The 2016 legislative session has come and gone, and while it has only been a week since adjournment, it already feels like a distant memory. The session was largely devoid of drama, and was instead focused on the core business of governing our state.
Following adjournment, I have had some time to prepare the following report on this past legislative session.
Since the beginning of the 2015 / 2016 legislative biennium, economic development - particularly in Southern Vermont - has been among my top priorities. Along with several of my colleagues, I helped champion the creation of an economic development zone for Southern Vermont and helped establish a commission to look at the economic challenges and opportunities in this part of the state. Earlier this year, that commission - led by Weston resident Wayne Granquist - delivered a comprehensive report to the legislature, which included a number of recommendations.
Included within the recommendations from the commission's report was a request for funding to help expand economic development planning in Southern Vermont. A few of my colleagues (including Rep. Laura Sibilia of Dover) and I worked hard to push for funding of this recommendation. Ultimately our advocacy resulted in an appropriation towards this important initiative. This is but one piece of a much bigger - and complex - puzzle that will require continued focus and attention in the coming years.
With the expansion of Vermont's Medicaid program, many health care providers have been struggling to cope with the relatively low reimbursement rates provided by this state program. On average, most healthcare providers receive reimbursements that are roughly equal to 80% of what Medicare (the federal healthcare program for retirees) pays, which is already below private medical insurance reimbursement rates. It turns out that ambulance services are only being reimbursed at a rate of approximately 43 percent of what Medicare pays - which is below cost.
Almost all ambulance services in Vermont are operated by non-profit organizations or municipal governments with threadbare budgets. With the extraordinarily low Medicaid reimbursement rates, many of these ambulance services have been under great financial strain that threatened to compromise service levels. Throughout the session, I worked closely with Jamaica resident Drew Hazelton, who is the chief of Rescue, Inc., the non-profit ambulance service that covers much of Windham County (including much of Jamaica) to solve this problem. Working with Drew, several of his colleagues at the Vermont Ambulance Association, various state agencies, legislative staff, and several committees in the House and Senate, we were able to develop a solution that will draw down more than one million dollars in annual federal funding. Starting July 1st, this additional funding will help raise Medicaid reimbursement rates for ambulance services to approximately 80% of Medicare (in line with other healthcare providers), and bring much needed financial stability to ambulance services throughout Vermont.
Education & Education Finance
After the passage of Act 46 last year, the legislature took a "go slow" approach with education policy changes this year. Act 46 will require a huge commitment from local communities, and many legislators felt that it would be imprudent to implement further change to our education system during the Act 46 transformation that is now underway.
There was a proposal to adjust the so-called "excess education spending penalty" in a way that would have harmed rural communities. This tax penalty would be more appropriately named the "rural tax penalty". While it is theoretically designed to keep education spending in check, this mechanism has the practical effect of raising property taxes in rural communities and does absolutely nothing to curb the growth of spending in urban communities. I fought against the proposal to bring more rural communities into the "penalty box," and was glad to see it stripped out of the annual education finance bill.
With a proliferation of wind and solar installations across the state, the siting of renewable energy facilities has become an increasingly controversial issue. Many communities have been frustrated by the lack of local input afforded under the Public Service Board permitting process, resulting in a backlash against renewable development in some parts of the state.
As a state, we have committed to a significant expansion of renewable energy generation, yet we have done very little to plan for and avoid the land-use conflicts that arise from the uncoordinated development we have seen to date. The House and Senate spent considerable effort crafting a bill (S230) that strikes a careful balance between supporting our renewable energy objectives, while ensure that renewal energy development is conforms with local, regional, and state planning goals. After some back and forth between the House and Senate, S230 passed the House and Senate with overwhelming majorities, including my vote.
So what does S230 do?
S230 establishes an optional process for towns and regional planning commissions to adopt an enhanced level of planning that guides energy siting within municipal and regional plans. Local plans that adopt this enhanced level of planning will be given "substantial deference" when the Public Service Board is considering applications for large-scale renewable energy generating facilities. This means that the developer must demonstrate conformance with local and regional plans that include enhanced energy planning, unless a compelling argument can be made - with a clear and convincing demonstration - that factors affecting the general good of the state outweigh the goals and policies of the local and regional plans.
In very simple terms, S230 provides a tool for local communities to think proactively about how they can help meet the state's renewal energy goals, and plan for thoughtful and responsible development of these resources. The enhanced energy planning process outlined in S230 is optional for local communities - those that take advantage of this option will have much more say in the Public Service Board process. However, it is important to keep in mind that towns that forgo this option will continue to have an extremely limited voice in Public Service Board proceedings that govern large-scale renewable energy development. Your local town plan is an expression of your community's planning goals and policies, so if this is a subject of interest to you, I would encourage you to reach out to your local planning commission and learn more about the planning process in your town.
If there was one thing that brought a little drama to an otherwise quiet legislative session, it was the debate over marijuana. After the Senate gave its approval to a bill to legalize the cultivation, sale, and possession of Marijuana within a tightly regulated commercial marketplace, the Senate proposal found little favor in the relevant committees of jurisdiction within the House. Ultimately the House took a series of votes on what came down to three different responses to the marijuana question:
1.A non-binding referendum, asking voters in the 2016 primary election to indicate whether they support the legalization of marijuana;
2.the Senate's proposal (S241), which would have created a regulated commercial marketplace for the legal distribution and consumption of recreational marijuana; or
3.an alternative that would have expanded decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana to include home cultivation of up to two marijuana plants. Under this proposal, it would still be illegal to grow marijuana, but the cultivation of one or two plants would be considered a civil offense (similar to a speeding ticket); resulting in a modest fine with no jail time.
I did not support the proposal for a referendum - for a number of reasons. As a practical matter, we typically see very low voter turnout in primary elections, so as a measure of public opinion, I do not think that a referendum in the primary election would be useful. More fundamentally, however, ballot initiatives and referenda are poor way to govern. In a referendum, how useful is a black and white answer to a complex question wrapped in multiple shades of gray? We could ask voters to tell us whether they want to legalize Marijuana, but such a seemingly simple question would fail to get down to important details. For example, if we were to legalize Marijuana, should we create a new commercial marketplace that would promote the legal sale and distribution of recreational Marijuana, and continue to make criminals out of people who grow a small number of plants at home? Should we open the flood gates and legalize all forms of cultivation, sale, possession, and consumption, or should we take a low key approach and legalize personal cultivation and consumption? Details matter.
We have a republican (small r) form of government; we elect people to serve as our representatives, with the expectation that they will have the judgement necessary to consider, debate, and shape the nuances and detail within legislation that no referendum could ever get into. As a small state, we are fortunate to have relatively small legislative districts, making it easy for your elected representatives to solicit and receive feedback. Throughout this past legislative session, I sought input from my constituents, considered the many points of view that I heard, and used this feedback to guide my thinking and approach.
When it came up for a vote in the House, the Senate's Marijuana legalization proposal (S241) failed by a wide margin - out of 150 members, only 28 voted in favor. I did NOT vote to support of this proposal.
Just as prohibition of alcohol failed, so has marijuana prohibition, and for that reason, I am not fundamentally opposed to legalization. With that said, we need to approach this issue carefully, learning from other states that have already gone down this path. The creation of a regulated commercial marketplace, which was at the heart of the Senate's proposal, would have entrusted the entire market to a relatively small number of commercial enterprises. Under this proposal, we would have had a small cartel promoting the commercial marijuana market, but we would continue to prosecute individuals for personal cultivation of Marijuana. In essence, existing practice would continue to be illegal, yet we would open up an entirely new market where Marijuana would be promoted. This was not an approach that I could support.What I did support was more of an incremental step - one that would have decriminalized the personal cultivation of up to two Marijuana plants. However, while this proposal gained much more traction in the House than the Senate proposal, it ultimately failed to pass the House.
No end of session report would be complete without telling you how I voted on the state budget. The annual appropriations bill is arguably the single most important bill that the legislature tackles every year. While I continue to have concerns about the growth of state spending, relative to the growth of the underlying economy, I do think that long-overdue steps have been taken to bring down the growth curve, while reducing dependence on one-time funds. More needs to be done, but on balance, I was able to vote for this year's budget.
Now that I am out of Montpelier, I look forward to spending time in our local community over the summer and fall. I will be actively seeking your input and ideas, so please don't hesitate to reach out to me.
Oliver Olsen represents a district in the state legislature that includes Jamaica, Stratton, Winhall, Weston and Londonderry.
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