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Property taxes on our minds

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Last week, Gov. James Douglas identified another election-year issue that will stir the public’s interest and, he hopes, earn him a few sure-fire votes. The issue is property taxes; or, more specifically, high property taxes. He against them, of course.

The governor’s plan is not to lower property taxes (he’s honest in admitting the state needs the money and it’d be reckless to cut taxes), but to keep the rate of the tax increases closer to the rate of inflation. For the past seven years, property taxes have increased an average of 7.4 percent annually, or double inflation, and the governor says that’s not sustainable.

Most Vermonters would agree. Just like it’s not sustainable for health care insurance to go up by two or three times inflation each year, neither can Vermonters afford such steep increases in our property taxes.

But the governor’s plan calls for a blunt approach — a spending cap of 4 percent over the prior year’s budget in 2008 and 3.5 percent in 2009 — that punishes all school with the same broad blow and doesn’t account for any number of variables that dictate school spending. It is, in short, a proposal to a problem that sounds more like political gamesmanship than an attempt to analyze the problem and propose a well-conceived solution.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature, in fact, defeated a similar approach by the governor in this past legislative session.

Rather than descend into a tit-for-tat analysis of the competing issues, however, what’s encouraging for Vermonters is that both the governor and House Speaker Gaye Symington, D-Jericho, agree that ways need to be pursued to curb the rate of property tax increases. If both sides can remember we’re all in this together and what’s needed are workable solutions, not political slogans, there is every reason to believe progress could be achieved.

To that end, a public forum on education and education funding will be held on Thursday, Sept. 14 at the Vergennes Union High School. The event is being organized by Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes and will be held in the auditorium. Speakers include Bill Talbot, a Vermont Department of Education authority on the school finance system, and Tom Pelham, Vermont’s Tax Commissioner. The speakers will first explain the state’s education funding system, and take questions over the scheduled two hours. Clark says the event is meant to be non-partisan brainstorming to meet the “educational needs of kids in a fiscally responsible way.�

The forum is well timed, and even though the issue is a retread — we see it nearly every election cycle in one form or another — it couldn’t be more important. Mark it on your calendar and come with ideas and questions. The more you understand, the better able you are to help develop the conversation.

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