On April 17, 2024

Now you see it, now you don’t

Last Tuesday, the House Ways & Means Committee unveiled a proposal to make significant changes to Vermont’s education financing system, including limits on how much school budgets could go up going forward. The plan even garnered some support from the Scott Administration. However, by Thursday, April 11, when organizations representing various education sectors came out in opposition to the plan, the committee shelved most of it in favor of a “study” of the ideas.

In testimony Friday morning, Tax Commissioner Bolio urged the committee to “don’t give up” on making necessary changes. He also pitched an idea of spreading out some of the expected double digit property tax hikes with incentives to school districts to limit spending and reward better educational outcomes. While the committee chair seemed intrigued with the concept, she indicated it might be too late in the process to fully evaluate the notion.

In the meantime, several school budgets were voted down for a second time last week, including Slate Valley (Fair Haven), South Burlington and Essex-Westford.

Locally, voters in Chittenden and Mendon will be revoting on the Barstow budget on April 30. The school board trimmed approximately $29,000 (less than 0.5%) off the original budget of $6,273,856, which was defeated by just four votes on Town Meeting Day. There is an informational session at Barstow on Monday, April 22 at 6 p.m. Voting will take place at the Chittenden town office, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. and at the Mendon town office, 8 a.m.-7 p.m. on April 30.

The Ways & Means Committee is considering adding a sales tax to online software and an additional tax on short-term rentals. Even with those new taxes, the latest estimates still forecast average property tax increases of 15.5% for homesteads and 18.5% for non-homesteads. These are average increases, which will be adjusted up or down depending on local school budgets and changes in the common level of appraisal (CLA) for each town.

With just four weeks left until the planned conclusion of the 2024 session, much still needs to be done. There are potentially wide differences between the House and Senate as well as the governor on spending, taxes, and certain policy agendas. Some of those differences will become clearer next week when the Senate unveils its state budget plan and what tax increases, if any, it relies on.

State Senator Dick Mazza of Colchester resigned his post last Monday due to deteriorating health. Mazza, a Democrat, was a friend of fellow senators, prior governors, state office holders and especially of Governor Scott, who described him as the “conscience of the Senate.” Mazza was one of those rare politicians that left his party label at the door and did his best to apply common sense to the various issues before him. On a personal note, I have known Sen. Mazza throughout my career with the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, of which he was a member, as well as serving in the Legislature. I have taken advantage of his wisdom and guidance many, many times. He will be missed at the State House. I will be keeping him in my thoughts as he deals with his health issues.

Other issues of interest:

Senate leadership has concluded they do not have the votes to override the governor’s veto of the flavored tobacco ban, S.18, and has sent the measure back to committee.

Perhaps another sign that the 2024 session is in the home stretch, the Senate Transportation Committee advanced its version of the annual transportation bill, H.868. It is one of the key bills that must pass every session that allocates available resources to highway maintenance, construction, snow plowing, train, and state airports.

The Legislature completed the work of H.543, which allows Vermont to join the interstate Social Work Licensure Compact. The compact is one of several health-related interstate compacts allowing professional licensees to operate in participating states without having to get new licenses in each state.

The House approved S.25 on a unanimous vote. The legislation bans the use of PFAS chemicals in several products. For the most part, the future bans are in line with several other states that have taken up similar bills. The legislation now goes back to the Senate to consider the changes the House made.

The Senate Natural Resources Committee continues to work to merge a housing bill, S.311, and the House passed Act 250 legislation, H.687.

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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