This legislative session proved to be one of the most exciting and frustrating. I am incredibly proud of the hard work of AHA volunteers in trying to pass the first in the nation excess tax on sugary drinks to reduce obesity. We made great progress.
Preventing Obesity: Though our effort to pass a 2 cent per ounce excise tax on sugary drinks didn’t become a reality this year, this was the best campaign I have ever been a part of and our volunteer effort was simply amazing. There is no doubt this tax will become a reality in the near future. Until then, we need to keep up the chant to fight obesity and the impact of sugary drinks.
Sugary drink tax: We made history by becoming the first state to pass a sugary drink excise tax through two legislative committees. Recognizing the importance of addressing obesity in Vermont, the House Health Care Committee passed a two cent per ounce excise tax early in the session as a way to fund important health care priorities. The House Ways and Means Committee later passed a scaled down excise tax of ½ a cent per ounce. Though it was much less than what we hoped for, it is a real testament to the work of our Alliance and volunteers that the committee did, in fact, pass any SSB excise tax. We had hoped to move the issue through the House and bump up the tax amount in the Senate or a committee of conference so it would have a real impact on obesity in Vermont. However, with fatigue in the House setting in following battles over two other revenue bills, and a somewhat uncertain Senate, no vote was ever held in the House on the sugary drink excise tax. Lawmakers instead, chose to substitute the sugary drink excise tax with a small increase in the tobacco tax as a way to fund health care priorities. Volunteers should be very proud, though, that we kept the issue alive and constantly in the media and legislative discussions up through April. That’s pretty amazing. Thank you all for your help!
Vermont Public Radio also recently published a short summary of the SSB tax effort that you can access here. http://digital.vpr.net/post/issue-issue-2015-legislative-wrap#beverage
Sales tax on soft drinks: The legislature this year extended the sales tax to soft drinks as part of its revenue bill. This will mean beverages that are sweetened with sugar or artificial sweeteners, including beverages with less than 50% real fruit juice, but not milk, will be taxed.
This is not the sugary drink tax we championed.Since it is a minimal tax that is only seen on the receipt after the sale (versus a significant tax per ounce of beverage where the price is seen on the shelf) it won’t change behavior. AHA board member Dr. Mary Cushman recently published an opinion piece in VT Digger discussed this importance difference and the fact that the legislature has now put Big Beverage before Vermonters twice. See below.
Big Beverage 2, Vermonters – 0 http://vtdigger.org/2015/05/20/mary-cushman-beverage-industry-2-vermonters-0/?utm_source=VTDigger+Subscribers+and+Donors&utm_campaign=3f382fa80a-Weekly+Update&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_dc3c5486db-3f382fa80a-405514605
No tax on bottled water: Though a sales tax on bottled water was originally included as part of a revenue package proposed by the Senate Finance Committee, we testified against the tax stating Vermont should not allow any barrier whether it be real or perceived to make water more costly, and the tax was removed.
Obesity prevention spending: As noted in Dr. Cushman’s piece above, lawmakers this year actually took a step backwards in the fight against obesity by failing to restore the Governor’s $300,000 cut to CHAMPPS obesity prevention grants to communities.
Positive obesity steps: The House did pass an amendment that would have required the Health Care Reform Oversight Committee to study the impact of obesity in Vermont, especially on health care expenditures, and policy efforts the legislature could take to address obesity. Though the study requirement passed the House as part of the health care funding bill, the language was removed in the Senate. House Health Care Committee members tried to get the study reinserted in the bill during the conference committee, but without success.
During the debate, however, Senate Health and Welfare Committee Chair Claire Ayer said she would make obesity the first priority of her committee next session.
Tobacco Prevention: We were successful in saving tobacco control program funding but the increase in the tobacco tax fell short.
Tobacco program funding: Though the Governor had recommended cutting $199,000 from Vermont’s Tobacco Control Program including funding for the independent Tobacco Evaluation and Review Board, its administrator and evaluation efforts, we, along with our partners in the Coalition for a Tobacco Free Vermont worked to get legislators to restore $175,000 to keep the board independent, retain its administrator and fund evaluation efforts.
Tobacco tax: Though a significant increase in Vermont’s tobacco tax was raised a few times this session, even going as high as a $2 increase at one point in the House and Senate champions working to get a $1 increase in the Senate, the final tax that was passed fell below the 10% increase in the total pack price that is needed to have a public health impact.
Lawmakers passed a $0.33 tobacco tax as the sole revenue source to raise the $3.2 million for the health care funding bill. With a pack of cigarettes currently selling on average for $8.10 a pack, the tax would have needed to be around $0.81 to have a positive health impact – urging smokers to quit and to prevent youth from ever starting.
E-cigarettes: During the debate on S.139, the health care bill, that House passed language that would have instituted a tax on e-cigarettes the equivalent to half of that currently imposed on cigarettes, and included a ban on the use of e-cigs in workplaces, public places and cars, the Senate removed the language. This is an issue of increased interest to lawmakers since the use of these products by middle school students has tripled.
Health Care Reform/Health Access: Though the health care bill ultimately passed by the legislature was significantly whittled down it did include positive provisions:
- The continuation of $760,000 in cost-sharing subsidies for low-income Vermonters.
- $940,000 to help stabilize Medicaid reimbursements to health care providers
- $1 million earmarked for the state's Blueprint for Health managed care system.
- $300,000 in educational loan repayments for physicians, the cost of which is split between state and federal sources.
- The bill also added three new positions to the Green Mountain Care Board to start setting rates for health care providers and pursuing an all-payer model.
Charitable donations: Though a cap on charitable contributions was included in an earlier version of the revenue bill, the cap ultimately was removed. The final bill limited limited the amount filers can deduct when filing their income taxes to $15,000 for an individual and $31,500 for a household and charitable contributions and health care expenses are exempt from the cap.