Legislative notebook, Jan. 13

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The 2012 legislative session was gaveled open on Tuesday morning (1/3), and with the good graces of the Manchester Journal, I'll once again do my best to supply a weekly update of news from Montpelier to Manchester's "paper of record."

So - here we go:

Maple St. School - The House convened its proceedings on Tuesday (1/3) with a phenomenal singing performance by eight 4th graders from Manchester's Maple St. School. The song they performed - We The People - was an original composed by Londonderry resident Sandy Wilbur. Given its focus on the constitutional tenets of our founding fathers, the song was an apt musical civics lesson to kick off the new legislative year. The Maple St. kids knocked one out of the park with their spectacular performance and received a very well deserved standing "O" from House members and spectators alike.

State of the State - On Thursday afternoon, Governor Shumlin delivered his State of the State speech to a joint Senate/House assembly. Most of the speech was devoted to the trials and tribulations Vermonters experienced due to tropical storm Irene, and how cities, towns, the State and private citizens of all stripes have done such a remarkable job with the restoration effort. Looking forward, the Governor reiterated many of the policy themes he has made the hallmarks of his Administration thus far - economic development, job creation, broadband expansion, renewable energy and locally grown agriculture. He also went on to restate his opposition to any increases to broad-based taxes (income, sales, rooms & meals, etc,,,) and cite a few encouraging employment statistics (Vermont's rate of job creation was the highest in the nation last year and Chittenden County has the 4th lowest unemployment rate in the U.S.). Quite frankly, I was a little surprised by the lack of any new exciting initiatives articulated by the Governor, which in fact, may be a prudent and practical tack to take in these challenging times.

Budget Gap - Up until Tuesday, most analysts were projecting that State budget writers would be faced with a $75 million budget gap to contend with when crafting Vermont's FY 13 fiscal blueprint. However, the Legislature's Joint Fiscal Office had some good news on this score on the 3rd when Steve Klein advised the Ways and Means Committee (my committee) that the gap between anticipated revenues and expenditures had dropped to $46 million. There's no doubt that growing revenues have brightened the State's financial picture over the past year. However, much of the savings that helped to close the gap has come from lower than anticipated Medicaid-related spending ($16 million less). This is surprising, at least to me, since one would think that Medicaid spending would spiral upwards in tough times. We'll all learn much more on the 12th, when the Governor will deliver his Budget Message.

Irene - The first piece of legislation dealing with the storms of 2011 made its way quickly through the House on Thursday. This bill helps cities and towns by having the State step in to absorb the costs of storm-related education property tax abatements that, under normal circumstances, would be borne by municipalities. It's estimated that the one-time cost of this measure would range between $2 and $4 million. And, although there are a number of pieces still in play (Federal aid, insurance determinations, etc....), the Secretary of Administration, Jeb Spaulding, explained to Ways and Means that he thought the State would be on the hook for no more than $100 million due to the ravages of Irene. That's a big number, but a far cry from what was being bandied about in October.

That's it for now. So long until next week.

Jeff Wilson is Manchester's state representative in the Vermont Legislature.


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