The House hit the ground running after town meeting break, with most committees scurrying to meet the "crossover" deadline. In general (there are some exceptions) this rule states that a bill will not be sanctioned to make the full journey through the legislative process this year, unless it has been reported favorably out of committee by the end of the day on March 15. So, there were, indeed, a slew of bills that made the cut, but then again, most did not. One high profile piece of legislation that didn't move out the House Judiciary Committee before crossover was H. 124 - the gun control bill.
FY 14 Budget - The Appropriations Committee has been having a devilish time trying to put all budget pieces together for the FY 14 spending plan. Closing the budget gap has been no easy matter, especially given the fact that some of the Governor's funding ideas - like taxing break-open tickets and scaling back the state's earned income tax credit - have not gained much traction in the legislature. To help bridge the general fund gap, the Ways and Means Committee (my committee) has been charged with finding $20 million in new revenue. This should make next week (week of the 18th) a very interesting week in committee, given that the revenue question needs to be answered prior to the Appropriations Committee dotting the "i's" on its budget proposal by week's end. My sense is that any revenue package will be diverse in nature, consisting of a couple of million from this and a few million from that; in essence spreading the pain and probably making everybody a little bit unhappy. My hope on this front is that we will proceed on this mission by focusing primarily on trying to tackle tax expenditures (plugging exemptions, deductions, credits, "loopholes") and not raise rates. We'll see.
Gas Tax - Both the Transportation and the Ways and Means Committees, demonstrating bipartisan support, voted overwhelmingly in favor of a transportation funding plan to revamp and raise the state gas tax. The vote in the Transportation Committee was 10-0, while Ways and Means approved the proposal by a 10-1 vote. The new funding effort contemplates a two year transition away from a fixed tax rate per gallon, to one that is based to a greater extent on a sales-like tax (4 percent). Although it is somewhat of a moving target, it is estimated that the changes in Year 1 might mean an increase in gas prices by about 7 cents per gallon, followed in Year 2 by another 3 cent increase. The need for these changes was hammered home by the fact that current tax structure cannot raise sufficient revenue to adequately maintain our roads and bridges, and would fall short in leveraging all of the federal monies available to Vermont. With Vermonters driving less and using more efficient cars, the number of gallons of gas sold in Vermont has dropped dramatically over the past decade. Gas sales are now 39 million gallons less than what was sold in 2005. That's great news from a carbon emissions and climate change perspective, but it has created a financing conundrum that just about every state and the feds are scratching their heads over. While a new gas tax mix, as approved in committee this past week, will mend the fence for the time being, we will eventually have to come up with a whole new approach to financing transportation in the not-too-distant future.
Jeff Wilson represents Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and most of Sunderland in the state legislature along with Rep. Cynthia Browning.