2015 Town Meeting Report

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Mar 5, 2015 No Comments ›› maxinegrad

Rep. GradEducation

Thank you school board members and others for your feedback on how to move forward on education and property tax reform.

Public demand for a more affordable and equitable education structure has focused the work of the House Education Committee this session. Every community in Vermont faces the growing expense of ensuring that all students can access an equitable array of services and opportunities. The viability of many small and rural schools is in real jeopardy. Organizational complexity inhibits local and regional efforts to engage in operational efficiencies and respond to declining enrollments. Educators, administrators, and local board members have described specific barriers to cross-sector collaboration, meaningful program evaluation, and widespread implementation of innovative practices. Though Vermont continues to perform at the top of national and global rankings of education quality and outcomes, it’s clear we have work to do to ensure we are spending our education dollars more effectively.

The Education Committee is proposing a bill that would create an integrated education system in Vermont. It is designed to encourage and support local decisions that promote equity in quality and variety of educational opportunities; enable schools to meet education quality standards; implement structural changes to meet collective needs; strengthen the viability of the State’s small schools; create conditions that promote stability in leadership; promote greater flexibility in the management of resources; improve affordability and stability for taxpayers through economies of scale; and increase accountability and transparency. The legislature will vote on the final proposed changes later this month.

Special Education

The Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators and experts from the University of Vermont have provided thoughtful testimony about how Vermont could do better in serving children with special needs. Special education is highly regulated and includes many processes that protect the civil and educational rights of students with disabilities. Recently adopted (more effective) frameworks help students succeed in school, gain independent living skills, access higher education, and become employed. These changes, however, also increase the number of services and protections our education systems provide. Our delivery system relies heavily on the employment of paraprofessionals in providing direct services and supports to students with significant disabilities. There are a number of problems in the extensive use of paraprofessionals, including the over-dependence of children on the paraprofessional, the high cost, and congruence with overarching systems of support for all children. The education committee is delving more deeply into the challenges of meeting and financing student’s needs this session.

Stormwater: Municipalities and State of Vermont

After July of 2018, municipalities will be required to obtain a stormwater general permit for discharges from town roads. Towns will have to inventory all their roads and develop a prioritized implementation plan for improvements. The improvements will have to comply with established criteria and technical standards, such as best managements practices. More densely populated area will be required to obtain a MS4 permit (municipal separate storm sewer system). The State will also be required to manage stormwater from the state highway system.

Homelessness in Vermont

Due to a whole host of circumstances — a massive decline in Section 8 vouchers, the long stretch of extremely cold weather, and an incredibly low vacancy rate of affordable housing across the state — we are seeing a continued use of General Assistance emergency housing funds for individuals and families experiencing homelessness this winter. Seven months into the budget year, funds used for this purpose are being used at a higher rate than last year. We hope to see this trend alleviated in the near future, and during next winter, because we are seeing close to 50 new beds in warming shelters opening across the state, including 20 in Burlington. This modest increase will help bend the curve on the use of these emergency funds, and will allow us to focus more clearly on providing more long-term housing solutions for this most vulnerable population.

Supporting the Vermont National Guard

The Legislature voted unanimously on February 19th to reelect Maj. Gen. Steven Cray Adjutant and Inspector General. Over the last two years, Gen. Cray has worked successfully to prepare the nearly 4000 men and women of the Vermont National Guard to respond to the Guard’s federal and state missions. The Army Guard maintained the highest levels of readiness, as was recently demonstrated in deployment to assist our neighbors in Massachusetts with their snow emergency. The Army Guard was selected as the only National Guard Brigade to participate in a national level exercise. The Air Guard has participated in numerous training exercises and was honored to become the first Air Guard unit selected to receive the air force’s newest aircraft. While national attention has been drawn to sexual assault and sexual harassment within the military, the Vermont National Guard has made measurable efforts to address these issues and worked to improve its culture of dignity and respect. Additionally, the Vermont National Guard is expanding its partnerships at home and abroad. It continues to support an organization for Vermont employers whose employees serve in the Guard.

Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation (RESET) Program

Twenty-nine states, including every other New England state except Vermont, have renewable portfolio standards. Renewable portfolio standards require electric utilities to include renewable generation in their portfolios, and to sell renewable energy to their customers. The demand for renewable energy is spread throughout the region using renewable energy credits (RECs), which can be purchased and sold by utilities to satisfy the renewable requirements. With its strong renewable energy sector, Vermont has traditionally been an exporter of renewable energy credits. In 2014, Vermont utilities sold roughly $50 million of renewable energy credits, over total revenue of about $830 million.

Vermont needs a renewable portfolio standard now because the viability of Vermont’s RECs has been in question. If New England states disallow the purchase of Vermont RECs due to the absence of a Vermont renewable portfolio standard, Vermont utilities may suddenly find themselves $50 million short on revenues, which would result in an immediate 6% increase in electricity rates. A proposed bill, H.40, addresses this problem by creating a renewable portfolio standard for Vermont. And it goes beyond other states’ renewable portfolio standards by creating a unique energy transformation tier that will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money on energy bills. Together these initiatives are known as Vermont’s Renewable Energy Standard and Energy Transformation (RESET) Program.

Vermont’s energy transformation tier focuses on total energy consumption, which includes electricity, heat, and transportation. The energy transformation tier lets electric utilities take credit for technology that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, reduces fossil fuel consumption, and saves money. Examples of energy transformation projects include home weatherization, electric vehicle charging stations, and cold-weather heat pumps. The Vermont Public Service Department anticipates that utilities, through the RESET program, will provide weatherization or cold-weather heat pumps to more than 85,000 homes and businesses over the 15 years of the program. And, as a result of RESET, Vermonters will see a slight decline in electricity rates due to better demand management and will save $275 million in overall energy bills.

Solid Waste

The House Natural Resources & Energy Committee heard the report of the Solid Waste Infrastructure Advisory Committee (SWIAC) regarding the implementation of Universal Recycling Law (Act 148) passed in 2012. Recyclable materials such as aluminum and steel cans, glass bottles and jars, plastic containers, paper, and cardboard are to be banned from our single landfill starting July 1, 2015. Leaf and yard waste will be banned starting July 1, 2016, and food scraps by 2020. The Committee has heard testimony from ANR, solid waste districts, municipality-run programs, and small and large waste haulers as to the concerns regarding implementation. The SWIAC has offered several recommendations for changes to the law, including:

  • Supporting local markets for hard to recycle materials, such as using ground glass for road construction,
  • Consider supporting municipal recycling with grants or loans,
  • Allowing waste haulers and facilities to charge customers for recycling instead of rolling those costs into trash disposal fees, and
  • Increasing markets for compost and other uses for organics.

The committee is taking these and other recommendations into consideration with the intent to make whatever modifications make sense to the recycling law.

Aging in Vermont

There are 98,000 Vermonters who are over the age of 70. Many older Vermonters are working longer and continue to be active in their communities well into their senior years. Many live in their own homes and even when they begin to need assistance, many receive their care in their homes.

Vermont has an array of service providers and programs that can help aging individuals and families. For some, aging leads to dealing with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease of the brain that destroys brain cells, causing problems with memory, thinking and behavior. Age is the greatest known risk factor. At least 74% of people with Alzheimer’s have at least one major chronic condition, and if you include hypertension, that percentage jumps to 94%. Early diagnosis allows the patient to help plan for the future while still capable of doing so.

In Vermont there are nearly 30,000 family caregivers providing care to the 11,000 individuals living with Alzheimer’s. This has a profound effect on the caregivers who often suffer their own health crises as a result of the stress related to providing care. That leads to an estimated $20 million in higher health costs for those caregivers.

The Dementia Respite Program (accessed through an Area Agency on Aging) provides a limited amount of financial assistance to unpaid family caregivers which can be used to pay for services that provide them with a break from caregiving. The Vermont Alzheimer’s Association offers services for people with dementia, family caregivers, healthcare professionals and the general public. Services include a 24/7 telephone support line (at 1.800.272.3900), statewide support groups, caregiver workshops, and training programs.

 

 

Please stay in touch: mgrad@leg.state.vt.us, 828-2228 (State House) 496-7667 (home).

If you haven’t already, please “like” my Facebook page and “follow” me on Twitter. I will be posting updates as often as possible to keep you informed about what is happening in the Vermont Statehouse. You can also look for my updates on Front Porch Forum and in the Valley Reporter and Waterbury Record.