Legislative Update – February 28, 2019

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Feb 28, 2019 No Comments ›› maxinegrad

Vermont State HouseMy committee, House Judiciary, is continuing to work on Fair and Impartial Policing, eliminating the statute of limitations for certain sex crimes, expungement, hate/bias crimes, and more.  The following are reports from other House committees.

Ways and Means

For several weeks before Town Meeting week, House Ways and Means receives a weekly report on education spending. Brad James from AOE updates the committee on how school district budgets are looking prior to being voted on at local town meetings. Thus far, after a couple of years of austerity, budgets are coming in higher than projected. The prediction from AOE in December was that school budgets statewide would come in with a 3.24% increase overall. As of Thursday, with 76 school districts reporting, the increase is 4.14%. This is important because the legislature sets the yield and the tax rate in order to fully fund all school budgets. These budgets decisions ultimately determine the yields and tax rates.

Education

Special education: H.140 will bring the state’s Advisory Council on Special Education into full compliance with federal law.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that each state maintain a panel to advise the state on how we educate students with disabilities. IDEA is a significant source of funding for Vermont schools, so it’s important that our panel be fully up to code. H.140 updates the panel’s composition to ensure that a majority of its members—as required—are individuals with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities, and that a specific blend of other stakeholders is also represented. H.140 also requires the panel to establish term limits, a change from current practice, to promote a positive balance of experience and new voices. The bill passed out of committee by a unanimous 11-0 vote on February 22 following testimony from current panel members, the Agency of Education, Vermont Legal Aid, and other interested organizations.

School buildings: Vermont’s public school buildings aren’t getting any younger, and several bills address this fact. One, H.138 would require the Vermont Department of Health to perform radon tests in schools and establish a statewide mitigation study. Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, and children are particularly vulnerable to exposure. Under the Health Department’s current voluntary program, only 91 of Vermont’s 295 schools have signed up for free testing since 2005, and 14% of these schools found radon levels above the EPA-recommended safety threshold.

The committee is taking testimony on S.40, a bill that would require all schools and childcare facilities to test and remediate any lead contamination in the drinking water. We’ll also be looking at H.209, a bill that would (1) require periodic capital needs assessments of school buildings while (2) ending the moratorium on state construction aid, prioritizing projects that are emergencies or the result of Act 46 school consolidations.

Corrections and Institutions

This year $12 million of the state’s clean water funding is being requested through the capital budget in the form of loans and grant programs that are managed by the Agency of Agriculture, the Agency of Natural Resources, and the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) which fund equipment for improving water quality on farms, loans for construction of municipal storm water, waste water and water quality projects and land conservation to protect waterways and watersheds. VHCB is also funded through the property transfer tax (PTT) and federal grants. This year the Administration has proposed a $1 million-dollar reduction to VCHB in the area of conservation even though the PTT is up $3 million. VHCB was requesting that our committee work to restore that funding through the capital bill.

The committee learned that the Administration’s recommended budget did not include funding for the continued operation of the Salisbury Fish Hatchery. The state of Vermont owns and operates five fish hatcheries which produce 1 million fish to stock our rivers and lakes each year. The Salisbury hatchery has been the brood stock hatchery where the eggs are produced and then later transported to the other facilities to be raised. Fishing is an important part of Vermont’s recreational economy, generating $36 million annually, so the closure at Salisbury would have an impact of 25% fewer fish and take roughly 3-7 years to recover. The facility at Salisbury is old and the big challenge is that the waste water discharges into a small river and soon it will not meet clean water standards. The Corrections and Institutions Committee hopes to work with other committees to find a way to stave off an immediate closure of Salisbury, so we can build some brood stock capacity at another facility.

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