Legislative Success in 2016

Any legislative victory is dependent on many people helping – a bill needs 76 votes in the House and 16 in the Senate, after all. But there are three pieces of legislation that I am especially proud of relating to property tax relief, pharmaceutical prices, and voting rights.

1. Property Taxes – we haven’t relieved property taxes yet but this year’s education funding bill includes a request for modeling on a reform I championed in H.656. This should allow the legislature to start the 2017 session with enough data to deliver the property tax relief Vermonters deserve. The concept is straightforward and I expect the Department of Taxes and legislative fiscal staff will be able to demonstrate this simple solution is worth doing.

The basic concept is to extend income sensitivity to all Vermont homeowners. Two-thirds of us already pay based on income and it keeps our property taxes somewhat reasonable because we are capped at paying about 3% of our income to support schools. Wealthier Vermonters don’t qualify for income sensitivity today and they are paying more like 1% or even 0.5% of their income for school taxes. If they were paying closer to 3% we could raise enough money to reduce rates for every household earning under $200,000 a year. And, this concept keeps our schools strong because it doesn’t force a reduction in budgets.

2. Prescription Drug Prices – the state has a limited role in what we can do to control the cost of pharmaceuticals thanks to the Federal Government. This has a lot to do with the billions of dollars the industry has funneled into Congress over the last few decades. Still, in Vermont 1/5 people can’t afford to fill the script their doctor has written so we can’t sit back and wait for Congress.

Fortunately, Vermont can play a role in demanding accountability of the pharmaceutical industry and that’s exactly what S.216 did this year. We have become the first state to demand that the industry explain why our needed prescriptions are seeing prices increase by 50% or more. This is a national movement and hopefully our action will bolster other states to follow. If enough states demand answers it will help Congress see that Americans are desperate for relief. Vermonters know all too well that we pay the most for prescriptions of any country in the world – by far. I was part of then-Congressman Bernie Sanders’ trips with Vermont seniors to buy drugs in Canada (often at 10% of the cost we pay here). This was an important issue in the late 1990s and it still is today. Hopefully, as it has elsewhere in the medical universe, transparency can be the first step to getting drug prices under control.

3. Making Voting Easy – I was the sponsor of H.458, a bill that allows for so-called automatic voter registration. On April 28, 2016 Gov. Shumlin signed Act 80 into law. Starting in 2017 Vermonters who renew or get a new drivers license will be registered to vote unless they opt-out. Vermont became the fourth state to pass this law and I’m pleased to report only one person voted against the bill throughout the entire process. Many other states are throwing up barriers to voting; here in Vermont we are not only making it easier but doing so with strong tri-partisan support.