A Day at the Statehouse

Fluidity. The word pops up often in closing days and weeks at the state legislature, as lawmakers scramble to finish work, wrap up bills, amend bills, or kill them off.

Things change fast. Not only are there separate Senate and House of Representatives versions of bills, there are all the amendments that get drawn up, modifying - or hoping to modify - bills that many members thought were pretty well set only 24 hours earlier.

Or, as Rep. Jeff Wilson of Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and (most of) Sunderland put it - "it's hard to keep track of everything going on."

That may be especially so this year, with finances much on everyone's mind. That may not be that unusual, but having three players - the House, the Senate and the governor's office - differing widely on how much money to raise, what to spend it on and how to tax Vermonters for it, has been a little different.

"It will be interesting to see how this issue comes to a landing," Wilson said. "Typically you'd have confidence in the House and Senate working out their differences, but with the governor more or less drawing a line around taxes, I'm not sure where this will end up."

A few weeks ago, the House Ways and Means Committee, on which Wilson and Dorset representative Patti Komline sit, passed a tax bill that called for several new taxes on cigarettes, bottled water, soda and candy, among other things, aiming to raise $27 million in new revenue this year. That contrasts with an alternative proposal that emerged from the Senate last week, which only called for $10 million in new revenue towards the state's $1.3 billion general fund budget. Neither went down particularly well over at the Governor's office, where limiting "broadbased taxes" has been a mantra. At the same time, Governor Peter Shumlin has called for a 10 percent tax on so-called break open tickets, used in recreation and service clubs as fund-raising tools, and to divert money from the state's earned income tax credit fund, which have proved widely unpopular among lawmakers and lobbyists. The stage is set for no shortage of late night negotiating, phone calls and emails.

Beyond that, proposals for new ways of funding education, legislation on "death with dignity," or as opponents prefer, "physician-assisted suicide," fees for non-union members who benefit from union negotiated contracts and more are part of the swirl.

The day starts early, and by 8 a.m., the statehouse cafeteria is a busy place, with lawmakers swapping shop talk over coffee, and lobbyists looking to bend an ear.

At one table is Cynthia Browning, talking up tax expenditures - sometimes referred to as loopholes or tax breaks - and why they should all get held up for examination. Before the legislature starts dreaming up new taxes, let's look at all the money essentially foregone to benefit one group or another. Trying to eliminate them piecemeal is probably impossible; the only way may be a comprehensive approach, she said. Around the corner sits Sen. Dick Sears, one of Bennington County's two senators, waiting to be interviewed for a news radio show. He launches into a chat about education financing.

Several ideas have been floating around on how school spending could be flattened out, he said. Eliminating small schools grants were one; lowering the threshold for where school districts exceed the state average on per-pupil spending is another.

"What woke people up was the 5 cent education property tax increase (voted in earlier in the year)" he said. "I think the whole idea is that we have a system that needs to be completely redone, but how you do that is another question."

A short distance down the hall is the home of House Judiciary Committee, where Rep. Tim Goodwin of Weston, Londonderry, Stratton, Winhall and Jamaica sits. His committee is working through its version of the Death with Dignity bill, which would allow terminally ill patients the right to choose a lethal injection to end their lives at a time and under circumstances of their choosing. The Senate has passed a version of this bill, a lean and simple document based closely on the existing law in Oregon. The House, and the Judiciary Committee, however are struggling through a more complex version that involves painful parsing of language to anticipate future legal challenges and hopefully head them off. Two legislative counselors are here this morning, walking the dozen or so lawmakers seated around a table, and ringed in turn by journalists, lobbyists and other interested parties.

For instance, one section of the bill talks about "impaired judgment" - does the patient fully understand his or her circumstances and can they make a rational, informed choice? "Without definition it might be confusing - does it require the treating physician to make a determination?" asked one of the counselors.

On it goes, through defining what is a "qualified patient," and whether or not someone should be in hospice care before they could opt for "death with dignity."

Following a session on the floor which saw the full House reduce an original proposal sent over from the Senate that called for a three-year moratorium on new wind turbine construction on ridge lines down to a call for more meetings between House and Senate committees on natural resources, lawmakers were back in committee rooms. Then it was time for a quick lunch, or in the case of the four Northshire area representatives, an impromptu caucus to discuss all that was going on.

Taxes and spending first. Browning began by noting she had voted against the House financing bill and the transportation bill - which included a hike on state gas taxes that a majority of lawmakers disliked but in the end held their noses and voted for, seeing no good alternative.

"I think we raised the property tax and the gas tax and the sales tax and the income tax and those are all 'broad based taxes,'" she said. "I don't have a problem with changing taxes when you need to, but in the absence of addressing all the tax expenditures and deductions - I think we should be cutting those before we raise taxes."

Education spending is another front burner question. There was agreement that lowering the penalty threshold was the most effective way. When she was on the Dorset school board, she and her fellow school directors were aware of it and didn't want to shoot past it, Komline, whose district also includes Danby, Peru, Mt.Tabor and Landgrove, said.

But the proposals that have surfaced so far all seemed like a nibbling around the edges, rather than the comprehensive approach that seemed needed, she said.

While Wilson sounded sympathetic, he noted how hard it had been to get even small changes through some determined lobbying.

"It was not easy to do anything in education spending," he said. "Everyone has their own little constituencies."

Just then Chris MacDonald of the Vermont Realtors, a real estate industry group, walked by and began discussing a mortgage deduction cap that had been inserted into the Senate financing plan. The cap would limit the amount of interest of home mortgage holders could deduct from state income taxes at $10,000.

This was bad news, MacDonald argued. It would not just hit the wealthier members of the state, but middle income folks as well.

"This is a direct assault on the middle class homeowner in Vermont," he said. "It's not a discretionary tax - with a 30 year mortgage you're locked in."

And so it goes.

This is Rep. Tim Goodwin's first year in the House, and he was asked what had surprised him the most.

He thought for a moment.

"It's busy as the Dickens," he said. "It's hard to remember when you weren't supposed to be in two places at the same time."

Stay tuned. Two more weeks, it looks like.


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