By Linda K. Myers
As you read this column, Vermont legislators will be getting ready to return home for what is referred to as “Town Meeting break.” The Legislature will be in recess for the week of March 1 so members can attend their town meetings and talk to constituents.
During my first few years in the Legislature I wondered why we took an entire week off when most town meetings are held on a Monday evening or during the day on Tuesday. I felt we could have gone back to Montpelier for the remainder of the week to get work done. Well, this year I welcome the week’s break. The issues facing us at the Statehouse are huge, and I think many of us need some time off to get our heads around what has happened and what will await us during the remainder of the session. By the way, in case anyone is interested, this is not a vacation and we do not get paid for this week. I don’t want people to think we take time off on taxpayer dollars.
So far in this session the Legislature has passed two important tax bills – the Budget Adjustment Act (BAA) that rectifies needs in the General Fund budget passed last year, and the Executive Fee Bill that levies fee increases on a large number of Vermont businesses. And, as I noted in my first column last year, again quoting Mark Twain, “No man’s life, liberty, or property is safe while the Legislature is in session.”
After hearing from Vermonters during the campaign last fall that taxes are too high and relief is needed, these two bills are adding to the tax burden of our citizens. I will note that I voted for the Budget Adjustment Act because the state has a responsibility to have funds to pay for expenditures that were not covered in last year’s General Fund budget. But the Fee Bill adds to the tax burden on businesses. That burden is passed on to customers and users. I cannot support that, and I voted no on the roll-call vote.
I am again vice chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee (HCIC). I have served on this committee for my 14 years in the Legislature, and I find that serving on a committee that results in cutting a ribbon on a project we have led through the construction process is very rewarding. But what that means to most Vermonters is that no one really knows with the HCIC does.
First and foremost we are responsible for determining what Vermont will spend on capital construction for FY 2016/17. I often say that “we build the buildings.” The Capital Bill is funded through new long-term net-tax-supported debt that is approved by the Capital Debt Affordability Advisory Committee (CDAAC). The CDAAC was established in 1990 and considers key affordability standards including state debt per capita. The work of the CDAAC over the years has given Vermont the highest credit rating in the New England states. For FY 2016 and 2017, the CDAAC approved capital borrowing of $144 million. It is my committee’s job to determine how much of that $144 million is spent on a myriad of capital projects.
So what is proposed to be funded by the Capital Bill this year? First we have to take care of major maintenance of buildings statewide, and that comes to over $16 million. You often hear that our roads and bridges are crumbling. Our buildings are crumbling also and need constant upgrades and renovations. We will be finishing up the rebuild of the Waterbury State Office Complex that was destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene at a total cost of about $130 million, and we are looking to start construction of a $24 million new Agency of Agriculture/Agency of Natural Resources Laboratory that was destroyed in Waterbury during Irene. The new lab will be located on the Campus of Vermont Technical College in Randolph. We are looking at a $31 million request for state IT projects, and $38.5 million in requests for water quality funds, ecosystem restoration and protection, and forest and parks improvements.
As for the Corrections part of the HCIC, we are responsible for corrections policy in the state. We do not work on the bills that send Vermonters into our correctional facilities. We are responsible for what happens after they are lodged in one of our nine facilities in state and those who are sent to out-of-state prisons. We monitor activities in the correctional facilities including medical and mental health issues and the education of those in corrections who have not achieved a high school diploma. One good piece of news on the corrections front is that we have fewer people incarcerated today than we have had for many years. That gives the state hope that if this trend continues, we may not have to house people in out-of-state facilities.
I anticipate many of you will have questions about what is going on in Montpelier in the next few months. I will be happy to answer any of your questions as time permits. I look forward to hearing from you with your questions and concerns. You can call me at 878-3514 or you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com. I will get back to you as soon as I can. I appreciate the faith you have in me to represent you in Montpelier, and I will work diligently to keep the trust you have given me.
P.S. Since I have stepped down from the Essex Selectboard, this upcoming Town Meeting will be the first time in 13 years that I can sit in the audience at the meeting. I will be at the dinner before the meeting and at the meeting, so take some time to visit with me. And one more thing: Congratulations to the Essex High School gymnastics team for its 10th consecutive state championship that took place on Feb. 21. Great job ladies!
Linda Myers represents Essex Town in the Vermont House of Representatives.