Week 9 : March 12th to March 15th

Under Pressure

Actually it's been two weeks. That first week in March contained Town Meeting day when most of the towns in Vermont vote on their school and municipal budgets. The Legislature is not in session during that week. I took the opportunity to visit a prison in Mississippi.

Town Meeting Week

Some towns in Vermont (and throughout New England) still hold official Town Meetings where citizens gather, argue and vote for or against the School and Town budgets. There are also various articles that can be voted upon. Colchester had a vote on whether to take out a bond on a $14 million sewer project for along Malletts Bay. It failed.

Town Meeting day was Tuesday, March 5th. Colchester has a lasagna dinner the night before where the not so important town meeting votes are held. That things like electing the moderator and approving the salaries for Select Board and School Board. The real votes on the budgets is conducted in the normal voting fashion with ballots and machines and going all day.

On Wednesday I traveled to Mississippi. I had arrange in advance to visit the Tallahatchie County Corrections Facility where about 240 Vermont inmates are held. It is a privately run prison. CoreCivic is the owner and operator. This is a controversial issue in Vermont. The assumption is that for-profit prisons cut corners in order to make money and the inmates suffer. But that does not seem to be the case.

I spent all that Thursday at the facility: interviewed the Warden, had a walking tour, and spoke with a half-dozen Vermont inmates. It was exhausting, and quite an education.

On Friday I flew back to Vermont. I did do a fast write-up of the visit and may get it to this site some day.

The primary takeaways are: that the Vermont inmates are glad to be out of the Pennsylvania facility from which they were recently transferred, that they are working through some issues with recreation and grievances, and that most (not all) would just as soon not return to Vermont right away. Keep in mind that I only spoke with six out of 240.

The most interesting interview was with a transgender (male to female) inmate. That opened up a whole new world to me. It's a complicated issue.

Back to Week 9

Friday March 15th was CrossOver as explained in the last post. That made it a hectic week. We have until the end of this coming week to get the Capital Bill done but there are some big decisions to make.

Corrections

Do we spend as much as $2 million to start the process of building a new women's correctional facility? The current facility is deteriorating and needs replacing, but the siting and construction of such a building is a long and difficult process.

Schools

Do we support lead testing in the state's schools? There might be a need for capital dollars if lead levels are high in any number of schools. There is a bill in the works that advocates testing the drinking water in every Vermont school. If lead is found, what level justifies remediation? How much will all this cost? Is radon testing waiting in the wings?

Do we fund school safety grants? After the school shootings last year a grant program was set up for schools to apply for money to fund safety upgrades. That was about $4 million. Should we expand the program?

At one time the state helped fund school construction. A moratorium on such grants was put in place in order for the state to catch up on all the money it had promised. That's all paid off and there's talk of starting it all again.

Clean Water

The state's clean water initiative to clean up the rivers and lakes has only just begun. A long term funding mechanism has still not been determined.

Climate Change

There is a group of new legislators along with the stalwart progressives that want to attack Climate Change. The new members are frustrated that they have made no real progress on this issue. There's talk of increasing the gasoline tax in order to fund weatherization grants. All kinds of schemes.

And still to come is marijuana taxing and regulating, paid family leave and minimum wage. There's more than enough to learn about.

My Focus

Because I'm on the Corrections committee my focus as been there. But I've also taken a real interest in Act 250. That's Vermont's answer to sprawling growth. Businesses and realtors are frustrated with all the regulations and hoops they have to jump through. This coming week I'm going to sit down with a member of the House Natural Resources committee and find out more about what changes to that law are being considered.

Coming Up

Aside from the Capital Bill there is also the Big Bill coming out this week. That's the state's budget. I find it very interesting to see how the money is actually spent, what the priorities are. The allocation of funds is a nice clean way to show just how much different portions of government are supported.

A Few New Bills

  • S.155 Allows an out of state law enforcement officer to carry a large capacity ammunition feeding device while assisting Vermont law enforcement.
  • H.517 An act relating to shifting the cost of property tax adjustments from the Education Fund to the General Fund. That may not sound interesting, but it is.
  • S.151 An act relating to the Twin State Voluntary Family and Medical Leave Insurance Plan.
  • S.148 An act relating to an option to vote "None of these candidates" on primary and general election ballots.