2012 Legislative Update: Week 11 (3/20 – 3/23)

by Jeff Wilson

There was a whirlwind of activity and some long hours on the House floor this past week. In all, we ended up giving final approval to 28 bills in Week 11 – an impressive number. Here’s a brief rundown on a few of the more noteworthy:

Transportation Bill – On Wednesday (3/21), the House passed a $639 million transportation bill for the next fiscal year. This legislation includes $66.3 million in Irene-related FEMA funding to put the State’s highway infrastructure back together, more paving money and increased highway aid to municipalities. The bill was blessed by a preliminary 139-0 vote on Tuesday (3/20).

Renewable Energy – This legislation calls for Vermont to increase its reliance on renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind, biomass, etc…) to 75% over the next twenty years. Currently, due in large part to Hydro Quebec, Vermont’s energy mix is 59% renewable. It is projected that this transition away from carbon-based and nuclear generation will increase the average electric bill by about 4.5% over the long run. The bill passed the House on a 91-46 vote on Wednesday (Wilson voting with the majority).

Fee Bill (Part 2) – This bill includes a new fee schedule for an array of different Agency of Natural Resources permit fees needed, for the most part, to cover reduced Federal aid. The House Ways and Means Committee reduced the Administration’s $3.2 million request on this score by about $1.3 million. Final approval of this legislation came on an 86-47 roll call vote on Wednesday (Wilson voting with the majority).

Education Agency – On Thursday (3/22) the House, by a voice vote, gave its final approval of a bill that would restructure the Department of Education. This revamp elevates the Commissioner of Education to the position of a Secretary; a Cabinet position that will be appointed by the Governor and serve at his/her pleasure. The Board of Education will become more of an advisory body under the legislation, while the Governor would have direct authority over the Agency of Education, and as proponents maintain, be held more accountable for the State’s education policy. On Wednesday, the House moved the bill to third reading by a vote of 114 – 17 (Wilson voting with the majority).

Appropriations Bill – Final floor action on the FY 13 Appropriations Bill took place on Friday (3/23) on a roll call vote of 99 – 41 (Wilson voting with the majority). The all-inclusive fiscal blueprint adopted for next year totals a bit over $5 billion and consists of the General, Education, Transportation and certain Special Funds. In all, the spending plan is up by roughly 6.4%, with about half of that increase due to ongoing Irene reconstruction and recovery efforts. And so far, it appears that this level of spending next year can be supported in the absence of any broad based tax increases. Some of the new non-Irene spending includes: $20.5 million for Medicaid to make up for a reduced Federal match, $14 million due to higher retirement expenses, $13.6 million for increased pay/benefits for State employees, $6 million to replace so-called tobacco funds and a projected $13.6-16.5 million in set aside funds to protect against future Federal funding cuts and/or other shortfalls.

The above-noted bills will now move on to the Senate for that body’s review, consideration and action.

– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative

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