Legislators return to Montpelier
All four representatives said one of the biggest challenges legislators will face during this session is the $70 million gap in the budget. "That's [the budget gap] certainly a concern," Goodwin said. "It's a lot of money and a 'what the heck are we going to do situation;' it's going to take some work."
Rep. Jeff Wilson (D-Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate, Sunderland) said for him, the budget gap makes it hard to accomplish some of his goals as a representative, like seeing an expansion of publicly funded pre-kindergarten programming.
Along with seeing an expansion of early childhood education, Wilson said he is interested in tax reform, addressing climate change through issues like better thermal efficiency in buildings and less dependence on fossil fuels, as well as addressing opiate use and addiction in the state. But the budget gap is also a major concern for Wilson.
"A big challenge will be balancing the budget," he said. "With the federal cutbacks, [how] will we do it? The question is how and what pain will have to be inflicted."
So far, Wilson has introduced bills about maintaining town records in a digital format, imposing an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and prohibiting certain employment after elected or appointed officials in the Executive Branch leave public office. He will also introduce a bill authorizing supervisory unions to create "public education innovation zones."
Cynthia Browning (D- Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate, Sunderland) has introduced legislation about tax and budget reform. One of the issues she brings to the state house from her constituents deals with electricity rates and how much they pay. An issue of personal importance deals with the surface waters of the state, specifically the Lake Champlain Basin. She said commerce and development in the area has damaged the surface waters in the region, and while she wants to see them cleaned up, she does not want the rest of the state to pay for it.
"They [residents of the Lake Champlain basic] screwed up their surface water and now they want the rest of us to pay for it," she said. "We may not have created the problem...they [residents of the Lake Champlain Basin] should pay for their mistakes."
Health care and property taxes are going to be a focus for Rep. Patti Komline (R- Dorset, Danby, Mt. Tabor, Peru, Landgrove). She said many people in government are very concerned about the level that property taxes have gone up. Property taxes were expected to go up 5 cents per $100 of appraised value. Now, it looks as though taxes will be raised an additional 2 cents, to 7 cents and Komline said she thinks the breaking point has finally been met.
As for health care, she said she hopes there will be more transparency as to issues with Vermont Health Connect, as well as keeping meetings and what was discussed at meetings about health care open to the public.
"We want to make sure as we go forward that everything is honest and open," she said.
Taxes, Komline said, will be a major issue because of the rate they are expected to rise, as well as because this year is an election year, and everyone "starts positioning now."
Independent education and keeping school choice safe in Vermont will be a major issue for Goodwin this session, he said. He is planning on introducing a bill that would eliminate the cost of school audits from the cost of education per equalized pupils. In a large school, that wouldn't raise costs much, but in smaller schools, like The Stratton Mountain School, he said, it is a huge expense.
He also wants to make sure that when discussing property taxes, that independent schools keep their funding.
"There is some sentiment in the legislature that doesn't favor independent schools. They think those schools take money away from public schools," he said. " Obviously, in this district, we think school choice is important...I personally think those schools are important aspects and I will be up in arms if anybody comes along and says otherwise."
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