On April 24, 2024

To study or not – That is the question

On Tuesday, April 23, the House is expected to vote on the education financing bill, which sets the statewide property tax rate to fund the growth in pre-K-12 spending. The tax bill, H.887, went through at least 10 drafts before it was approved by the House Ways & Means Committee on an 8-4 vote. It was then advanced by the House Appropriations Committee on a 7-4-1 vote.

Both votes were along party lines with the governor and House Republicans saying the bill does not address cost containment and does little to impact increasing taxes.

House Democrats, meanwhile, argue they were able to lower the statewide average increase to 15% from a previous estimate of 18% by extending the sales tax to online software, a new rooms tax surcharge on short-term rentals and further increases to the non-homestead property tax (estimated 18%). It is important to note that individual town tax rates will vary based on their CLA (common level of appraisal) and per student spending increases.

The bill also included a one-time 15% increase in the property tax credit to those homeowners that qualify.

Earlier drafts of the bill included several cost containment pieces, including an allowable growth spending provision that would cap how much budgets could go up in the future. Most were removed in the final version following pushbacks from the various education groups. In their place, a large task force is established to study various ideas for future legislatures to consider implementing. Proponents argue it is important to consider all the ramifications of any changes, while opponents liken the study to “kicking the can” and virtually guaranteeing additional tax increases again next year.

Meanwhile, six more school budgets were defeated last week, bringing the number of twice defeated budgets to 11. More revotes are scheduled, including Barstow (Mendon and Chittenden) on April 30.

Common sense gun legislation
deferred to another ‘study’

Last Thursday, the House began consideration of S.209, that bans so-called “ghost guns” (guns without serial numbers). A provision was added by the House Judiciary Committee to ban firearms at polling locations during elections. Upon questioning on the House floor, election day covers various voting throughout the year (Town Meeting Day, school budget revotes, special town meetings, the August primary, the General Election in the fall, etc.). In addition, each may have various early voting days, which are also included in the election day ban. The provision, however well intentioned, sets up a town office to change their posting on a regular basis. A community member going into the town clerk’s office to pay their property taxes and carrying a firearm, as they might normally, would be in violation of the law if it was an early voting day.

I suggested that it might be less confusing and help everyone comply with the law if a town could adopt an ordinance to ban firearms at their town office, rather than have an “on today, off tomorrow” type of prohibition law. That’s where it gets interesting. Vermont municipalities can only regulate those things that the Legislature gives them permission to do. In the area of firearms, towns can only regulate discharge, not possession. While the state prohibits firearms (exception for law enforcement) in state buildings, including the State House, Vermont does not allow towns to prohibit guns in their own town offices.

This not quite making sense to me, I offered an amendment on Friday to give towns the option to consider a ban in their own offices every day. The result was a delay in final passage of the bill until Tuesday, with the committee on track to reject my proposal and add yet another study.

This may be seen as an example of sending a relatively simple issue to “study,” rather than just enable towns to have the ability to decide for themselves. Studies can lead to better results in some cases, but they can also serve to put off decisions or not deal with a question.

Other issues of interest:

The Senate Natural Resources Committee combined the House passed land use bill, H.687, and the Senate housing bill, S.311, and advanced the measure. Scott has indicated that the bill potentially adds unacceptable roadblocks to more housing development in some areas and could face a veto unless changes are made. The Vermont Chamber referred to a provision changing the appeal process under Act 250 as a “poison pill.”

The House approved Legislation, S.109, which could lead to Medicaid reimbursement for doula services in the future. Doulas are not medical professionals, but can provide emotional and physical support before, during and after childbirth.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved its own version of the state budget on Friday afternoon. It is expected to pass the full Senate this week and will then go to a conference committee of House and Senate members to work out the differences between the two chambers.

The Senate Health & Welfare Committee advanced its version of H.72, safe injection sites, last week. The House version allowed two sites, while the Senate reduced that to one allowable site in Burlington.

The Senate Finance Committee added a provision to H.546 that would allow all municipalities the ability to add a 1% local option sales tax or rooms and meals tax to raise additional revenue for municipal purposes.

In the scratching your head category, the Vermont chapter of ACLU gave the nation’s most popular governor, Phil Scott, a “F” on his report card for such issues as to wanting to increase penalties on drug dealers and for blocking efforts to allow individuals up to 22 being charged as minors rather than adults for certain crimes.

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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