Looking back on the 2012 Legislative Session, it’s good to review some of the work we accomplished. When we convened in January, the number one issue that confronted us was the damage done by Tropical Storm Irene and what we would/could do about it. In fact, meetings were held last fall, in advance of the Session, so that we could get a jump on the situation.
A number of steps were immediately taken in a non-partisan way to help towns better deal with the crisis. For cash-strapped Irene-affected towns, we delayed the local payment to the Education Fund by 90 days to help maintain cash flow. To protect towns from huge tax increases, due to Irene flood recovery work, we put $15 million into the Emergency Relief Assistance Fund so that tax rate increases would be capped at three cents. We also authorized reimbursement to towns to abate education property taxes for properties that were partially or fully destroyed and uninhabitable after Irene.
Tropical Storm Irene brought to a head a number of issues that have been on the back burner for years. We have known that the situation at the Vermont State Hospital has not been good, but the question was how we would afford to fix it. For years, we have lost federal money because VSH was not accredited but the cost to replace it was steep and money was tight. Irene forced the issue and insurance money, funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and our investment made in the Capital Bill will help replace the facility. It has also given us the opportunity to create a new system of mental health care for Vermonters who struggle with mental health conditions.
Besides the new facility that will be located in Berlin, in-patient beds at the Brattleboro Retreat and Rutland Regional Medical Center are included. A host of other approaches including enhancement of existing community services, new intensive residential recovery facilities, integration of treatment, and a clinical resource management system are created as well.
Another area that got the nudge from Irene was our transportation infrastructure. For years, we have been aware of the fact that our roads and bridges were crumbling. Many of our bridges were last replaced in the 1920s and 1930s due to flooding, and their lifespans had been reached and exceeded. This year’s transportation budget makes important investments to address the problems presented by Irene, as well as our neglected infrastructure needs. The amount approved for paving is $104 million and a record breaking $123 million is dedicated to bridges, which will help decrease the number of structurally deficient bridges in Vermont.
Sale of the Vermont Strong license plate that we approved early in the Session has been very successful and we have reached 50% of our sales goal. The plates cost $25, $18 of which goes to the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund, $2 to the Vermont Food Bank, and $5 to the production of the plate. Plates may be purchased at Department of Motor Vehicles offices statewide or at the Vermont Life website – www.vermontlifecatalog.com/products/120062. It is gratifying to see how many plates are out there as we all chip in to help with Vermont’s recovery!
Realizing that an event like Irene can happen again, the Legislature passed a bill to help Vermonters get flood insurance. To gain and maintain eligibility for flood insurance offered by the National Flood Insurance Program, which is not available in the free market, municipalities must regulate all development in the flood plain, including agriculture. The Agency of Natural Resources will work with the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets to assure no unintended consequences. Also included in the legislation are steps to address flood related erosion. Municipalities are given the tools and authority to develop voluntary erosion hazard zoning regulations.
While Irene informed a lot of what we did at the beginning of the Session, we were also able to tackle some big issues including redistricting. The goal, to the greatest extent possible, was to maintain equality of representation without splitting towns. After six public hearings around the state and many hours of testimony taken at the State House, the House Government Operations Committee developed a plan that garnered multi-partisan support. I am thankful that our district, formerly known as Windham-4 has not changed other than its name, which will now be Windham-3. The Primary Election date, set earlier to ensure our overseas military personnel have a chance to vote, will be August 28, 2012. The General Election will be held on November 6.
Additionally, we were able to make investments in renewable energy and our working landscape, take steps to achieve universal recycling and divert recyclable material from our landfills, make positive changes in education leadership, and perhaps, most importantly of all, pass a balanced budget that increases only 6%, half of which is due to Irene. This remarkable feat is due to the hard work of many on a non-partisan basis, but great credit should be given to Speaker Shap Smith for his steady, thoughtful leadership.