Week 1 (1/7 - 1/10) The House kicked off the 2014 legislative session on Jan. 7 with an exceptional "singing devotional" by a contingent from our very own Maple Street School. Their performance of another Sandy Wilbur original (Four Score and Seven Years Ago) was truly beautiful and received a well-deserved standing ovation by House members.
Leading up to the advent of the session, the Shumlin administration and the legislative leadership made it fairly clear that the two biggest issues in '14 would be tackling opiate addiction and balancing the state budget.
Opiates: On Wednesday (1/8), the Governor took the unusual tack of devoting just about all of his thirty-four minute State of the State address to the scourge of opiate addiction in Vermont. Although the State has taken some successful steps over the past few years in clamping down on prescription drug abuse (Oxycotin, etc.), there has been a troubling migration to heroin use. In his speech, the Governor laid out some daunting statistics about just how much of a problem drug addiction has become in our little state.
He noted that there has been a 770 percent increase in opiate treatment over the past 13 years, a doubling of Federal drug-related indictments in the past two years and a 100 percent increase in overdose deaths in just the last 12 months.
To confront this growing, pervasive "epidemic," Governor Shumlin proposed a package of initiatives calling for more aggressive treatment/intervention efforts for those already in heroin's grip, along with tougher criminal penalties for those who are "high volume" drug dealers and for robbers who carry out armed break-ins in search of money to feed their habit. The Senate Judiciary Committee wasted little time in getting down to work on this issue and it's a pretty safe bet that we will pass new law on this one this year.
FY 2015 Budget - Once again, as we head into the legislative session, the State is facing a significant budget gap ($70 million). Although the size of the shortfall is larger than last year, this type of fiscal challenge has been pretty much the norm since the Great Recession in 2008. December's revenue numbers were above projections - a good thing - but it still looks like it will be an extremely difficult task for budget writers to balance the budget in the absence of scaling back programs and inflicting some level of pain.
I say this because both the Governor and the legislative leadership have indicated that new revenue (read new taxes) will not be part of the equation this session. And, without new revenue, there's only one way to close the gap - cutbacks. We'll see how this plays out, but one of the more interesting dynamics to keep an eye on is how many of my colleagues may react once it starts to become clearer which items will get the axe.
Vermonters got a better idea about the fiscal picture, looking forward, on Wednesday (1/15) when the Governor gave his budget address
Jeff Wilson represents Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and Sunderland in the state legislature along with Cynthia Browning. He can be reached at jeffwilsonvtrep.com.