The end of last week was a whirlwind of activity, concluding with nationwide protests by hundreds of thousands of Americans, mostly our young people enraged by decades of political inaction on the issues of gun control, gathering Saturday afternoon at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
These young voices were heard in large groups in cities and towns throughout our country as well as here in Vermont, all with a singular message to elected officials like me: “Enough.” Enough of this country’s relentless toll of gun deaths.
Friday evening, in a lengthy session, the Vermont House voted “yes” to real changes to the state’s gun laws, including expanding federal background checks on all sales of firearms, banning bump stocks, setting a 10-round magazine limit, and increasing the age to purchase firearms to 21. The Senate passed a pared-down version of this bill, S.55, before our town meeting break. The Senate version of the bill contained the provisions for wider use of background checks and raising the age to buy a firearm in the state.
The bill, as passed by the House, will now be sent back to the Senate to see if it will concur with the changes. If not, a conference committee would be established with representation from both bodies.
I believe S.55 is part of the solution, but we also need to find more ways to help our kids take care of each other, and to reach out to those who feel left out and unable to express what concerns them. Alternatives to expulsions for students failing either academically or emotionally must be discussed as well. Improvements to safety inside and outside of our public school buildings are also imperative.
To this end, the Vermont House will be considering H.923, the capital construction and state bonding bill, this week that contains a $5 million appropriation to help our schools meet important safety needs.
Friday evening, the Vermont House also approved the fiscal year 2019 state budget (H.924) on a vote of 122 to 10. The budget makes critical investments to assist and protect vulnerable Vermonters, places significant funds in the state rainy day fund, and makes investments that will save the state tens of millions of dollars in future years.
The House Appropriations Committee kept its focus on and commitment to positively impact the financial health of the state by creating a balanced budget that continues its reliance on performance measures for accountability and desired outcomes, ensuring Vermonters’ dollars are well spent, and by building a budget that uses one-time dollars for one-time expenditures, avoiding deficits in future budgets.
The committee worked to fully restore the tuition loan repayment program for primary care workers, to increase funding for home health services, and invest $14 million over four years in mental health care with a new Substance Abuse Disorder Response Fund. The committee managed to do all that while keeping overall growth below 1.2 percent.
The Vermont House also passed an education finance reform bill this past week that provides for a comprehensive restructuring of the Education Fund, updates the Vermont personal income tax code to streamline it with the federal changes, and eliminates taxable Social Security benefits for low- and middle-income Vermonters, while preserving funding for Vermont’s public school system.
Over the past couple of summers, I have knocked on doors throughout Shelburne and St. George and heard over and over again that property taxes are too high and that our system of paying for our schools is too confusing, so we are unsure how our local voting impacts the school budget. This finance reform bill addresses these issues by reducing reliance on property taxes and moving instead to a more direct reliance on income, which is a better reflection of ability to pay, and which will lower the average homestead property tax rate by 10 percent, hoping to make it easier for people at all income ranges to live in Vermont. The plan also improves transparency and accountability of education funding for Vermonters and begins to connect voters to the decisions they make when voting.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said, “In reducing all residential property taxes and more closely tying school budgets with property taxes, we’ve reduced property tax burdens and provided comprehensive cost containment.
“It’s a win-win for Vermonters that we’ve coupled these property and income tax updates with a plan to further protect Vermonters from a tax increase due to the new federal tax code.”
This plan makes numerous changes, including expanding the earned-income tax credit, further helping bridge the income gap to help families move beyond poverty. This bill is a positive step in the direction of lowering property taxes while realigning education spending with local decision-making.
All of these bills are important and complex. As I learn about them, I also rely on comments, suggestions and viewpoints from all of my constituents. Please continue to be in touch. The best way to contact me is by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rep. Webb and I are also available to meet by appointment either in town on Saturdays and Mondays or in Montpelier Tuesdays through Fridays. My cellphone number is 233-2120.
Remember, if you want more information, each legislative committee has a home page. This is a great tool for the public to follow our work and issues of interest, and content is updated daily. The page includes committee agendas, bills in the committee, witness testimony, reports and much more. Visit the legislative page at leg.state.vt.us.
Rep. Jessica Brumsted, a Democrat, represents Shelburne and St. George in the Vermont House of Representatives.