'Heightened consideration'

The Governor has given his budget address and the House has passed two bills that in my opinion will fail to achieve their professed goals. They seem like attempts to look as if something is being done rather than actually doing anything.

The bill S.25 concerned public advocacy by the Department of Public Service. DPS is supposed to advocate for the interests of Vermonters before the Public Service Board, which regulates electric utilities. The bill was presented as a way to give residential ratepayers and small businesses greater influence in regulatory proceedings even though they may not be able to hire attorneys to represent them. It requires DPS to give "heightened consideration" to their interests. This term "heightened consideration" has no legal definition nor is it defined in the bill. So it is not at all clear what it might mean in practice. Will it mean that someone's letter is read twice instead of once before being filed away?

This bill does nothing to guarantee that DPS will ever take positions that put the interests of ordinary Vermonters over those of the utilities and other large corporations. That is what it should have done. But even if that had been required now, the outrageous decisions in the merger of CVPS and GMP are done. GMP has appropriated a large part of the merger savings and has retained the $21 million from the ratepayer bailout of CVPS, and there is no desire among those in power in Montpelier to reverse those decisions, or even to admit that they were wrong. I voted for S.25, but I do not think it will mean that ordinary Vermonters get better treatment within the regulatory process or in the setting of rates.

But if you want to let DPS know your views on matters related to electric or other utilities, just in case they may give your interests "heightened consideration," contact Commissioner Chris Recchia at 802-828-4071 or chris.recchia@state.vt.us, or DPS, 112 State Street, 3rd Fl., Montpelier, VT 05620-2601.

The "campaign finance reform" bill S.82 increases contribution limits for most state offices. It creates the opportunity for large corporations large unions, or wealthy individuals to make larger contributions to political parties, which can then make unlimited contributions to party candidates. It will be harder for people to run as independents, or to challenge incumbents. There is not enough new disclosure of contributions and sources. This bill does less than it could have done to protect Vermonters from the disproportionate political power of those with concentrated financial resources. I voted against it. It is interesting to note that with the lack of real campaign finance reform, the contributions that utilities make to political parties and through them to candidates can be larger. So a Vermonter might wonder just whose interests will continue to get "heightened consideration" in the Legislature and in the regulatory processes of this Administration ?

In his Budget Address the Governor proposed to spend more on roads and bridges and more on treatment for people with drug addictions. Such priorities make sense. But one of the ways that he balanced the budget was to increase the tax on insurance claims. This will drive up health insurance costs for many, which does not make sense.

The Governor proposed to use funds put aside for reducing property tax rates to make a state payment to retired teachers' health care. My understanding is that this obligation stems from an agreement between the state and the teachers' association, so it should not be funded from the property tax relief fund. And his assertion that the state transfer to the Education Fund from the General Fund is "fully funded" is only valid if the permanent reduction of this obligation by $27 million three years ago is forgotten. Property tax rates are 9 points or 9 cents higher now because of that. So I am pretty sure that the Governor is not giving property taxpayers "heightened consideration."

I can be reached at 802-375-9019 or cbrowning@leg.state.vt.us or found on Facebook. I hold legislative "office hours" over breakfast every Saturday at Chauncey's Restaurant on Route 7A in Arlington from 8 to 9:30.


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