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Local legislators criticize school funding caps

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April 26, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Local members of the Vermont House on Monday sharply criticized a Senate-passed legislation calling for annual caps on school budget increases.

The measure — devised by Gov. James Douglas — calls for public school budget increases to be limited to 4 percent in the first year, and at 3.5 percent during ensuring years, unless a “super majority” of at least 60 percent of the local electorate decides to override the cap.

Douglas has touted the cap as a means of limiting education-related property tax increases during an era in Vermont’s history when school populations are declining.

The Vermont Senate on April 17 voted 15-15 — with Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie breaking the tie — to endorse a series of amendments (including Douglas’s spending cap) to H.526, the so-called “act relating to education quality and cost control.”

Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Weybridge, told participants at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Middlebury Legion that the Senate agreed to advance Douglas’s school budget cap proposal as a means of breaking what has been a longstanding political impasse on education funding in Montpelier.

“It was a hard choice for me to make,” said Ayer, the Senate majority whip. “But the bottom line is, in the five years I’ve been in the Legislature, the administration and the Legislature have … been taking potshots at whatever ideas come up. As a result, we go through the same arguments every year. This way, communities are going to have to step up to the plate to make this work — or, we are going to find out that it doesn’t work, that a just-put-a-cap-on-it plan is not going to work. We will see.

“We need to give it a test run, to see if it will work” Ayer added. “I’m assuming that we’ll find out it doesn’t, then we’ll go on from there.”

House and Senate negotiators will now try to work out their differences with the bill. And one of the major looming differences will be the proposed spending cap, according to local House members.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, argued recent increases in school budgets can be linked to poorer school districts ramping up their services in the few years since Act 60 and Act 68 (the state’s education funding laws) have been in place.

“We’re now approaching equity,” said Sharpe, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, noted that other expenses in state and local government are rising at higher rates than school budgets, which last year went up by an average of 4.5 percent. Jewett noted that transportation costs are going up by 20 percent annually. He suggested that instead of implementing budget caps, state government could give schools better tools to deal with such cost-drivers as declining enrollment and health care costs.

“I say, give your local school boards a chance to do a good job,” said Jewett, a member of the Ripton Elementary School board.

New Haven resident Keith Hall suggested that all departments within state government should be subjected to the same budget cap.

“All costs in all departments go up,” said Hall, former superintendent of the Addison Northeast Supervisory Union school district. “Schools are being the whipping boy. That’s what’s wrong.”

Weybridge resident Fran Putnam on Monday sought signatures for a statewide petition opposing the school budget cap.

“My feeling is that (the school budget cap) is a blunt instrument — it’s like hitting a mosquito with a sledgehammer,” she said. “It takes away local control.”

Sharpe agreed.

“We’re in an environment where local school boards and local voters really decide how much is going to be spent in your local schools, and what your tax rate is going to be in your community,” Sharpe said. “Unless, at the state level, we want to start dictating to school systems when and how they can spend money, as suggested by the caps that were passed in the Senate, we can’t really make dramatic changes.”

Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, has been the front lines of education finance reform this year as a member of the House Education Committee. He said he believes a cap, on its own, won’t solve the financial problems Vermont schools and taxpayers are currently facing.

“I don’t think we can lower the high spending threshold and say we’ve done the job,” Clark said.

He added time is getting short for lawmakers to work on cutting education costs.

“For the past two weeks, our committee has been talking about not cost-containment, but how can we figure out how to spend more money but pretend we are doing something good,” Clark said

Recent House Education Committee discussion, according to Clark, has focused on bills that would crack down on idling school buses, and give students the option of not dissecting animals in biology class.

“The Vermont property taxpayer will pay $40 million to $50 million more in property taxes next year, and the Legislature will have done just about nothing,” Clark said.

IMPEACHMENT RESOLUTION

Lawmakers on Monday also discussed the Senate’s endorsement, on April 20, of a resolution urging Vermont’s Congressional delegation to request that the U.S. House Judiciary Committee initiate impeachment proceedings against President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

The Senate voted 16-9 in favor of the resolution, known as SR.17. Both Addison County senators joined the majority on the vote.

Ferrisburgh resident Ted Ferris counted himself among those “totally disgusted” with the Senate’s vote on impeachment.

“One day I read in the paper that the (Senate) President Pro Tem (Peter Shumlin) is saying, ‘We’re not doing impeachment, it’s too late, we won’t be able to have the proper discussion, it’s dead.’” Ferris said. “The next morning, I pick up the paper and there’s the big headline, ‘Senate votes impeachment.’”

Ferris said he was disappointed he didn’t have an opportunity to give input into the issue. He added impeachment is an issue the state’s federal lawmakers should decide and initiate.

Ayer said the Senate had not wanted to take days debating an impeachment resolution, and had been content not to take action on SR.17. But she said that became impossible when another, “less well-constructed” resolution was offered.

As a result, the Senate took up SR.17 at around 8:30 a.m., and dispatched the measure in “five or 10 minutes,” according to Ayer.

“We had agreed there wouldn’t be any debate; you were either for it or against it,” Ayer said. “We voted, and it was over.

“Unfortunately, we will probably be spending more time talking about uninspected chickens than we will about the impeachment of the president.”

It remains to be seen whether the impeachment resolution is fielded in the House. Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, believes that issue would face a lengthy, uncertain fate in the House, where there are 150 members, compared to the 30 in the Senate.

“I don’t believe the House, at this moment, could pass an impeachment resolution,” Fisher said.

Other discussion at Monday’s legislative breakfast focused on:

• Primary enforcement of Vermont’s seatbelt law. Jewett noted the House last week passed a bill giving police authority to enforce Vermont’s mandatory seatbelt law as a primary offense. Current law allows police to write seatbelt tickets as a secondary offense  — when they are stopped for a separate infraction, such as running a stop sign.

The new bill, if signed into law, would also give Vermont an extra $3.7 million in one-time federal highway funding, according to Jewett. The money has been tentatively earmarked to improve public transportation services in the state.

“It’s not often in our business that we get a chance to do something we get to say with pretty good certainty is going to save lives and save money,” Jewett said. “This past week, in the House, we got to do that.”

Jewett pointed to other states that have seen their seatbelt use go up greatly after passing primary enforcement laws. Washington state, he said, went from roughly 82-percent use of seatbelts to 96-percent usage after passing its stricter law.

Ayer said she hopes the Senate takes up the seatbelt legislation before the end of the session.

“I think it has a real chance, especially when it comes with $3.7 million,” Ayer said. “It’s not a popular issue in the Senate, but I’m hoping the money makes a difference.”

• Legislation that would soften the impact of milk stop and hauling charges on dairy farmers. Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, said his bill would reduce the burden on farmers by 5 cents per hundredweight, while the House Agriculture Committee’s plan calls for only six-tenths of one cent.

“An 85-cow dairy farmer at the end of the week could probably not take his family to McDonald’s on that six-tenths of a cent, so that’s totally unacceptable,” Giard said. “We are at a stalemate on that legislation, and I’m not going to abandon our dairy farmers. I’m hoping the House will see their way clear to passing S.78 as we had it in the Senate.”

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