Week 15 (4/23-4/26)

As we inch closer to the end of the session (mid-May), most of the action in the House has migrated from committee rooms to the floor. Here's the thumbnail round-up of Week 15:

Transportation Bill - On Wednesday (4/24), the House gave its final blessing to this year's Transportation Bill by a vote of 107 to 33 (Wilson voting with the majority). This legislation, a compromise between the original House and Senate versions, calls for much-needed new revenue to give Vermont a fighting chance in tackling the daunting challenges associated future road and bridge maintenance. It will also ensure that the State is positioned to fully leverage $56 million Federal transportation funding. As of May 1, the gas tax will increase by 5.9 cents a gallon and the diesel tax will go up by 2 cents in July.

Education Finance - By a roll call vote of 110 to 24 (Wilson voting with the majority), the House approved a bill (H. 538) Wednesday aimed at tamping down the seemingly unsustainable trajectory of education spending. Preliminary estimates indicate that FY 15 school spending could increase by $73 million, leaving $61 million worth of red ink in the Education Fund. This, in turn, would mean that the base statewide property tax rate would have to be boosted by 6 cents (about 6% for residential property). The approved legislation would help the Ed Fund's bottom line by about $5 million in FY 15, by scaling back income sensitivity and renter rebate payments. An effort to eliminate Small School Grants ($7 million savings) did not survive. Regretfully, many have come to view this program as a permanent entitlement. The most significant cost containment part of the bill, however, entails a provision that reduces the excess spending penalty threshold for school districts from 125% of average per pupil spending statewide, to 123% in FY 15, and further to 121% in FY 17. Although time is short, Senate leadership sounded interested in trying to push this bill along towards passage in that body.

Wind Turbines - What was originally introduced in the Senate as legislation (S. 30) calling for a three year moratorium on the siting of new wind power projects, ended up in the House as a two paragraph bill calling for further study. Although there certainly has been a good deal of controversy and contentiousness surrounding ridgeline wind projects, it appeared that both sides in this ongoing debate were supportive of the study initiative conceived of by the House Natural Resource Committee. The promise is that there will be a thorough and objective joint analysis (House & Senate Natural Resource Committees) of the Governor's Siting Commission's findings (due the end of April) along with an evaluation of other planning, regulatory and environmental factors that should govern siting decisions. Fridays (4/26) House vote on the bill was 140 to 3 (Wilson voting with the majority).

Agency Fees - A bill (S. 14) requiring non-union members of a bargaining unit to pay an "agency fee" to the labor union sanctioned to negotiate on the bargaining unit's behalf, moved forward on a 78 to 51 roll call vote on Thursday (Wilson voting with the minority), and received final House approval on Friday (4/26). Proponents of this measure claimed that it is only fair that non-union members pay the union for the work it does to benefit such employees (like contract negotiations). Opponents, on the other hand, maintained that whether or not a non-union employee should pay an agency fee (typically around 85 percent of union dues) should be a subject for negotiation between labor and management, and should not be mandated by State decree. It's anticipated that the differences between the House and Senate versions will be worked out in short order and that the Governor will sign this one into law.