We were extremely busy in Montpelier this week. Long days on the Floor of the House were necessary for us to debate the many bills that had passed out of committees in time for crossover. Those bills are now on their way to the Senate. While action was proceeding on the Floor, the two money committees – Appropriations and Ways and Means – were working hard to meet their own crossover deadline of this Friday.
Ways and Means has the unenviable task of looking for ways to fill a $20 million hole in order to balance our budget. A number of different options have been considered to achieve that goal including reduction of the mortgage interest deduction, a tax on satellite services, elimination of the production deduction credit. Many of these proposals do not raise a significant enough amount of money to make them worthwhile and have been taken off the table. As I write, the committee is considering some proposals involving adjustments to the income tax.
The Transportation, or “T,” Bill drew a lot of debate. In recent weeks in this column, I have focused on the challenges presented by our transportation infrastructure and the structural problem with the Transportation Fund. To recap, in the 1970s, we had a relatively new infrastructure but it is now showing its age. In recent years, we should have been focusing on the repair and maintenance of our roads, bridges, and culverts but we put it off and things have now come due.
At the same time, we have sold 40 million fewer gallons of fuel due to more efficient vehicles and decreased use with the advent of higher prices. Because we have a per gallon gas tax, the amount going into the Transportation Fund has decreased significantly and we find ourselves with a $240 million/year shortfall for the next five years. The source of the majority of the debate and amendments was the proposed gas tax, which will become a percentage tax and increase from the current 6.7 cents to 6.9 cents in 2014, 7.7 cents in 2015, and 8.8 cents in 2016. While we would prefer not to raise the gas tax, this will provide much needed revenue to match federal dollars and keep our roads, bridges, and culverts in decent condition.
The Equal Pay bill also generated a lot of debate. It mandates that people who are doing the same work should be paid the same amount. Women are currently paid $.84 for the same work men are paid $1.00 for. It’s better than the national average of $.79 on the dollar, but not good enough. The bill also encourages the concept of flex time where possible.
We also passed a bill relating to opioid addiction and methamphetamine abuse (H.522), which was overwhelmingly supported though took time to debate. The legislation regarding the strengthening of Vermont’s response to opioid addiction and methamphetamine abuse was a teamwork effort on the parts of the Human Services; General, Housing, and Military Affairs; and Judiciary Committees. The bill takes a comprehensive approach to the problem by taking measures to prevent abuse of prescription drugs, improving access to treatment and recovery, and providing for the safe disposal of prescription medicine. Prevention and treatment of opioid-related overdoses through the use of an opioid antagonist will save lives. An electronic registry system monitoring the purchase of ephedrine will slow down the production of methamphetamine. This, and other measures included, will make our communities safer.
We also passed a companion bill (H.65) that provides limited criminal immunity from liability for reporting a drug or alcohol overdose. It provides an incentive for people to call for help rather than let someone die of an overdose for fear of prosecution. A story was told of a young man whose friend overdosed and was dying. He thought seriously of leaving his friend but knew it was the wrong thing to do. He called for help, his friend was saved, but he was sent to jail. This is remedied in H.65. The bill also allows for the administration of Naloxone.
Other bills that are important but will be affected because of the lack of money include the Thermal Efficiency bill.