Legislature preview ’96
Vermont’s fiscal woes will be front and center this session in Montpelier as lawmakers debate how to trim expenditures and try to increase tax revenues. A growing state deficit and no significant growth in jobs will be aggravated by federal cuts, the extent of which are not yet known, to a variety of programs in Vermont.
The lobbying on environmental and health care issues will not be lacking this session, observers predict, but they caution it will be against the backdrop of a cash shortage of about $50 million between last year’s shortfall and this year’s expected shortfall, and on top of that about $26 million in federal cuts, according to Speaker of the House Michael Obuchowski (D-Bellows Falls).
DOING MORE, OR AS MUCH, WITH LESS
Environmental groups have a slew of items, some of which are perennial favorites, on their agendas, but State House watchers said that new programs, especially those that cost more money or are at least perceived to hurt jobs, would stand little chance this session.
But according to the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, Senator Matt Krauss (R-Washington), innovative, cost-conscious approaches to environmental protection could fare better.
“The focus will be on doing things differently, and just because we don’t have any money doesn’t mean we can’t take positive steps.”
Krauss has introduced a bill to give certain protections to businesses that do so-called “self audits” of their compliance with environmental protection laws. Similar legislation has passed over the last two years in at least a dozen other states, partly because it’s seen as an effective way to push industry toward compliance in an age when environmental agencies are cash-strapped.
Saying that such legislation represents “the cutting edge of environmental protection,” Krauss claimed it encourages voluntary compliance because it removes the threat of enforcement of violations that any business finds on its own, provided the business sets out a plan to get into compliance.
Krauss said he would introduce another environmental streamlining measure to reduce the strain on government, and according to Barbara Ripley, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, the administration supports it.
That bill would set up a “permit by rule” and “generic permit” system whereby people engaged in certain activities that pose little risk to the environment could pursue the activity without having to go through the standard permit review process.
“Permit by rule” would simply allow certain activities to be undertaken as long as they meet a boiler-plate set of conditions. The generic permit would be required in some cases, but it would, as its name suggests, have conditions that would not vary from permit to permit. Small recycling facilities and transfer stations are among the types of activities that would fall into these categories, Ripley said.
According to Kevin Ellis, a partner in the lobbying firm Kimbell, Shennan & Ellis, a battle is likely over so-called “stage-two” vapor recovery systems on gas station pumps. Vermont is the only state in New England that does not requite at least some gas stations to install the systems, which sometimes are accordion-like devices on gas hose nozzles, designed to capture fumes that otherwise escape during fill-ups.
ANR wants to issue the requirement by rule, to be phased in over at least four years, but the petroleum industry and many legislators oppose that route, saying the issue would not get a broad enough hearing. Opponents also say that because the lawmakers have not moved legislation on the issue that’s been pending for several years, that the Legislature opposes such a requirement.
Ripley counters that the administration has the authority to promulgate the rules unilaterally because this particular proposal, unlike that pending in the Legislature, does not include any fees.
Environmentalists and health advocates say that the fumes, especially benzene, that escape during refueling are harmful. Benzene is a known carcinogen.
Joe Choquette, executive director of the Vermont Peuoleum Association, said the system isn’t necessary for pollution control if the state implements a tailpipe inspection and maintenance program to cut smog. In addition, he claimed that benzene does not pose enough of a danger to those pumping gasoline to warrant the program.
But Ripley said the state’s primary consideration are the health threat to people pumping gas and people frequenting areas where there are higher concentrations of gas stations.
Choquette said that it would cost an average of $20,000 per service station to install the proper equipment for a stage-two system. He acknowledged that the bulk of the largest stations already have the proper equipment underground, but said that the cost to install the above ground equipment would cost about $750 per hose. Ripley said that the rule would exempt smaller stations, reducing the burden on “Mom and Pop” stores that sell gas.
If the requirement were to be put into place through regulation, it would be presented to the Legislative Committee on Administrative rules, whose leaders, Representative Ann Seibe (D-Norwich) and Senator Cheryl Rivers (D-Windsor) are both a strong advocates for environmental protection, and even if the committee did not vote in favor of the rule, the Agency could adopt it anyway. The role of the legislative committee is to try to assure that rules issued by the administration carry out the intent of the Legislature, but adopted rules that it does not approve of are more vulnerable to challenge.
Act 250 will probably be left alone this session, both business and environmentalists say, partly because of the Environmental Board’s work over the past six months on changes to rules.
And while the Vermont Chamber of Commerce still endorses pending legislation to remove the appeal rights of certain parties, it doesn’t look like there will be any movement on that front, according to Chuck Nichols, the Chamber’s director of environmenfal issues.
“We have spent a lot of energy on (Act 250) and we’re tired of it and we’re not getting anywhere,” Nichols said. The legislation is buried in committee, and “quite frankly I don’t know if that’s possible,” he said.
“The Board went through an exhaustive process over Act 250…and the Legislature would be well-advised not to spend a lot of time on Act 250,” said Steve Holmes, legislative director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
However, he said that any Act 250 legislation VNRC supports would allow citizens to bring appeals of Act 250 decisions to the Vermont Supreme Court, something that a citizens group attempted to do unsuccessfully in the Williston Wal-Mart case.
In the first versions of the recent Environmental Board rule-changes, the Board had proposed narrowing party status but in the end dropped the proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition. The new rules, which are designed to streamline the operations of the Board and expedite decisions, were finalized in November.
Sources said there are murmurings of support for an Act 250 exemption for granite quarries. Last session the slate industry fought for a clarification of Act 250 law which in the end benefitted the industry. Detractors called that action an “exemption.”
Other possible environmental iniatives include one that would set up a fee system for private use of public waters. That could include a per-gallon charge to hydroelectric users, ski areas, industrial users, and others. Ripley said the Agency has not made a decision whether to support such legislation, but the Agency issued a draft report in mid-December on the issue.
Other legislation would return uncollected bottle deposits to the state for recycling programs and another would close the 10-acre loophole with respect to septic systems and allow more alternatives to conventional septic systems. A bill to put a moratorium on spraying herbicides on forests may pop up, as well as a move to certify foresters and loggers.
One of the uncertainties in the environmental arena at press time was the future chairmanship of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee. Curt McCormack, a Rutland Democrat who chaired the committee for the last few years, stepped down from the Legislature shortly before the session to pursue a job with the administration.
McCormack had been a strong environmental voice in the House, and he has said one of his proudest achievements was pushing through a bill in the late 1980s to ban the sale of cars with air conditioners powered with chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. Governor Howard Dean was to appoint someone to fill the seat but had not done so at press time.
The impact of the state’s money worries may be more evident in the health care realm, particularly as it relates to the expansion of Medicaid to cover the working poor, an effort into which the Dean administration has invested time, money and political capital.
According to Norman Wright, the president of the Vermont Hospital Association, the issue of whether or not there is enough money to carry out much-touted the program to insure working Vermonters and move them and present Medicaid recipients into managed care will be contentious.
“Can we get this thing up and running, and will it be sustainable? It will be a real hot debate,” Wright said. “The debate will be over whether we have the money for the benefits package and whether providers will sign contracts,” he said. “I’m not optimistic it will work in the longterm.”
Republican Lieutenant Governor Barbara Snelling also said she was skeptical of the program, and said lawmakers would probably introduce legislation to amend the law Dean signed with much fanfare last year.
She stopped short of outlining details or the amount it could save, but said the plan would use individual medical savings accounts funded by Medicaid to provide savings and increase choice for the new beneficiaries.
Snelling, who is challenging Dean next year for the governorship, added that the current–and only–bidder for the state contract to ensure the working poor, AssureCare of New York City, has no experience covering people in Vermont.
“To reach in desperation to AssureCare to say the state is doing something, is unacceptable,” Snelling said.
Snelling also said there is support for a broader review of curent health care policy and urged a review of Act 160, the state’s 1990 law which–among other things, gave the state government more power to set health care policy in Vermont.
“Was it layingthe groundwork for government control or health care that we no longer desirer?” Snelling said.
At least one health care provider is asking that same question, as they negotiate with the state over their budget.
The Rutland Regional Medical Center is in the midst of talks with the Hospital Data Council, who want the hospital to roll back rates. Under Act 160, this year was the first year that hospital budgets were binding and Data Council had ordered the hospital to make a downward adjustment of $1.7 million in revenues for the upcoming budget year, which translates into a cut in “green money” revenues of about 2.7 percent, according to Wesley Hrynchuk, treasurer of the hospital. The hospital made about $3 million more in 1995 than it had projected, he said.
Hrynchuk said that it was very possible that the hospital would appeal the state’s demand to the Vermont Supreme Court. He said a decision on that was likely in early January.
Back in Montpelier, a bill will likely appear giving the state authority to take traditional nursing home beds off line and encourage communities to set up home- and family-based longterm care arrangements as a replacement.
David Yacovone (D-Wolcott), who has been working on a task force to develop legislation, said the bill’s aim would be to head off some of the impacts of federal cuts to Medicaid by setting up a more cost-effective, longterm care system. Medicaid is the source of the vast majority of funding for Vermont’s longterm, he said.
Currently there are about 3,600 nursing home beds in Vermont, and Yacovone said that some 300 will have to be taken off line in the next five years in order to save money. In reducing the number of traditional nursing home beds, the state would look at the location of existing homes, their age, and their costs.
To fill the need for care, the bill will seek to set up a system similar to block grants, he said, whereby the state would ask communities–which would include providers–to offer proposals to get state money for longterm care. Much of that would be home or family-based, he said.
Compounding the financial stress on Vermont’s longterm care scene is the fact that the elderly population is growing. Currently there are people in the state waiting for two years to get into a facility, and there are about 750 Vermonters currently awaiting space, Yacovone said, and that is expected to get worse.
“This is a challenge the likes of which we have not seen in the last 30 years,” Yacovone said.
Another bill likely to be introduced this session is one to clarify the rights and responsibilities of health care patients and health care providers regarding confidentiality of medical records. Representative Peg Martin (D-Middlebury) said that the House Health and Welfare Committee will take up the measure early in the session.
Jacob Brown is a freelance writer from Montpelier and editor of the Vermont Monitor.
Copyright Lake Iroquois Publishing, Inc. d/b/a Vermont Business Magazine Jan 01, 1996
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved