Right to the Point1/22/09

Goals for the 2009 Legislative session

Jan. 22, 2009

By Mike Benevento

The 2009 Vermont Legislative session began over two weeks ago. As Gov. James Douglas noted in his inaugural address, although Democrats control the Legislature, Vermonters expect all parties to work together to steer the state through rocky shoals. Given this, please urge Williston’s representatives — Democrats Terry Macaig and Jim McCullough — to advocate on your behalf this session.

Compared to last year, there is $200 million less available for Vermont’s budget. In his address, Douglas explained that there are four primary methods to balance the budget — spending reserves, relying on federal aid, raising taxes and deep spending cuts.

Because no one knows how severe this recession will be, Douglas said that now is not the time to use the “rainy day” fund reserves as a quick patch for the problem. The economic crisis is likely to get worse and — once used — the reserve funds will be gone.

Especially with the economic crisis, the Legislature needs to hold the line on new taxes — striving for tax cuts whenever feasible. Because Vermonters have one of the largest tax burdens in the nation, no tax increases should be at the forefront of any budget discussions.

President Barack Obama and Congress are working on a large federal aid package for states to help stem the national economic slide. Under such a plan, Vermont might receive as much as $350 million over two years. Even if approved, the state bailout plan will not solve Vermont’s budget woes by itself. Besides, unless spending cuts are made, the underlying problems will remain once the money dries up.

According to Douglas, education and Medicaid are the two best areas for saving money. Together, they account for 63 percent of the state’s budget. While other important state services have been feeling the economic pinch, these two seemly grow without restraint each year.

In the last five years, Vermont has experienced an education spending expansion. In his address, Douglas noted that student enrollment has dropped by 10 percent since 1997, yet school staffs have increased by 22 percent. Additionally, education spending for 2010 is expected to grow 6 percent. So, in this era of shrinking revenue, spending on Vermont’s education continues at a boom-time pace.

Douglas called on schools to share the sacrifice being made by other areas of state government in the face of declining revenue. In his inaugural address, he proposed level funding of school budgets for next year while having a task force investigate a new education funding structure.

Like the 49 other states, Vermont’s biggest challenge is surviving the recession. Still, the Legislature cannot lose sight of other important issues while it tackles the budget. The economy is a national crisis. It is too overwhelming for Vermonters to resolve. Therefore, the Legislature needs to take care not to be bogged down by it. Do due diligence, but also pass legislation on other issues.

The Legislature should enact laws to better support parental rights and help protect Vermont families. Legislation should include stiffer penalties for drunken driving — especially repeat offenders.

It is time to pass a parental notification law — requiring abortion providers to inform a parent or guardian prior to performing an abortion on a minor. In rare cases where parental involvement is inappropriate, a judicial bypass provision allows the minor to petition the court to exempt her from the notification requirement.

In order to help protect children from sexual predators, Vermont needs to pass Jessica’s Law and ratify other changes, making it easier to investigate and prosecute sex offenders. Jessica’s Law establishes a minimum 25-year sentence for anyone convicted of sexually abusing a young child.

Vermont needs to re-license Vermont Yankee. The nuclear power plant provides large amounts of clean and affordable electricity. Unlike coal-burning power plants, nuclear energy does not add to global warming. As long as it remains safe, the Republican Party supports Yankee’s re-licensing (Rep. McCullough wants to close Vermont Yankee).

Other recommendations for the state Legislature include streamlining government, providing incentives for green businesses, increasing health care accessibility and improving roads and bridges. Finally, since it was such a success last year, the Legislature should strive to make the Sales Tax Holiday an annual event.

So, while continuing to serve Vermonters despite difficult financial times, the government needs to avoid concentrating too much on economic issues at the expense of other important legislation like education, Jessica’s Law and nuclear power. Please hold McCullough and McCaig’s feet to the fire on these and all other issues important to you and your family.

Michael Benevento is a former Air Force fighter jet weapon systems officer. He has a bachelor’s degree in Military History and a master’s in International Relations. Mike resides in Williston with his wife Kristine and their two sons, Matthew and Calvin.