State budget cuts continue to shape legislative session

 

MIDDLEBURY — School financing and the state’s budget woes continued to dominate conversation at the Bridport Grange’s legislative breakfast series, the most recent edition of which was held on Monday at the Middlebury American Legion headquarters.

Lawmakers have been told there is a $118 million revenue shortfall for the state budget that is to take effect July 1. The Legislature’s money committees are considering cuts to the current budget draft, along with some possible fee and tax increases.

“It is the 800-pound gorilla in every committee room in Montpelier,” Rep. Fred Baser, R-Bristol, said of the deficit. “What it is going to require is some pretty significant reductions in the governor’s budget. It is going to require a little bit of pain when it comes to programs.”

Baser said it’s too early to tell which state programs will be trimmed or eliminated.

“I think that will become more clear in the coming weeks,” he said at the breakfast, noting most eyes are now on the House Appropriations Committee, which has been using Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed budget as a template for cuts. The spending plan will then go to the House Ways and Means Committee for recommendations on how to fund the budget. The budget proposal will eventually be voted on by the House and make its way to the Senate for committee recommendations and a vote. Ultimately, a conference committee will try to sort out any differences between the House and Senate versions on the budget.

“I’m fearful that there will be tax increases (as well as budget cuts),” said Baser, a member of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. “What they will be, I guess, remains to be seen. There seems to be a lot of folks who think taxing sweetened beverages is a good idea. A payroll tax has been put forward to help the shortfall and fund Medicaid. There is the proposed elimination of certain deductions on your tax return.”

Baser noted that he heard a lot of angst from his constituents during last year’s campaign season about high property taxes and state spending.

“I hope that what (budget plan) we end up with isn’t more costly to you all,” he said to attendees of Monday’s breakfast.

Some attendees suggested the state could solve at least some of its financial problems by more aggressively pursuing people who have not paid their taxes. As of last year, the state was owed $153 million in delinquent taxes, according to Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol.

Sharpe noted some of that money can’t be collected because of bankruptcies and because some of the debtors have died. Some of these delinquency cases are in litigation. The state recently published a list of the top 100 tax scofflaws, in an effort to encourage payment.

“It’s a constant battle,” Sharpe said.

SCHOOL QUALITY AND FUNDING

Also at Monday’s breakfast, former educator and Middlebury resident Lyn DeMoulin asked why the state needed to have 62 superintendencies to administer a public school system that has a steadily decreasing student body. She said a more centralized system and bureaucracy could save taxpayers money.

“No legislator has the courage to say, ‘This is not OK,’” DeMoulin said. “Why can’t you have a central place to order supplies, to screen candidates. Come on, people, local control really doesn’t exist. You can save tons of money instead of taxing people … People are leaving this state in droves.”

The House Education Committee last month passed H.361, an education reform bill that, among other things, calls for the (voluntary) formation of larger (pre-K to grade 12) school districts of at least 1,100 students. The schools within each district would be funded through a single budget. A particularly controversial aspect of the bill calls for capping annual spending increases to 2 percent through 2018. That cap could be adjusted or removed as H.361 makes its way through the legislative process.

Sharpe said the formation of the larger school districts is expected to save $12 million to $32 million in business operations alone. He added that something must be done to reduce school expenses, noting that Vermont has the lowest student-staff ratio in the country — “by a long shot.” That ratio, according to Sharpe, currently stands at 4.67 students per school staff member.

Sharpe pointed to a $150 million savings in health-care-related school expenses statewide had Vermont enacted a single-payer health care system.

He appeared pessimistic on Monday about Vermonters’ collective appetite for approving any sweeping education funding reform — at least major reforms pitched from Montpelier. Sharpe said his committee — Education — has also discussed the concept of the state allowing per-pupil education block grant money to follow the child to the school of his or her choice.

“There is a lot of resistance to anything we do in Montpelier that might dilute local control,” Sharpe said.

Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven, acknowledged hearing, during his travels on Town Meeting Day, support for local schools as important community hubs.

“I am concerned we might be losing something that doesn’t show up on a balance sheet,” he said of the potential effect of school consolidation.

Some participants at Monday’s breakfast also voiced concerns about the quality of education in Vermont schools.

Weybridge resident John Meakin warned that American colleges’ engineering and science departments are “being massively stocked by people not born in America.” He said those students are returning to their countries of origin after they earn their degrees, leaving a skills gap in the United States.

“You need to be developing native-born engineering and science students, otherwise we are not going to be as exceptional as we would like to consider ourselves,” Meakin said.

Meakin added the U.S. would also be well-served in studying European, Asian and other non-domestic school systems to see how some of their successful programs could be replicated:

“As Winston Churchill said, ‘You can rely on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.’”

Baser noted Vermont has a law in effect that gives students incentives to go to state colleges and universities to focus on the sciences and math, in return for which they are offered some school loan forgiveness.

Addison resident Mark Boivin pointed to a trend of Vermont students leaving for other states after graduation because they cannot find good wages and affordable accommodations in their home state.

“Right now, we are at the cusp of what Detroit was,” Boivin said. “We had a good economy and we are at the point of killing it with taxes and all the other things that are coming down on us. I don’t know of a single small business person that I’ve met who isn’t waiting and itching for a good door to get out of this state ... We spend a lot of money on education and we close the doors on businesses that would employ (the students) because we have all these regulations that the state has put in and has maintained.”

Weybridge resident Fran Putnam argued that young people are returning to Vermont to find jobs and enjoy the state’s quality of life. She cited her own two children as examples.

“You have to be creative,” Putnam said. “You can’t expect someone to hand you a job in Vermont; sometimes you have to create (the job) yourself.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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