On April 10, 2024

No easy answers

We are all aware of what may happen with property taxes this year. During the snowstorm last Thursday, the House Education and Ways & Means Committees invited House members to share any thoughts or ideas with them. When it was my opportunity, I started off my brief remarks admitting I did not have a solution and said if it was easy, we would have already done it.

However, I encouraged committee members to consider the following:

Let voters know when they vote what the estimated change will be to their taxes. Just voting for a level of spending when you are in the voting booth is not transparent. Would you buy something at the store without knowing the price?

Changes in town appraisal levels (CLA) do not account for a family’s ability to pay higher taxes.

Incentivize or mandate consolidation of supervisory unions to spread any overhead among more students. A city of 640,000 residents elsewhere would likely just have one district. Maybe that is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but Vermont with 640,000 residents, can consolidate districts further.

Consider having the state fund a certain base amount for each student. Anything above that is solely on the local district residents. If a community wants to operate a small school that has higher per student costs, they can, but those extra costs shouldn’t fall to everyone else in the state.

Many other suggestions were made by colleagues during the two-hour hearing. Whether the committees can reach consensus on a path forward or not is an open question. Without change, many property owners will see 20% or more hikes in their education property tax this summer. There are many vested interests in the financing model, not to mention the importance of providing a quality education for students. There are no easy answers.

After several long weeks and late floor sessions in the House, we are now in that period where bills coming over from the Senate and vice versa from the House, are referred to their pertinent committees for further review. The House and Senate Chambers do not always look at every issue in the same light, so what may be a priority to one Chamber may not be to the other. And certainly, the governor may have different views on legislation once it reaches his desk.

That difference was obvious last week when Scott vetoed his first bill of the 2024 session. It was S.18, which proposes to ban menthol and other flavored tobacco and vape products. In his veto message, the governor, who is no fan of tobacco, indicated he thought the legislation was hypocritical. It bans flavored tobacco, which is an age-restricted product, to protect minors yet continues to allow flavored cannabis and alcohol products that are also age-restricted.

He also said from a purely practical point of view, these products would continue to be widely available just across the river in New Hampshire, and through online sales. He urged the Attorney General’s Office to further crack down on direct online sales to minors. It is unclear whether the Legislature has enough votes to override his veto.

Other issues of interest:

The House approved a new ethics bill, H.875, which subjects local town officials to new disclosures when running for office, as well as new ethics and conflict of interest policies and training requirements. Municipalities could also be subject to civil judgments if any of their officials violate the new code.

The Vermont House passed H.829, which proposes to invest nearly $100 million annually into public housing projects. It is funded by a new income tax surcharge on higher income residents and an increase in the property transfer tax on real estate sales above $750,000

The Senate approved S.181, which proposes to add a new tax on streaming services, such as Netflix, to help fund community access programming. Stations, like PEG TV, are currently funded by a fee on cable, which has not kept up with the costs of providing the local service. The new streaming tax is expected to raise an additional $5-7 million annually.

A House Committee gave the green light to S.25, which bans PFAS chemicals from certain items, such as apparel, personal care, and children’s products. The measure passed the Senate last year.

The Senate gave unanimous support to Proposal 3, a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain in Vermont. The measure must be approved by the House and then voted positively again in the next biennium before it can go to voters for ratification in 2026.

Legislation I introduced and was co-sponsored by many of our area colleagues, to allow housing developers a new option for part of their financing, was approved by a key Senate committee. When it was introduced earlier this year, a fellow House member told me that there has never been a bill numbered H.666, that has passed the full Legislature. Hopefully not to jinx final passage, this just might be the first time.

I hope many were able to enjoy Monday’s eclipse. Maybe the influx of visitors will help fill our tax coffers?

Rep. Jim Harrison is the state representative for Chittenden, Killington, Mendon, and Pittsfield. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us or harrisonforvermont.com.

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