We have reached the mid-session break for Legislators. This is a great time to reach out to your Senator or Representative or talk to them a town meeting about issues that you care about and to provide your feedback on their work during the first half of the legislative session. A couple weeks from now will be crossover, a deadline for when the House and Senate need to have voted our their respective bills so the other body can work on them. If a bill is to pass this session it must make the crossover deadline so Committees will be buckling down on must pass issues when they return from the Town Meeting break.
Testimony in the Senate this week revealed a rift between technical education centers and the state colleges. There is no financial incentive for them to work together and often they are competing for the same sorts of technical programs. A good example is HVAC certifications where the tech centers realized an opportunity because CCV and Vermont Tech didn't have programs in those areas. Other examples might include duplication of programs, such as automotive certifications that are offered by both Vermont Tech and tech centers.
Several Heads of Vermont's Regional Development Corporations (RDCs) testified last week. One of their key contributions are small grants that can help startup businesses. These grants have a simple application process with minimal bureaucracy which makes them more accessible than other loan or grant programs offered by the state. The return on investment on these grants can be up to eight times the initial investment.
The House Commerce Committee is looking at the potential for project-based Tax Increment Financing. Generally this type of financing is used to encourage development in specific downtown industrial centers like technology parks. This new program might make TIF financing more viable for smaller communities without a designated industrial area. This could be a game-changer for small towns as it allows them to offer incentives to startups utilizing projected future tax revenue.
The Committee is also looking to combine this effort with another bill that would create a smaller neighborhood tax credit program that would be operated alongside the downtown tax credit program. This would allow municipalities to designate multiple smaller areas for commercial and industrial growth instead of focusing all development in one geographical area. The bill would also increase the grant program with an additional $1M in funding.
The House Energy and Technology Committee is still grappling with how best to provide high-speed internet to all Vermont Households. Vermont's Telecommunications Director briefed the Committee on SpaceX's new Starlink satellite internet service which just moved out of beta testing last week. Vermonters already connected to the service are reporting up to 150mbps download speed and the company is promising it will get much faster as they continue adding more satellites. The initial cost of the equipment is roughly $600 and the ongoing cost of the service is $100 per month (which the company also plans to drop at some point). If the state were to step in to assist households with covering the cost of the initial equipment the state could bring half of our underserved households online with the funds already planned for in the Governor's budget for this coming year. And, the cost would be roughly one fifth the current cost to connect a household to the fiber grid. However, there were some concerns from the Committee around being able to regulate the service because there would be no physical presence in the state. Our understanding though is that the state government already struggles to regulate large telecom providers like Comcast so this may not be a large departure from the current state.
The House last week passed H.81 which creates a Commission to negotiate public school employee health benefits and to move towards a single statewide teacher contract for health insurance. Governor Scott has advocated for a similar solution in the past but we have doubts about the cost savings. Having a larger bargaining unit might be used to negotiate lower prices, but it might also backfire. Who sits on that committee will be key.
There is a proposal in the House to hit the pause button on the common chart of accounts for school districts. Many school finance administrators are apparently concerned about the viability of the software the state is implementing, some calling it "half baked." The bill would ask a committee to investigate the issues and recommend fixes to the Agency of Education. A common chart of accounts is something that CFV has supported because it would allow line item comparisons between school district budgets across the state (something not possible currently). We would like to hear more from school business administrators before hitting the pause button on this important work.
Property tax discussions are still ongoing in the House, but largely legislators are in a holding pattern until town meeting votes come back this week. The outlook is still good however with proposed budgets coming in much lower than expected.
The Senate is looking to give municipalities a little more leeway with their own policy making. The problem is they aren't quite sure how to do that. One legislator suggested that they just enable municipalities "to do whatever they needed to as long as it doesn't conflict with state or federal law." The problem, of course, is that state law is quite prescriptive about what towns are able to do on their own. In this light, a review is underway to determine exactly what limitations are in place and what could be struck from statute to give municipalities more ability to implement their own policy solutions.
There was a heated exchange in the Senate Government Operations Committee last week around Results-Based Accountability (RBA) outcomes. The issue came down to whether the Committee valued outcomes or the process to get to the outcome more. Senator Ram called for public hearings to gather input on the process to arrive at the outcome goals of RBA. State officials pointed out that they had held these sorts of hearings in the past with lackluster participation and that Covid-19 was a concern in the current environment. Other Senators on the Committee were concerned a lengthy hearing process would cause a long enough delay that outcome goals wouldn't be passed this year.
-Campaign for Vermont Team