Lasagna and lawmakers

Town Meeting begins with topical community dinner

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By Jason Starr
The Colchester Sun

All four of Colchester’s representatives in the Vermont House had a turn at the microphone Monday as Town Meeting Day kicked off in the Colchester High School cafeteria.

At the tail end of a salad and lasagna dinner produced by Colchester School District’s food service staff, Representatives Jim Condon, Maureen Dakin, Pat Brennan and Joey Purvis updated about 70 residents on their legislative committee work and bills on the move in the House.

Condon, Ways and Means Committee: Condon spoke about a school spending reform bill that recently came out of the House Education Committee and will be up for discussion in Ways and Means. H. 361 encourages school district consolidation by turning grants that keep small schools solvent into incentives to merge with surrounding schools. The hope is to reduce the number of school districts in Vermont as a money-saving measure. Each school district would need a minimum enrollment of 1,100 students unless a waiver is granted.

The bill would also institute a 2 percent cap on school budget increases and fix the “phantom student” problem by offering less aid to schools with significant declines in student population.

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Dakin, Commerce and Development Committee: Dakin touched on a wide range of topics, including a note that the state’s 4 percent unemployment rate as of the end of the year puts Vermont at effectively “full employment.” But her committee is considering ways to better align the skills with which students are leaving schools and tech centers with the needs of employers.

She also discussed efforts to close a gap in the state’s budget estimated at $110 million.

“There just aren’t enough cuts out there to close the gap. Revenues will have to be raised so we may as well accept it now and go forward,” she said.

Dakin also spent time on efforts to improve the health of Lake Champlain’s water, advocating an “all-in” approach.

“Everyone is going to have to have a part in doing this,” she said. “We can’t forget our personal responsibility — what each one of us can do with what we put on our lawns, our snow and ice, our town roads.”

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Joey Purvis, Agriculture and Forestry Committee: Purvis continued the discussion of water health, saying, as a Republican, he is nonetheless a “lake liberal.” He is supporting more stringent regulations and enforcement of farming practices (H. 35) to reduce the agricultural runoff that is seen as a primary contributor to water pollution.

“There is a problem with our lake and there is a problem with the waterways feeding our lake,” Purvis said. “In Colchester, we know how important it is.”

Purvis said his committee could not agree on how to raise the millions of dollars the new practices and enforcement require. Ideas like a fertilizer tax, gas tax increase, rooms tax increase and alcohol tax increase have been discussed. The bill now goes to Condon’s Ways and Means committee for further discussion of the tax implications of clean water.

“If everyone gets educated on this, it’s not going to be contentious,” Purvis said. “Farmers are going to want to do the right thing.”

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Pat Brennan, Transportation Committee: Brennan focused on his area of expertise — the transportation committee that he chairs. He kept his remarks brief, noting that this winter was the most costly road maintenance season in his tenure in terms of road salt, plowing and labor.