By Rep. Jim Harrison
With only 3-4 weeks left in the 2022 legislative session, key lawmakers in both the House and Senate are staking out positions on various bills moving through the process. The House education committee, for example, has been working on an initiative to provide free lunch and breakfast for all K-12 students in Vermont, by using a large portion of the Ed Fund surplus for one year, and paid for by some type of tax increase afterwards. The Senate education chair prefers to see the surplus dollars used to help fund PCB remediation efforts in school buildings, which are considered a serious health risk. Free meals may have to wait, from the Senate’s perspective. And although the governor has not weighed in on free meals, he did indicate that he would oppose any bill with tax increases.
Could this be posturing or legitimate policy differences? Will those running for higher office stake out differences to help their candidacy? These will play out in several bills over the next few weeks.
Education funding itself could see a significant shakeup before the session ends. Earlier, the Senate approved legislation that would phase in a new student weighting formula over the next few years. While Vermont utilizes a student weighting system today, a UVM study recommended changes to better reflect actual costs. For example, teaching English learning students is much more costly than those whose native language is English. The rural nature of a district, the number of high schoolers, poverty levels and smaller schools are all factors.
The challenge is with any change in formula, some districts receive more state dollars and others receive less. Those changes get reflected in local property tax rates unless there is a corresponding change in the district’s spending. Additionally, the House Ways & Means Committee is looking at another version of the weighting change, called a cost factor adjustment. Rather than change student weighting, it simply adds dollars back to schools based on those same measures. For example, the school for the English learning students in the weighting model would receive an additional $25,000 per applicable student instead of an extra 2.5 equalized students in the weighted formula.
If this all sounds confusing, trust me, it is.
A spreadsheet released late last week, suggested the Windsor Central School District could see lower tax rates of 1-4%, depending on the plan put forth. Barstow could see a 4% increase and Pittsfield could see one of the highest increases at 26-29%. It is important to note that there could be incomplete information in the underlying calculations for Pittsfield, so the change could be different. Rutland Town is another area school that could see a sizable increase in tax rates under the proposals.
Also in the education arena is a bill put forth by the Senate that attempts to establish how public tuition dollars can be spent at independent and religious schools for school choice towns. The House Education Chair signaled that they may not take up the measure this session. Many school groups and the ACLU would prefer the state wait until a federal court case on the issue in Maine is resolved.
Other bills of interest:
The effort to end qualified immunity for law enforcement, S.254, was reduced to a study by the House. It remains to be seen how Senate leaders, who were sponsors of the original bill, will react to the change.
The Senate Appropriations Committee completed its version of the state budget on Friday, April 15. Once approved by the full Senate, it will likely move to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate and hopefully the Administration. Scott has reminded legislators that he is not afraid to veto if changes are not made to the spending plan.
The Senate is looking to reduce the size of the House passed tax breaks to cover increases in their budget plan. The $15-$18 million reduction will lower the proposed child tax credit and could jeopardize the effort to enable more Vermonters to avoid taxes on social security benefits.
The House Committee on Government Operations advanced the pension reform bill, S.286 on a 11-0 vote, sending a signal that they were content with the recommendation of the pension task force from this past winter. The governor had asked for a few changes, but legislative leaders are reluctant to revisit the consensus reached by members of the working group.
Housing bills have advanced from a House committee, but still include potential “poison pills” from the governor’s perspective (rental and contractor registries).
The Senate is proposing an economic development measure that included an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $15 per hour and a study on paid family leave.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee advanced H.715, the Clean Heat Standard. The measure does not include further action by the legislature next year when likely impacts on the environment and the cost to consumers is better known. The governor has advocated for a review and vote by elected representatives once impacts are better known.
Other bills that will likely get advanced in the House include Act 250 reforms, environmental justice, creating a plan supporting Vermonters with Alzheimer’s, economic development, and workforce initiatives.
Meanwhile, Burlington’s effort to move toward decriminalizing sex work remains stalled in committee. Burlington’s effort to establish ranked choice voting for city council races has been approved by the House and is now under review in the Senate.
Jim Harrison is a House representative for Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon. He can be reached at: JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.