‘Challenges For Change’ Proposals Trim Budgets, Overhaul State Policy

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(Host) The Douglas administration and the Legislature are pursuing an ambitious cost-savings plan called "Challenges for Change."

But some of the proposals go far beyond trimming the state budget and aim to overhaul state policy.  

As VPR’s John Dillon reports, critics say the administration wants to weaken the environmental permit process as part of the Challenges for Changes initiative.

(Dillon) The idea behind the Challenges for Change proposal is to streamline government, deliver better services – and save $38 million dollars.

But the bill that would put many of the ideas into law also makes fundamental changes to state environmental permit programs.

(Greenwood) "These are huge, huge shifts in policy, probably the most dramatic we’ve seen, certainly in the almost 20 years I’ve been working in this field."

(Dillon) Kim Greenwood is with the Vermont Natural Resources Council, a statewide environmental group. She says the legislation would put the regulated industry more in charge of environmental permitting.

(Greenwood) "Anything from saying if you fall into this category you’re exempt from any regulations to if you fall into this other category, you certify that you’ve met all the requirements, so an agency staff person or technical person would never review those permits, you would just send in your certification and off you go."

(Dillon) Jonathan Wood is secretary of Natural Resources. He says the changes will not weaken environmental protection.

(Wood) "The goal is to get more compliance, and if you have a regulated community that understands the process more, and the process is clearer and easier achievable, you get better compliance…. And I don’t agree that that is a lessening of Vermont‘s regulatory or environmental standards whatsoever"

(Dillon) Another proposal would give the Forest and Parks Department more leeway to sell state land. That idea was met with skepticism when Putney Representative David Deen briefed the House Democratic caucus.

(Deen) "I don’t know if you’re aware, but one of the challenges is land transfers to be approved – as opposed to the Legislature as how it is done now – that approval would come from the governor’s office. And we are opposed to that, also."

(Dillon) Forest and Parks Commissioner Jason Gibbs said he floated the land sales idea in a draft document. But he said it’s no longer on the table.

(Gibbs) "I think there was a little bit of a misunderstanding. Our proposal as it exists today would simply allow the proceeds of sales that are approved by the Legislature to come back to us to offset the General Fund expense or the expense that we bear on behalf of taxpayers in order to carry out those sales."

(Dillon) Legislative leaders say they are dividing the Challenges for Change ideas into three buckets – those that make sense, those that need more debate, and those that are dead on arrival.

The process of determining what is kept and what is discarded continues all week.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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