By Tim Jerman
It is definitely crunch time under the dome in Montpelier. The major bills of the session are now hitting the House floor in succession — the budget, health care, clean water and education to name a few of many.
Tension has risen as the Appropriations Committee has struggled to find the right mix of revenues and expenditures to produce a balanced budget and limit the rate of growth for future years. Inevitably, many will say the Appropriations Committee cuts went way too deep, and many will say they didn’t go far enough. But so far, a committee with a new chair and some new members has worked really hard on a bi-partisan basis to get things done. The results of their deliberations will be known by the time you read this, and are available online at legislature.vermont.gov.
A lively floor debate is assured. There will be many things to dislike in the budget, but it will be balanced with a judicious mix of revenues and program cuts. I anticipate it will receive an 11-0 vote in committee and that I will support it on the floor.
This week, our Education Committee passed out H. 361, the education reform bill that moves Vermont toward integrated education systems responsible for equitable delivery of high quality education to all resident pre-K—grade 12 students. After passing on a unanimous 11-0 vote in committee, it also received strong support next door in the Ways and Means (tax) Committee. The bill has a long way to go to become law. If it survives a floor vote in the House, it will go to the Senate before reaching the Governor’s desk. Here are some highlights, all of which have generated much debate:
- Larger education districts: sets a minimum student count of 1,100; requires districts to move toward expansion (with several alternative options allowable by the State Board of Education) to provide greater opportunities for efficiencies and learning opportunities; does NOT call for closing small schools; provides merger support grants for districts that consolidate.
- Temporary cap on spending: to provide property tax relief, establishes a variable cap on increased spending ranging from 1.39 percent to 4.04 percent; District cap is determined by current spending above or below the state average, with flexibility to base the cap on per-pupil spending or total budget. For example, Essex Junction spends slightly above the state average, and would be capped at an increased level just under 2 percent. The overall effect statewide is to slow the growth in spending, which has outpaced inflation. The cap sunsets in three years with the anticipation that expected savings from economies of scale in expanded districts will provide downward pressure on property taxes.
- Moratorium on unfunded mandates to schools. Costs have been added to schools over the years, and this provision requires that no new legislation be passed this biennium that would put upward pressure on property taxes.
There is much more in the bill addressing transparency of budget language on ballots, changing the way the annual tax rates are set to meet what towns have voted to spend, phasing out small school grants, and transitioning away from subsidies for schools that are losing students. There is transition assistance for merging districts.
This is just one of many controversial bills coming up soon. I’ve heard from many of you about various provisions. We all realize that spending caps are an imperfect tool and reduce local control, but the single biggest issue of the last election was rising property taxes, and an expressed desire for action in Montpelier. This bill does address the problem both in the short-and long-term, and if passed will need constant attention in future years. Communities across Vermont are now engaged in discussions on how to adjust education models to improve quality and rein in spending.
As always, don’t hesitate to get in touch on any issue at TJerman@leg.state.vt.us or call 878-2972.
Tim Jerman represents Essex Junction in the Vermont House of Representatives.