2012 Legislative Update: Week 8 (2/21 – 2/24)

by Jeff Wilson

Some weeks are better than others under the golden dome, and for me, Week 8 was a very good week – with two of my initiatives passing the House.

LOT Collection Fees – Space doesn’t allow for the long version of this saga, so here’s the Cliff Notes summary. In 2009, Manchester Town Manager John O’Keefe, raised the red flag on this issue, asserting his belief that the State was overcharging cities and towns for collecting/remitting local option taxes (1% on sales, rooms & meals). After a good deal of persistence (some would say obsessive pestering), I was able, with the help of my Ways and Means colleagues, to get the Tax Department to do the objective analysis necessary to see if the fee it had been charging could be justified. The report issued by the Department in January showed that the collection fee was excessive and should be lowered. Based upon this information, I was able to insert a section in this year’s Fee Bill that reduced the LOT fee by 37%. This bill, with the LOT fee reduction included, passed the House on Thursday (2/23) by a vote of 111 to 30 (Wilson voting with the majority). If passed by the Senate (where Senators Sears & Hartwell have been helpful on this in the past), this change will save local option and payment in lieu of taxes communities around $250,000 annually. For Manchester taxpayers, the savings is estimated to be about $19,000 per year. For Winhall and Stratton, the savings should be about $5,100 and $3,200 respectively. Before leaving this topic, I need to point out how refreshing it was to work on this issue with the new Commissioner of Taxes (Mary Peterson) and her Special Counsel (Michael Costa). They were very cooperative, fair-minded and transparent in their analysis and conclusions.

Ordinance Fines – A number of years ago cities and towns were encouraged to decriminalize ordinance violations (leash laws, littering, noise, open container, etc…) and convert to a civil fine-based system. Manchester went through this process when I was Town Manager in the 1990’s. This approach makes all the sense in the word, but the actual collection of the fines has always been a challenge. On Wednesday, the House gave its final approval to one of my bills which is designed to improve the efficacy of municipal fine collection from folks who have been adjudged as ordinance violators. This change transfers jurisdiction over municipal fines from the Criminal Division of Superior Court, to the Court’s Judicial Bureau. According to those in the know, like Judge Amy Davenport, the Judicial Bureau should be much better equipped to reel in fines from offenders and get them back to the cities and towns that originally issued the citations. This legislation now goes over to the Senate for consideration.

Other House Action – On Wednesday the House approved an education bill that creates additional incentives for regional cooperation between school districts. On Thursday, a bill designating skiing and snowboarding as Vermont’s official winter sports was approved. Most of Thursday and Friday was taken up by floor debate on the “health benefits exchange” bill. The lion’s share of this bill is directed at determining Vermont’s approach to complying with the Federal Affordable Health Care Act. More than anything in my opinion (and some may disagree with this), the bill became a vehicle for an ideological debate over health care reform, “single payer” and “ObamaCare”. This legislation received final House approval late Friday afternoon by a vote of 88 to 38 (Wilson voting with the majority).

– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative

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