State News
March 30, 2018

Legislative report: Who can be against lower taxes?

Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison

By Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington & Mendon

This past week, the Vermont House voted on a proposal to lower residential property taxes for education. Who could be against that? After careful consideration, I voted against H.911 when it came up for preliminary approval.

The legislation does lower the residential property tax rate on average, about 15 cents. It also raises about $60 million with a new income tax surcharge that will now be paid by virtually all Vermonters. To me, it is just a rearranging of deck chairs, without addressing issues related to cost containment. It creates an illusion that we have done something on the property tax front, yet come next January we will all see a new line on the Vermont income tax form for the new income tax surcharge (most will see a rate of 0.5 percent).

It is my understanding Governor Scott opposes the legislation for similar reasons, so unless the Legislature is willing to have a dialog on how to tackle the costs of education and put the brakes on tax increases, H.911 as passed by the House, has little chance of becoming law. I am hopeful we can begin those cost reduction conversations in the balance of the session and end up with a product that gets us on a more sustainable path.

I am pleased to see that the House Education Committee will be looking at various items, like how to best negotiate health care benefits, beginning this week. This was an issue I raised for discussion in the form of an amendment to H.911, but did not offer, following an agreement with the House Education Chair to discuss the issue in committee. It is my hope that we will be able to put politics aside and find that elusive solution that benefits all involved, from our volunteer school boards, to valued employees, teachers and taxpayers.

The House Education Committee also deserves credit for bringing forward a proposal to change the way we fund and deliver special education services in the future. It passed the House unanimously, as most believe there is potential to improve on the results while also doing it more cost effectively.

Gun safety
While legislation concerning firearms won’t be completed for another week or two, one of the more controversial measures, S.55, received preliminary approval last Friday, March 23. As I told some of my legislative colleagues last week, I will probably manage to disappoint all of my district constituents with one vote or another through the course of debate on various components of the bill. As I mentioned at our town meetings, I will support measures that I believe will help reduce gun violence and improve school safety, but I am less likely to favor those measures that are designed, in my view, to score political points without addressing the core issues and infringe on constitutional rights of law-abiding Vermonters.

The 10-hour debate and review of S.55 on Friday saw a number of roll call votes on each major section of the bill. I supported a ban on bump stocks, which is also being proposed by the Justice Department, and increasing the age to 21 for rifles with an exemption for those with hunter safety training, military personnel and law enforcement. I opposed other measures of the bill including background checks for private sales (we already have universal background checks for commercial purchases).

While I am supportive of more background checks, I don’t believe the way S.55 was drafted will work. For example, under S.55, it is perfectly legal to avoid Vermont’s requirement when selling a rifle to a friend, by crossing the river and doing it in a New Hampshire parking lot.

Additionally, an amendment to allow individuals to obtain the necessary background checks at a law enforcement office for a modest $10 was rejected by the committee. Under S.55, a private sale buyer has to find a gun retailer to do the background check for them. Does anyone really think that retailers, like Walmart or Dick’s, will be doing background checks for private sales? Probably not, so the easiest way to sell that rifle to your friend legally, is to visit a N.H. parking lot.

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