VT lawmakers: Washington uncertainty a concern
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — About 30 local residents, business owners, and representatives of nonprofit organizations, school and municipal boards gathered on Monday morning, March 20 to hear updates on current legislation and to provide feedback to several Vermont representatives.
The legislative breakfast forum was free and open to the public, and was sponsored jointly by the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce (SRCOC) the Springfield Regional Development Corp. (SRDC), Southern Windsor County Regional Planning Commission (SWCRPC), and Springfield on the Move (SOM).
Key speakers included Rep. Thomas Bock, D-Windsor-3, Rep. Annmarie Christensen, D-Windsor 2, Rep. Charlie Kimbell, D-Windsor 5, Rep. Alice Emmons, D-Windsor 3-1, Sen. Alice Nitka, D-Windsor, Rep. Robert “Bob” Forguites, D-Windsor 3-2, Rep. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor 5, and Rep. John Bartholomew, D-Windsor 1, along with SRCOC Executive Director Caitlin Christiana, SOM Executive Director Stephen Plunkard, SWCRPC Executive Director Tom Kennedy, and SRDC Executive Director Bob Flint.
One topic that often surfaced in legislator’s updates and concerns was the uncertain future actions coming out of the nation’s capitol.
Christensen said that health care is the fifth-largest driver of the nation’s economy, and that she feels the state of Vermont could lose “millions of dollars” if a repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act is implemented.
“So we’re in trouble with the current administration,” she said.
Christensen also spoke about care organizations and doing away with fees for service, such as laboratory tests and follow-up doctor visits. While this is not in place in Springfield yet, a pilot program is in place now at several northern Vermont hospitals, she said.
“Fees-for-service is bankrupting America,” she said.
If the percentage of insured Vermonters goes down, “the vulnerable would take the hit,” she said.
Christensen also said that initiatives need to take place that help put money back into the pockets of mental health care workers, who have an average starting pay of $25,000 with a bachelor’s degree and $32,000 with a master’s.
Legislators may have to work into summer sessions to deal with health care legislation coming out of Washington, DC as it unfolds, she said.
Others echoed that sentiment.
The biggest challenge in Montpelier right now is the “huge uncertainty coming out of Washington,” Bartholomew said.
He also said legislators were given a budget by the governor that was not balanced, and that they are trying to balance it now.
Another uncertainty is in regard to immigrants, which is a “huge issue” from an agricultural perspective, with many immigrant workers in the state, he said.
“Every time we hear about a new arrest, we’re thinking, ‘OK, who’s going to milk the cows?’” Bartholomew said.
Clarkson added that (work) visa programs are “critically important” to workers in many economic sectors.
Nitka addressed the opioid problem in the state and lack of enough treatment for addicts. She said the legislature is working on a “badly needed bill” to make the drug fentanyl, which is showing up in heroin and “killing many of our citizens,” included in the same category as heroin.
Regarding the budget, she said that not knowing what to expect from the federal government makes it hard to determine what the budget will do.
“We are going to walk out of there with a balanced budget. We always have,” Nitka said.
“The elephant in the room … is what’s going to happen in Washington,” said Bock, who serves on the House Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
The budget the state is working on now will be “very difficult,” he said.
Some of the items that the committee is working on now include bills to make it easier for farms to start accessory businesses, such as selling jams, and to make bird processing easier.
Unless money becomes available, however, the state could see “a lot of farm failures, farms going out of business,” he said.
Other topics under discussion included clean water acts, a $35 million bond proposal from the governor’s office for housing, and movements on solar energy and school consolidation.
Locally, Springfield Town Manager Tom Yennerell asked that the legislators be aware of a Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) effort to change the traffic circulation at a busy section of town, and that the state wants to block off a ramp off I-91 Exit 7, which he said some town officials oppose. Forguites said he had received photos from VTrans on Friday of the area, and was made aware of it.
Forguites also reviewed several bills in the legislature now, including a look at “substandard housing” in the region, a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bill that would allow Springfield to join a consortium, benefitting the town; and work in the legislature to bring back $300,000 in energy funding, left out of the budget last year and available through “bill-back” to public utilities, to support an unfunded mandate that towns must have an energy plan portion in their town plans.
The funding for the energy plan already exists, so that portion of the budget would continue to be level-funded, he said.
Clarkson spoke about work on bills, with the help of Forguites and Kimbell, to pass legislation out of the house, including the TIF bill and housing bond, along with other bills to lower workers’ compensation and study and increase in minimum wage, enhancing the marketing plan for the state, and encouraging a plan for technical education earlier than high school.
They have also been working on the media shield law, which she said protects the confidential sources of journalists in the state.