2011 Legislative Update: Week 17

by Vermont.com Staff

The 2011 legislative session glided smoothly to a close on Friday (5/6), with
very little rancor, suspense or confusion. In fact, our very own Bob Stannard
was quoted on the front page of Saturday’s Rutland Herald as saying that “the
differences got worked out I think more smoothly this go around than anything
I’ve ever seen”. A number of bills were passed into law during Week 17, but most
of the action focused on wrapping up conference committee work on the five big
bills outlined below. Once a joint conference committee issues its report to
work out differences between the House and Senate, that report can only be voted
up or down by each respective branch, it cannot be amended. Here’s the rundown
of House action on the major bills of the session:

Transportation Bill – The conference committee report on this legislation
was approved by a voice vote on Wednesday (5/4). The spending authorization on
transportation is slated for $554 million in the next fiscal year (FY 12). With
the expiration of Federal ARRA money, this year’s proposal is down about $41
million from FY 11. Most of the budgeted funding will be used for paving, road
construction, bridges and local highway aid. However the plan also appropriates
roughly $165 million for public transit, rail, aviation and a number of other
non-highway items.

Health Care Reform Bill – The conference committee report on this bill
was adopted by the House on a 94 – 49 vote (Wilson voting yes) on Thursday (5/5).
In the short-term, this legislation positions the State to comply with the
requirements of the new Federal health care law. In particular, the bill calls
for the establishment of a health insurance exchange; one that would include at
least two insurers. Longer term, I view this legislation more as a strategic
planning document than a hard and fast program spelling out any specific
system-wide change. The bill establishes the five- member Green Mountain Care
Board, which will define a new universal benefits plan for Vermonters and develop
recommendations to the legislature on financing. Although it is possible that
a new system could be up and running in 2014, most folks in the know are now
saying that the Federal government probably won’t grant the necessary waiver
for an early start-up. That would mean that a single-payer plan, or something
similar, couldn’t get off the ground until 2017.

Capital Bill – The conference committee report on the Capital Bill was
approved by the House on a voice vote on Thursday (5/5). This legislation,
largely funded by general obligation bonds issued through the Treasurer’s Office,
is the vehicle the State typically uses to address its long-term building and
infrastructure needs. To take advantage of near record low interest rates, and
to front load funding for some important projects, this year’s capital bill is
comprised of a two-year spending plan, instead of the normal one year authorization.
In all, the bill calls for an expenditure of $155 million; $92 million in FY 12
and $63 million in FY 13.

The Miscellaneous Tax Bill – The conference committee report on the tax
bill was adopted by the House on Friday (5/6) on a vote of 94 – 48 (Wilson voting
yes). In order to balance this year’s state budget, this legislation raised $24
million in new tax revenue. The tax package consists of increases in the so-called
health care-related “provider taxes” that are used to leverage additional Federal
Medicaid funding. For every $1 raised in these taxes, the state receives $1.60
in Federal aid. Under the final plan, additional provider taxes will come from
a 38 cent tax increase on a pack of cigarettes, increased taxes on hospitals/nursing
homes and a new .08% insurance claims assessment. Moreover, my “E-Fairness bill
(leveling the sales tax playing field between e-commerce and our local retailers)
made it into the final version of the tax bill. Unfortunately, due to the opposition
of the Governor and Senate, the law, although on the books, won’t become effective
until fifteen other states adopt a similar statute. Oh well, only another nine
to go.

The Budget – The conference committee report on the “big bill” was approved
by voice vote in the House on Friday (5/6). This is remarkable, given that at
the start of the session, it was thought that balancing a budget with a $176
million gap between revenue and expenses would result in a long, drawn out
donnybrook. Although it was far from easy, everyone pulled together and worked
out a spending plan that attracted very little in the way of pronounced conflict
or dissent. The budget bill cuts human service spending by about $38 million,
reduces the general fund transfer to the education fund by $23 million and relies
on the $24 million in new taxes and some one-time revenues to close the gap. In
all, the $4.7 billion FY 12 budget is about 3.6% lower than the current year.

With the conclusion of the session, this will be my last weekly report. I’d like
to take this opportunity to thank the Manchester Journal for its civic-minded
cooperation in faithfully printing this update throughout the session; from
January through May. I found my work this year very rewarding. I truly enjoyed
serving on the Ways and Means Committee, along with some very capable colleagues.
All-in-all, it was a good year.

– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative

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