Governor previews issues of concern for new legislative session

SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Gov. Jim Douglas was playing his cards close to his vest on Monday morning as he spoke at the first 2008 Legislative Breakfast of the season. A trick of the calendar meant that the breakfast, sponsored annually by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce and Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation, was held before the Legislature convened and before the Governor had his chance to present his plans for the year to the legislators. Speaking to a full house of Chamber members and legislators, the Governor said that his priorities would continue to be economic security with more good better-paying jobs, health care, measured by quality, accessibility and cost, and easing the property tax burden. He said that his summer tour of the state, meeting people in the towns, assessing their concerns as a basis for setting his agenda for the second half of the biennium, had given him a clear picture of the issues that were priorities. We want to be sure to respond to the cares of the communities, he said. He said that while there is room for improvement, he was pleased with the successes to date. While other states are facing deficits, we are not, he said. In the area of health care, Catamount Health has been effective in providing health insurance to more people, and currently 95% of children are covered by insurance. The challenge, he said, is that the cost is still too high for many people. A big problem is the property tax, the primary funding source for education in the state, not a new challenge, he said, as how to pay for public education has been a big question throughout history, since the initial solution of confiscating property belonging to the Tories the pro-British sympathizers following the revolution. The challenge is to blend Vermonts commitment to local control of school spending with the need to control costs. A new law introduced last year will go into effect in 2010, limiting the size of education spending. One solution he has proposed to the education funding challenge is to put the state lottery into the hands of a private operator, a step that would cut costs and focus the lottery income directly to education. Gov. Douglas said that although the proposal had prompted some criticism, he thinks it would be a quick and efficient way of supporting education, and that the marketing would focus on the middle income population. In the question and answer period that followed his speech, the governor responded to questions about controlling costs, the future of the circumferential highway, the high workers compensation rates, work force development, school district consolidation, climate change response, shortage of moderate priced housing, school spending, the projected decrease in revenue for the state in the coming year, the impact of the specialty food industry, the creation of an efficiency utility for all fuels, and the telecommunications authority. His responses to those questions will be published in a follow-up story in next weeks Vermont Times Sentinel. Welcoming comments from the public and chamber members, the governor said, One of the great advantages we have here in Vermont is the intimacy of government. You can talk to me and I cherish that. The next Legislative Breakfast will be on Monday, Feb. 11 at 7:30 a.m. at the Sheraton Burlington. The subject will be Transportation. For information and to make reservations, contact the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

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