From the Statehouse

By Tim Jerman

One of the important functions of the House of Representatives is ceremonial. Last week, we recognized and celebrated a group of Vietnam Veterans who were visiting the Statehouse. I sat at breakfast with a group of vets who had never been to the Statehouse and had never had any official recognition of their service in Southeast Asia. The resolution in their honor on behalf of all the Vietnam veterans in Vermont was long overdue.

It was interesting to read the statewide results of this year’s Doyle Poll, which many of you filled out at Town Meeting or at the polls in March. Although not a scientific poll, the results are looked at as trends because the poll is taken by active voters. Positive responses were recorded for a ban on hand-held devices while driving, wind turbines on ridgelines, increasing the minimum wage, concern about opiate use, the importance of natural gas, and not imprisoning non-violent offenders. The full results can be seen online at vtdigger.org/tag/billdoyle.

There have been a lot of lively debates on the floor this year, but one of the most difficult has been on the education tax funding bill, H.889, passed out of the House on April 3. Never popular, the property tax has received more scrutiny than ever this year due to a projected 7 cent tax rate increase statewide, coupled with school budget defeats around the state on Town Meeting Day. The House Ways and Means Committee was able to reduce the increase to 4 cents, but the rise in tax rates when there are small budget increases is causing concern in many towns. To address the longer-term issue of over-reliance on the property tax to fund education, the bill includes language stating that by Jan. 1, 2017 “the General Assembly shall transition to a tax system for financing education in Vermont that incorporates an education income tax”.

I have favored this approach since 2005 and hope that it leads to meaningful reform. I also supported a provision to phase out small school grants (totaling almost $8 million) which I believe are an impediment to consolidating districts for more efficient delivery of regional education services. This is a highly contentious issue around the state, as many believe it strikes at the heart of local control. An amendment to strip out that part of the bill failed, but in a close vote.

Another controversial amendment dealt with “repeal and replace”, which was an attempt to scrap Act 60 and Act 68 and force the Legislature to come up with an alternative school funding model in a short time frame. This has been tried before, but a majority again found this approach to be irresponsible and potentially disruptive to local schools. Historically, school funding formulas have needed to be changed periodically. Most legislators believe that the current complex system designed to provide equal educational opportunities statewide following the Supreme Court’s Brigham decision in the 1990’s is now not responding well to the twin problems of declining student enrollments and declining or static grand list real estate values. But the Ways and Means Committee has taken steps this year to slow the increases in spending, and there are robust discussions on further changes to slow property tax increases. Penalties for excessive spending have worked in the past, and the committee increased those for towns spending substantially more than the state-wide average.

It was great to see people at the village’s Annual Meeting on April 2. I applaud the trustees for their dedicated service and am glad to see that there will be no changes on the board for another year. As always, don’t hesitate to call or e-mail on any issue as the session nears adjournment in May: 878-2972; TJerman@leg.state.vt.us.

Tim Jerman represents Essex Junction in the Vermont House of Representatives.