by Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier-
I sit here trying to sum up the legislative session, without much success. I was pretty glum about the whole session, until the last day when it became clear that we would begin down the road of making the income tax structure somewhat more progressive. A minimum tax of 3 percent on incomes of $150,000 or more and a cap on deductions which protects medical and charitable deductions puts our feet on the road; a study of expanding the sales tax to services provides a direction on that road. If we have to raise revenue to support government services, this is the way to go.
I was discouraged by the session not as much for what we did, but how we did it. I was disturbed by the sergeant-at-arms election; Francis Brooks has always been and is an exemplary public servant — someone we could all model our lives on. I am sorry this phase of his career ended as it did. The expression of admiration and support from Montpelier was wonderful and very meaningful.
We had a reluctance to embrace an ethics committee; nevertheless, the House set one up and all of us attended training. The charges against Sen. Norman H. McAllister, R-Franklin, rattled a lot of my colleagues. I think we will see higher standards — and scrutiny of behavior — in the future. Clearly the time to think about workplace issues is before they are a problem, not after. Montpelier residents have a bird’s eye view of legislators’ behavior — are there issues you think the legislature needs to address?
I did not vote for the education bill or the removal of the philosophical exemption. Not because we don’t need to do something about the cost and quality of education or need to make sure communicable diseases are contained. In both of these cases, I was very disturbed by the approach — a mandate before we tried all other means of accomplishing the goal. Government should only use its police powers when all else has been exhausted.
As a member of the Appropriations Committee the pressures and pains of managing a budget with embedded structural problems were front and center. The $113.2 million gap we closed this year was created by three areas of growth: Medicaid spending; teacher and state employee salary and benefits; and, the general fund contribution to the education fund. This was compounded by the past use of ‘“one-time” funds to support annual budget needs.
We did a good job of reducing our reliance on one-time funds, we honored our obligation to fully fund the education fund and we funded the plan to address retirement benefits. Our challenge is meeting an ever growing cost of, and demand for, Medicaid, which brings us to perhaps the greatest frustration of the session — no significant headway in reducing the costs of or need for health care. If there is any good news on the health care front, it is funding of an actuarial analysis of how much it would cost to publicly fund primary care for all Vermonters.
There was other good work that happened, we made it easier to vote with same day registration, made a small investment in working lands, we avoided draconian cuts to the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, we eliminated predatory sales practices through limitations on rent-to-own agreements, we continued our commitment to expanding our renewable energy resources. Perhaps the most important piece of work this session was the water quality bill which began the process of, finally, making significant water quality improvements in our lakes and rivers.
This list is a lot longer. If you have any questions about particular pieces of legislation, please let me know. And let me know your thoughts for the coming year. I’m always happy to meet and talk about issues of concern to you. And if you’d like to be removed from this mailing list, please let me know that too! The best way to reach me is email or cell phone.