Liberally Speaking (2/11/10)


2010 Legislative review

Feb. 11, 2010

By Steve Mount

The Vermont Legislature is moving full speed through this legislative session. The challenges facing our government are daunting. The two biggest, settling a budget in a time of recession and concerns about Vermont Yankee, are enough to keep them busy until May, but there is more work to be done.

$150 million — that’s the projected budget shortfall the governor and the Legislature have to fill this session. Running a deficit is not an option, so there are only two choices: Cut costs or raise revenues.

The governor, in his budget address in January, called for a bit of both. He suggested raising the property tax on middle-income taxpayers, while also calling for major cuts in education and health care.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate were receptive to hearing the governor’s ideas, but indicated that they had their own strategies for cutting the budget.

One idea that has been batted around is dipping into the state’s various rainy day funds, money squirreled away when the economy was seeing better times. The governor, however, feels these funds should be held back in case revenues fall short. By using a portion of these funds now, however, fewer drastic changes might be necessary.

Just one example: The monthly premium for the state’s Catamount Health Plan for a person earning twice the federal poverty level (about $10.41 per hour) is $60 for 2010 and is expected to be higher in 2011. The plan’s out-of-pocket limit, now at $800 for an individual, would jump to $2500 under the governor’s budget proposal. This is a tough sell for someone living at one or two times the poverty level. Already, low-wage earners are choosing to forego Catamount. This increase could make many more decide to drop the plan. Pricing the plan out of the hands of those who need it would be penny wise and pound foolish.

Anyone who has read this column knows that I am an unrepentant booster of nuclear power. My resolve on the issue is unchanged, but I am troubled by all of the news out of Vernon recently. Confidence has been shaken by the flawed testimony of Yankee executives, by the detection of tritium in test wells that surround the plant, and by the plan to sell the plant to a spin-off company that seems like smarmy corporate buck-passing.

According to Williston Rep. Jim McCullough, the closing of Yankee need not be the economic disaster some portray it as. With some state incentives, a shutdown could stimulate investment in alternative energy projects, which could bring even more jobs to Vermont. I’m not completely convinced, but I’m willing to listen.

Another of McCullough’s priorities is the protection of shorelines and riparian lands. This is an issue near and dear to many in Williston, especially those kids in our schools who have studied the Allen Brook for years, watching for signs of deterioration and environmental damage.

Our other representative, Terry Macaig, is looking to help rein in budget shortfalls in the corrections department. Part of the plan would reduce the imprisonment of non-violent offenders and increase services in prison to help reduce recidivism.

Macaig is a cosponsor of a bill that seeks to implement universal health care in Vermont. The stated goal of the bill is to reduce the cost of health care by implementing efficiencies that would follow after the elimination of multiple insurance payers.

Macaig also told me of a plan that could directly affect Williston’s town budget: a look into the fees towns pay the state to administer the local option tax. It turns out the fees are out of line with expenses, and representatives from local option towns want this changed.

Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons, a Williston resident, has several priorities, including action on Yankee, but she sees health care as a top priority. Some of the ideas she relayed to me include public-private partnerships to improve the quality of care for chronic illnesses and for the elderly, with the goal of not only improved care but also reduced cost.

Lyons is also working on reducing costs in education by looking at school district consolidation, a hot topic for some of the smaller towns and districts in the state, but one that affects the Common Level of Appraisal and could result in a lower statewide property tax.

There are many ideas for how the state should proceed in these lean times. I’ll be watching as the governor and our Legislature work out the details. This is not a time to score political points. It is a time to work together to find solutions to these tough problems.

 

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.