In Montpelier, Challenging Policy Dilemmas Await Returning Lawmakers

Jan 2, 2018

Citizen legislators from across Vermont return to the Statehouse Wednesday morning for the second half of the legislative biennium, and many lawmakers are preparing for an unusually busy year in Montpelier.

During his 10 years in office, Addison County Sen. Chris Bray has gotten a feel for the rhythm of the Legislature. He says the big action generally seems to come during the first half of the biennium, while the second half is “more about tidying up stuff that was started in the first half.”

This term, he says, feels different.

“This biennium I’m feeling like we really had almost a delayed start ... as legislators almost sort of sat on their hands waiting for the administration to put forward proposals, so I think this year we’re gonna be going faster than normal coming out of the starting gate in January,” Bray says.

The list of policy initiatives left over from last year is long, and many come with complex and controversial budget and revenue implications.

Take, for instance, the push to come up with a long-term funding mechanism for water quality. The effort will cost an estimated $1 billion over the next 20 years. And for three straight years now, lawmakers have failed to settle on a plan to raise the money.

Westminster Rep. David Deen, the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, says he thinks lawmakers will act more decisively in 2018. And Deen will be among the elected officials pushing for the adoption of an annual per-parcel fee, on every landowner in the state, to fund the effort.

“Issues like this take time to simmer and marinate,” Deen says. “There’s a coalition around this approach this time that had not existed previously. And it does include business and it does include municipalities.”

Key lawmakers say they hope 2018 will be a year of action on another notoriously vexing policy front: property tax reform.

Calais Rep. Janet Ancel, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, says this session, she thinks, will “look seriously at whether we can make the funding system simpler and at least as fair as the current system is.”

Ancel says it’s hard to say at this point what exactly that reform might look like. But with statewide property tax rates set to jump by 7 cents this year, lawmakers are feeling pressure to do something.

Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings says they’re feeling some pressure from Washington, D.C., as well, in the form of a federal overhaul that will affect income, corporate and estate taxes, “all of which will impact individual folks and their incomes and their revenues.”

“And there is just an awful lot going on that we’re gonna have to follow and do the best we can to hold people harmless,” Cummings adds.

The federal tax overhaul includes another provision that could ripple the policy landscape in Vermont, and that’s the repeal of a mandate that requires every U.S. citizen to have health insurance.

That mandate was part of the federal Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare." And it was designed to stabilize insurance markets.

Hinesburg Rep. Bill Lippert, the chairman of the House Committee on Health Care, says the federal repeal leaves state lawmakers with a new dilemma:

“In the absence now of a federal insurance health care mandate, whether we in Vermont should create a mandate,” Lippert says.

Lawmakers will be wrestling with some other contentious policy questions as well:

On that last one, it seems all but certain lawmakers will say, ‘Yes.’ The other issues though are far from settled. And there’s one wild card out there that could make lawmakers’ lives even more complicated than it already is.

Gov. Phil Scott won’t deliver his budget address until later this month. And if last year was any indication, it too could be filled with big surprises.