By Kitty Toll
February was a busy month in the House Appropriations Committee. Testimony on the Governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2013 was completed at the end of the month. Three public hearings were held, one through Vermont Interactive Television and two held at the State House, enabling Vermonters across the state the opportunity to voice concerns directly to the committee. The week after Town Meeting, the Appropriations Committee will present a revised budget to the Legislature for consideration. After factoring in a recent revenue down-grade, the proposed gap to close is approximately $61 million. This is a challenging task considering the difficult cuts made in the 2012 budget to address last year’s gap of $176 million. Vermont is one of a handful of states that does not have a constitutional requirement to pass a balanced budget. However, Vermont has a strong history of passing a balanced budget and making a mid-year adjustment through the Budget Adjustment Act to keep our finances in balance, and will do so again this year.
Flooding from Tropical Storm Irene closed the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury last year. This caused severe disruption to the State’s ability to provide services to Vermonters who need acute inpatient care for mental illness. The House passed H.630 - Reforming Vermont’s Mental Health System. The purpose of the bill is to strengthen Vermont’s existing mental health care system by offering a continuum of community and peer services, as well as a range of acute inpatient beds throughout the state. The bill provides replacement for the services provided at the Vermont State Hospital at acute inpatient hospitals throughout the state by contracting for renovation and operation of a 14-bed unit within the Brattleboro Retreat and a six-bed unit within Rutland Regional Medical Center, by temporarily contracting for seven to twelve inpatient beds at Fletcher Allen Health Care, by providing acute inpatient services at another temporary location if a viable setting is identified by the commissioner and licensed by the Department of health, and by building a 25-bed hospital in central Vermont. As of this writing, the Senate is taking additional testimony on H.630 and is weighing out the advantages and disadvantages of a new 25 bed facility vs. a 16 bed facility.
H.753 - The House Education Committee voted 11-0 to expand Act 153 (H.66). The bill provides financial incentives for school districts and supervisory unions who consolidate governance structures or provide services jointly. The bill provides more options for schools, school districts and supervisory unions that choose to merge and share educational resources in order to improve learning opportunities for students. Currently, three supervisory unions in the southern part of the state have received permission from the State Board of Education to merge into two, saving over $700,000. The districts within the three supervisory unions are setting dates for final approval. In addition, more than 12 studies are underway for consideration of mergers. There is increasing support throughout the state for this approach. Although no districts have voted to merge into a unified union district or regional education district (RED), there has been an increase in shared services and resources amongst districts, and many merger studies are underway.
On a vote of 138-4 the state reapportionment bill passed the house with broad support. The House Government Operations Committee focused its work on districts significantly affected by population shifts. To accommodate changes in population, boundary changes were made to several districts, a seat was added to Burlington and Rutland County was reduced by one seat. Fortunately, the northeastern districts of the state did not lose a seat. Caledonia-Washington 1, comprised of Cabot, Danville and Peacham, remains intact. It is an honor and a pleasure to serve you in the Legislature and I look forward to continuing this service. For complete information concerning districts and population visit the following site: http://www.leg.state.vt.us/Reapportionment.
As tax deadlines approach, some Vermonters may want to consider using the expertise of the Vermont Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offering free tax assistance for those earning less than $50,000/year. Also, Vermonters may qualify for a federal and state tax credit. To find more information about Earned Income Tax Credit to those earning less than $49,078/year or a site close to you for tax assistance, visit www.VermontTreasurer.gov or call 802-828-2407. In addition, one can call 211 and speak with a live person every time who can problem solve and/or refer callers to government programs, community-based organizations, support groups, and many other local and state resources.
Committee discussions and House and Senate deliberations are always open to the public. I look forward to hearing from you and encourage all to visit the Legislature this session. To get more information on the Vermont Legislature and the bills which have been proposed and passed, visit the legislative website: www.leg.state.vt.us. Please contact me at:
State House: 828-2228