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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

McClaughry: Legislative Review

The biennial legislative session adjourned a month ago, and it’s a good time to review the results.

The 2015 General Fund budget grew by 5.6% over the 2014 budget approved a year ago. That means that state spending is increasing about twice as fast as state revenues.

The Education Fund grew by 4.4% over last year, even as pupil attendance continued to decline. To cover the annual shortfall produced by school district voters, the legislature increased the residential education property tax base rate by four cents per $100 Fair Market Value, and the non-residential tax rate by seven and a half cents. This was on top of 5 and 6 cent increases in those rates last year.

The Vermont State Employees Union won a long-sought blanket authorization to pocket “agency fees” for representing non-member state employees. The AFL-CIO got the legislature to authorize a mechanism by which independent home service providers can collectively bargain with the State over subsidies for persons receiving home services. Although called a ‘union’ by many, this is a misnomer, since ‘unions’ are worker groups bargaining directly with employers and the state is not the actual employer of the home service providers. A second, similar mechanism was authorized for subsidized child care providers.

Vermont’s current minimum wage, already the second highest in the nation, will go up in stages to $10.50 in 2018. Gov. Shumlin successfully argued that increasing it that much in one year would hurt small businesses too much too soon.

The education lobby finally succeeded in getting the legislature to mandate that all school districts offer universal pre-kindergarten.

The legislature approved a plan from Treasurer Beth Pearce, whereby the state will stop paying for the retired teachers’ health care costs out of their retirement fund, which is only 60% funded. Instead, the state will “borrow” $28 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which is a principal reserve for the state’s cash management, and is also underfunded.
 
A news report in The Burlington Free Press noted that the legislative majority “protected their governor's plans to enact universal health care in the next two years by fending off efforts to pin him down to revealing how he would pay for it”- that is, how he proposes to raise $2 billion in new taxes.

Perhaps the two most symbolic liberal victories were the GMO bill and the Constitutional Convention resolution, known as the “Con Con.”
 
The GMO bill was touted as “letting consumers know what’s in their food”. In fact, the bill allows food manufacturers to say that their products “may contain Genetically Modified Organisms” - or not. The only certain result of this measure will be a multimillion dollar lawsuit that the state will likely lose.
 
Passage of the so-called Con-Con resolution made Vermont the first state in the union to call for a constitutional convention to repeal the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech for everybody, and limit it to those whose speech is favored by the current legislative majority in Montpelier.
 
From one viewpoint – certainly not mine – these were highly productive achievements.