Good afternoon. On behalf of myself, Senate President ProTem Shumlin,and all legislators, I wish you a Happy New Year, and I welcome yourhelp in tackling the important issues that we face in this legislativesession.
There is striking consistency between the goals outlined by theGovernor and the challenges identified by the three parties in thelegislature. We are all concerned with the impact on Vermonters of therising costs of health care, fuel, property taxes, and housing.
Vermonters want us to work together to help them. I believe that we canand that we will.
Let’s look at our priorities for the upcoming year.
We will focus on lowering health care costs for those who areunder-insured, those for whom the high costs of health care threatenstheir very livelihood, particularly small businesses and self employedVermonters.
We can bring down fuel costs. By getting serious about energyefficiency,Vermonters can save 20 to 30% of their heating bills. We need acomprehensive approach to all-fuels energy efficiency, building on ourearlier success with the efficiency of electric energy.
I believe we can reach agreement with the administration on a housingbill that will create affordable homes for working Vermonters.
condition of our roads, bridges, rail and public transit, the planningof a new state hospital, the vulnerability of our groundwater, and areview of our Corrections policies. Right away, we will seek to reducethe influence of money in politics by passing a campaign finance billthat would go into effect during the 2008 election cycle.
Concern over property taxes pervades our work. The legislature hasdirected over $41 million more towards property tax relief over the lastthree years than the Governor, through additional town highway funding,PILOT, school construction and Education Fund transfer dollars. We willcontinue to hold down property taxes and to protect Vermonters from anyattempt to cut income sensitivity or to raid the Education Fund.
This will be a very challenging year for the state budget. I recommendwe avoid short term fix band aid solutions and focus on fiscalintegrity. We have very real challenges to address and we must make thedifficult choices necessary to ensure the long-term economic vitality ofour state.
1. The Governor has apparently concluded we need 50 million dollars innew revenue and that we should increase gambling through the long termlease of the state lottery to outside interests to come up with therevenue. It causes one to wonder: This year it is sell the lottery,what asset will we sell next year?
2. We should not use one-time money to artificially lower tax rates forwhat would be only one year, albeit an election year. Instead, Ipropose to establish a Cost Containment Assistance Fund to provide astate share of investments to lower costs of public schools. Schoolsthat demonstrate long term savings from plans to make facilities moreenergy efficient or to consolidate facilities or school districts couldapply to the fund for partial state support for those investments. Let’s invest in long term cost containment, not election year band-aidsthat could actually increase school spending in the long term.
3. Regardless of how we pay for health care, we need to bring down thelong term increase in health care costs and to that end, I agree withGovernor Douglas that we should encourage healthy behaviors throughlifestyle improvements and obesity reduction. We must also seekcreative approaches to providing affordable and comprehensive healthcare options for small businesses and self employed Vermonters.
4. Our energy policies will look to the long term by putting forward acomprehensive plan to reduce home heating fuel use, saving Vermontersmoney and ensuring that public heating assistance dollars are going toheat the home, not the air outside it. Meaningful progress will requirean upfront investment and should not be held back by the failure of thefederal government to fulfill its LIHEAP obligations.
We need to build our economy in a way that is consistent with ourstrengths and that takes advantage of opportunities unique to Vermont. When I ask an entrepreneur why he or she has located or built theirorganization in Vermont, the answer often revolves around quality oflife, excellent public schools, safe and vibrant communities and oursmall size.
We intend to build on these strengths. As we seek new approaches toaffordable housing, we must preserve the balance between housing andopen space, village center life and working landscape. As we work tocontain education costs, we will maintain the excellence Vermontersexpect from their schools, and ensure that community members have ameaningful chance to participate in decisions about their schools.
We have a unique opportunity to create new well-paying jobs through therapidly expanding alternative energy sector that will help free us ofour addiction to fossil fuels. The Senate will initiate legislation todo just that.
The House Commerce Committee will initiate revisions to our corporatefiling code that provide a welcome home for virtual or digitalcorporations, building on our success at attracting captive insurancefirms to Vermont. We would be the first state in the nation to providethem a solid legal foundation.
I also applaud the work of the Agency of Agriculture to develop a FairTrade brand for Vermont or regional milk. This is another example of anopportunity that builds on Vermont’s unique strengths.
The most common challenge I hear from employers concerns theirworkforce availability and development. Jim Hayssen at Bradford Machineis looking for employees who bring "attitude and aptitude". DaltonBlackwell of Plason Inc, who is adding 100 positions in the coming yearneeds a "workforce that’s reliable, that wants to work day in and dayout".
We need to continue investment in workforce development and training,as theGovernor has proposed. But, we are sending the wrong message, when, asa state, we increase ads that urge Vermonters to "Buy this lotteryticket. You can earn a Paycheck by trying your luck." Let’s notgamble away our greatest asset – the ingenuity and work ethic ofVermonters themselves.
Legislators and the Governor have common priorities. We need toaddress them with the long term in mind, not just short term band-aids. And, we need to build economic opportunity by building on our uniquestrengths. I look forward to working with my colleagues in stategovernment, on both sides of the aisle, in both chambers, and with theGovernor, to do the good work we were sent to Montpelier to accomplish.