions to his proposals, which mostly focused on education. (Photo by Toby Talbot/AP)

The ceremoniousness surrounding Gov. Peter Shumlin’s inauguration last week has faded, and now Milton and Georgia’s legislators are ready to get to work.

The 2013 legislative session began Wednesday, Jan. 9, and as soon as Shumlin was sworn in to his second term, he launched into an inaugural speech that largely focused on improving education in Vermont.

Among Shumlin’s proposals:

  • Invest $17 million from the earned income tax credit to make early childhood education available to low-income Vermonters;
  • Provide free – not just reduced – lunch to all low-income students;
  • Double funding for high school students to take college courses (known as dual enrollment); and
  • Reimburse tuition for Vermont students who earn college degrees in the science/math field.

The Milton/Georgia delegation largely agreed Shumlin’s ideas sound good, but all five noted the governor didn’t outline how he’ll pay for them. That information might come in Shumlin’s budget address on January 24.

Georgia Rep. Carolyn Branagan (R) questioned changing EITC funding.

“One legislator said it’s like taking from Peter to pay Peter,” she said. “It’s money that we have been giving to a particular demographic, and we’re using it for a different function for that same demographic.”

Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) was pleased to hear Shumlin address education, especially the idea of making existing dollars go further.

Turner, who was named to the Education Committee this year, agreed with the governor that today’s students aren’t prepared for careers in science or math, as evidenced by lackluster state test scores.

His district-mate, Rep. Ron Hubert (R-Milton), isn’t convinced Shumlin’s early education investment will pay dividends; until he sees research supporting Shumlin’s claims, he’ll remain skeptical. He also questioned the free lunch proposal, saying everything in government comes with cliffs.

“Does that mean the people who are struggling and are just barely over the [income] threshold are now going to pay even more?” he questioned. “I’m not sure that’s the right way to go.”

But Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-Grand Isle), who represents West Milton, said research shows free school meals, especially breakfast, reduce negative behavior. Some kids benefit to the point they no longer need aides, which reduces the tax burden, Johnson said.

Johnson, vice-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, estimated Shumlin’s lunch proposal would cost between $250,000 and $300,000, “which, given what we spend in education in the state, is a very small amount of money that has a proven outcome,” she added.

Johnson also noted that while these measures address low-income populations, she wants to be sure they help families get out of poverty instead of just cope with it. She wanted to see details of Shumlin’s proposal before lending her full support.

For Branagan, that comes down to dollar signs. She expects the governor to fully explain how he’ll pay for the initiatives.

“If he leaves it to us, the session’s going to be very long,” she said.

Committee work begins

Though the session just began, lawmakers have a good idea of the bills that will land on their desks, some they plan to propose.

Johnson’s committee has worked since the first week in January on the budget adjustment bill to fix a projected $6 million shortfall in the current budget.

Appropriations balanced out cuts with unanticipated revenues, like from the Medicaid program, she said. Her committee will get much busier once Shumlin announces his budget plans for fiscal year 2014.

Johnson’s Grand Isle/Chittenden cohort, Rep. Bob Krebs (D), looks forward to working out how to fund recommendations from Act 138, a directive for the Agency of Natural Resources to report on clean water issues statewide.

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from “non-point sources” – like farms and stormwater – is a major issue, Krebs said: “You can’t really collect and treat it, so it ends up in rivers and lakes.”

The ANR report, released on Monday, says the program will cost $156 million annually: “It’s only a priority if people are going to find the money to fund it,” Krebs said.

Branagan serves on the Ways and Means Committee, which will take up the fee bill shortly. She said the governor has proposed increasing licensing fees for barbers and estheticians by one-third.

The fees all go into one of 400 funds (used to pay for state inspections) that are slated for consolidation this year, Branagan said. The fees targeted for increases haven’t been changed since the 1990s, she said.

Branagan also looks forward to appointing a new adjutant general for the Vermont National Guard. Either Air Guard Brig. Gen. Steven Cray or retired Army Guard Brig. Gen. Jonathan Farnham will be named to the top post in February.

As for Hubert, he expects his Government Operations Committee to take up an extremely controversial bill – one that would change the Burlington charter to reflect a ban on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, as passed by the city council this month.

The measure first has to pass on Town Meeting. Hubert is opposed, saying he agrees with Shumlin that gun control is a federal issue.

“Regardless of where you stand on this issue, should there be one set of rules for the city of Burlington?” he questioned.

Hubert also plans to introduce several pieces of legislation this session, including a statewide teachers’ contract, statewide school calendar and a bill to allow a casino to be built in Vermont.

The casino bill, an updated version of one Hubert proposed last session, would create $12 to $15 million in revenue from taxes and licensing fees that would go toward reducing property taxes for the elderly, he said.

Hubert said Republicans are known as “The Party of No,” and this session, they’re trying to change that with proposals to raise revenue without raising taxes; his casino bill is just one idea.

Turner, who leads his party against a supermajority, said this tack means Republicans will try to compromise without giving up their core principles. He hopes the Dems will negotiate, too, but realizes they don’t have to.

“The reality is that they could pass everything they wanted to do with not a single Republican vote,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of leverage; all I have is the ability to make a good argument for what we believe.”

Despite that challenge ahead, Turner remains optimistic for the new session. He said the first festive week reminded him he’s lucky to serve under the Golden Dome.

Branagan, too, is pleased to be back, even though the first week left her just minutes to even grab a bite to eat.

“When you’re not in session, you live a different kind of life, but it’s good to be back there,” she said. “[This] will be our first week of real work. The pomp and circumstance is over.”

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