Representative Patti Komline (R -Dorset, Danby, Landgrove, Peru, Mt. Tabor) and Senators Dick Sears and Bob Hartwell (D -Bennington County) spoke to a small group at the Peru Town Office about what went on in the Statehouse over the past session. Both Komline and Sears are running for re-election, but Hartwell has decided to retire from the Senate.
The meeting was informal, with the individuals present just asking questions of the three legislators, who then answered them.
Kevin Rambold, who is running for state's attorney in Bennington County, asked about treatment options in the county, as well as if Rutland's drug court would be expanded to Bennington County.
Sears said a few years ago, he started conversations with law enforcement individuals about an increase in gang activity in the area and formed what would become the drug task force.
"What became clear ... is you can't arrest your way out of this problem and that alternatives need to be found," Sears said.
Sears said drug court is expensive and he's not sure if it is exactly the solution. However, what has been done is the introduction of bill S.295 that Sears said does five things: Creates harsher penalties for drug trafficking, increases penalties for home invasions, sets up risk assessments, pre-trial screening and budgets the money for these services to be implemented. Sears also said treatment options need to be expanded, for example, he said there needs to be a place to get methadone in Bennington County.
Komline, who was involved with the governor's forum on opiate addiction, said she has heard people are frustrated that money is being spent on these large drug sweeps, just to see those picked up out of jail on bail. This is something people should be concerned about, she said, as well as the over-prescription of drugs.
Hartwell said the passage of S.295 was one of the high points of the past session for him personally.
Changing the subject a bit, Hartwell said education financing is going to be the big issue facing the state in the coming years and he said he feels the legislature did not do enough to try and tackle it in the last session.
"In my estimation, it is the failure to address education finance and governance which is going to become explosive," he said. "The House I thought had a good bill, whether we liked it or not, and we [the Senate] got mired in ... nonsense about principle mediation. The property taxes are going to rise very, very fast."
Komline also mentioned the cost of education spending, mentioning how many school budgets were voted down on Town Meeting day.
"Thirty-four or 35 school budgets were voted down in March, but that represents 50 percent of students in Vermont," she said.
She said a plan was previously floated around by Oliver Olsen, who is running again for a seat to represent Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Winhall, and Weston, that was a modified income tax and something like his plan may be looked at again, as a way to combat spending.
Hartwell said neighboring states have caps on how much can be spent on education, like Massachusetts, but can still deliver quality education. Along with education spending and governance, Hartwell is worried about the cost of healthcare.
"It's not to say I'm offended by single payer, I'm not," he said. "But this is a big problem. Spending on education received $1.7 billion and this healthcare program [is slated for] considerably more than that."
While there were some issues not resolved this past session, there was one legislative win for Peru. Komline and Hartwell were able to get a public restroom put into the church in Peru. Hartwell said it was a part of the water supply bill, but he and Komline called it the "church flush bill." The residents of Peru are very happy with the new facility.
One topic that came up that could effect Peru negatively has to do with the new open meeting laws. Komline said the end of the legislative session is very frantic and bills are trying to get passed at the 11th hour. The open meeting law was one of the bills that got slipped in without much scrutiny, she said. Hartwell and Sears agreed.
Margaret Cobb, town clerk of Peru, brought up the issue. She said the town is trying to get a website developed, but under the new open meeting law, she said it will be difficult to keep their website updated in accordance with the new rules. She has been told by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns that if they cannot keep the website updated accordingly it will have to be shut down. She said it will make it difficult to post the meeting minutes in five business days, for example.
"Various groups have come out opposed to the bill after it was passed and signed by the governor," Sears said.
None of the legislatures present were on the committees that dealt with this law, so they were also surprised about its outcome. However, it is something they said they will continue to look at.
Before the meeting concluded, Komline introduced Brian Campion, a Democrat who is running for Hartwell's seat, Rambold, an independent, who is running for state's attorney and Mary Barrosse Schwartz, a Democrat who is seeking to capture the district currently represented by Komline.