One way to evaluate Legislative actions is to look at whether there is a good balance of rights and responsibilities. All of us have a tendency to be more eager to assert our rights than to fulfill our responsibilities, and state government is no exception. There can also be conflicting rights which must be balanced. I have submitted bills that I believe would could right serious imbalances in three particular policy areas.
Public Service Board Procedures.
I have submitted a bill that is intended to right the imbalance of power between large corporations and ordinary Vermonters in proceedings before the Public Service Board. The PSB is responsible for evaluating permit applications for large industrial electricity generating facilities and other energy projects, and also for considering utility rate increases. Some years ago the state reduced the importance of Town regulations in locating generating facilities, and streamlined the process for increasing electricity rates. These changes mean that it is harder for the public to participate effectively in the processes without hiring a lawyer.
The bill would require that corporations applying for a permit for any large energy project or applying for a utility rate increase would put aside a percentage of the value of the application into a special fund. Individual Vermonters and Towns wishing to be parties to the proceedings could apply for grants to finance legal expenses. As of this writing this bill has not been formally introduced and does not yet have a bill number.
A recent incident has dramatized why it is so essential that Vermonters have such legal assistance to participate in the PSB process. Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment was actually under investigation by the Attorney General's office for "unauthorized practice of law" due to her efforts to guide people who were unable to afford a lawyer in their struggles to be heard before the PSB. Apparently at least one of the large corporations applying for permits did not like it that opposing views should have any kind of assistance, and filed a complaint against her. This complaint has now been dismissed, but the incident shows that the process is utterly unbalanced in favor of corporations and against regular folks. The bill submitted will also clarify that someone providing guidance as Ms. Smith has could not be charged with any such violation.
Amending Act 46.
My bill H.717 would right imbalances within Act 46, the law about Educational Governance. This bill is unbalanced in that it mandates consolidation of governance even for communities who do not find it in their best interests. The only way to avoid such consolidation is to get special permission from the Board of Education. Why should an unelected Board be able to determine the structure of district governance instead of the locally elected school boards or the voters themselves? Another imbalance is that the property tax reductions that will reward districts that do merge will be paid for within the Education Fund rather than with additional state dollars. The state is rewarding districts to do something with their own property tax dollars. Using the Education Fund to meet a state responsibility in this way that will mean higher property tax rates overall. H.717 would make consolidation voluntary and require the state to finance merger incentives with state dollars not property tax dollars.
The bill H.710 is intended to allow the state to fulfill the promise of telecommunications connectivity for rural areas. Economic development in Vermont is unbalanced, with Chittenden County growing more quickly and with a lower unemployment rate than other parts of the state, especially rural areas. One condition that can slow economic activity is the lack of high speed internet connections. We have made a lot of progress, but the standard for acceptable connections has been rising faster than past improvements. In some areas people cannot telecommute or run a business from home. Students cannot do their internet based homework from home. Some schools still have such slow speeds that long distance learning, computer based testing, and video meetings are not possible. And when internet connections are not fast enough, it is not possible to use special "microcell" mechanisms to get cell phone connections at a residence over the internet in areas that lack cell phone coverage. It can be hard to sell a house without good internet connection speeds.
H.710 would put an additional $1 million into the Universal Service Fund, and direct the Department of Public Service to make grants to improve internet connection speeds for underserved areas. The funds will come from the Capital Bill where there is extra money due to the successful sale of bonds, so this allocation would not contribute to our budget gap. I see this kind of investment as akin to the Rural Electrification programs of the 1930s – rural Vermonters have a right to the kind of telecommunications access that more densely populated areas have. Without this investment it will be hard to increase economic activity and balance our unbalanced pattern of economic development. The state needs to take responsibility for fulfilling past promises.
I hope that I have illustrated how I use the balance of rights and responsibilities to evaluate policy problems, and to offer suggestions for achieving a better balance. I hope these efforts also tend to demonstrate that I am fulfilling my responsibility to represent this district in legislative deliberations, as voters certainly have a right to expect.
Cynthia Browning is a state representative to the Legislature from the district that inclues Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.