Saturday February 23, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A controversial move to raise the statewide school-property tax divided Windham County's lawmakers.

After much debate on Wednesday and Thursday, the state House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to raise the tax by 5 cents to 94 cents per $100 of property value for primary residences.

The levy will go up 6 cents to $1.44 per $100 of value for commercial and vacation properties.

"I did not support that bill at any time," said state Rep. John Moran, a Wardsboro-based Democrat.

State Rep. Dick Marek, however, supported the increase and said he saw no alternative.

"All of us like good education, and none of us like paying for it.

If anyone knows of a method better than the one we have, let them propose it," said Marek, a Newfane Democrat.

"All that is required is that it be constitutional, that it raise sufficient funds and that it convince a majority that it actually is better," Marek said in comments recorded in the official House journal. "I have waited for 10 years for one of the critics to present that, but somehow I never actually see it."

On Wednesday, the House's first roll-call vote favored the tax increase by a 96-45 count. Among the minority voting against the plan were Reps. Tim Goodwin, an independent representing the Windham-Bennington-Windsor district; Mike Hebert, a Vernon-based Republican; and Moran.


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Earlier in the week, Goodwin issued a legislative update in which he criticized the statewide school tax. He framed his thoughts this way: "Enough already! When will it ever end?"

"My sense is that people of our district are offended by the statewide property tax that has wandered significantly (and more expensively) from the act passed in 1997, which even then treated itself inordinately to our generosity," Goodwin wrote.

He added that he had "received from the Department of Education information I hope to be able to analyze to compare larger schools and smaller schools to determine whether analysis indicates that larger schools enjoy economies of scale not considered when we send our money their way."

The state's tax system is designed to equalize education funding among municipalities of varying sizes and tax bases. But there are persistent complaints that some towns -- especially those hosting large, taxable properties such as ski resorts -- pay disproportionately into the state fund without seeing much in return.

Such arguments led into Thursday's tax debate in the House. State Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, a Stowe Republican who a day earlier reportedly had declared that "my constituents have had enough," introduced a plan to scrap the current education-tax model and replace it with a new system by the 2015-16 school year.

That never came to a vote, however, as it was replaced by an amendment allowing the House Ways and Means Committee to "examine our current education funding system" and issue a report a little more than a year from now with a "goal" of implementing changes by 2015-16.

That approach won out, with Marek among those who saw it as a more prudent approach to changing the state educational-tax system.

"Any Vermont farmer knows that you don't tear your barn down without a plan to pay for the new one," Marek said. "This substitute amendment simply confirms that we need to have a real replacement education financing plan before, not after, throwing out the only one we have."

Moran said he understands that argument, but he rejects it. He was in favor of Scheuermann's plan because, Moran said, it's time to take a hard look at educational funding.

"We've been talking this way for a while, and the change hasn't happened," Moran said Friday.

Moran sees some fundamental problems in the way education money is allocated. First, he believes the statewide school tax pays for some programs that may not be properly classified as educational expenses.

He also says the state's general fund has not been bearing enough of the educational-expense burden, leading to shortfalls.

"It's not so much how we raise the money," Moran said. "It's how we spend it."

But Rep. Matt Trieber, a Rockingham Democrat, echoed others in his party by saying state legislators are just responding to larger spending plans approved by local school boards.

"This is kind of a tough vote for everyone" in the Legislature, Trieber said. "The way we fund education in the state is, the local communities tell us what they need."

Trieber said he knows there is a larger debate to be had concerning the education-tax formula. But he voted for the tax hike for a simple reason -- schools need funding.

"It's the only responsible vote," Trieber said. "You have to work with the system that you have in place to raise the money."

As the tax debate was coming to a close, Rep. Ann Manwaring, a Wilmington Democrat, tried to focus her colleagues on a bigger issue -- student achievement.

"While the pain of property taxes may lead the call for change in our present education funding system, the problem is much larger," Manwaring said in comments recorded by the House journal. "No matter what funding mechanism we have had in recent decades, nor how much money is spent, we still have too many students who don't perform at acceptable levels during their time in school and too many students who do graduate but arrive at college unprepared to do the work required."

Manwaring said she hopes the Legislature "recognizes that how money gets out of the education fund is fundamentally a different question than how it gets into the fund" and also "examines out-of-the-box solutions that are designed to align the goals and outcomes of both state policy/administration with those of every school."

In other legislative news related to Windham County:

-- Two Windham County legislators are pursuing their own "out-of-the-box" remedy for towns on the Connecticut River. With New Hampshire having no sales tax, businesses on the Vermont side of the river often complain that they are at a severe competitive disadvantage.

Trieber and Rep. Carolyn Partridge, a Windham Democrat, proposed a bill creating a Connecticut River Valley Development Zone "consisting of municipalities that border the Connecticut and Passumpsic rivers and additional municipalities deemed appropriate by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development."

The legislation also creates the Connecticut River Valley Development Fund. Communities in the development zone would be eligible for money to promote travel and tourism, to encourage economic development or to "improve public facilities in support of tourism or economic development."

The bill appropriates 1 percent of the state's sales tax to the development fund.

In communities where businesses suffer from Vermont's sales tax, "let's take a portion of that tax and reinvest it," Trieber said. "Other communities throughout the state don't have that same issue."

-- Rep. Mollie Burke specializes in transportation issues, and the Brattleboro Progressive Democrat signed onto two new bills related to engine idling and speed.

The first bill would "prohibit motor vehicles from idling for more than three minutes in any 60-minute period." There are several exemptions including military or public-safety vehicles on official business; school buses on school grounds and armored vehicles that are being guarded, loaded or unloaded.

Also exempt are vehicles idling "because of highway traffic conditions, at the direction of an official traffic-control device or signal or at the direction of a law-enforcement official."

Additionally, the legislation requires that in-school driver-education classes "include a component on the environmental harms of idling."

Burke also is supporting a new bill that would double the penalties for speeding in a school zone and allocate those fines to the Safe Routes to School Program.

-- Rep. David Deen, a Westminster Democrat who chairs the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, was among six legislators who introduced a resolution opposing the transport of controversial "tar sands" oil -- also known as bitumen -- through Vermont.

The resolution notes that "there has been public discussion of extending the transportation of bitumen to Portland, Maine, via the Portland-Montreal Pipeline system."

That system crosses northeastern Vermont, and opponents have been lobbying hard against those pipes carrying tar-sands oil. The House resolution says "bitumen is a potentially hazardous substance that can contain chemicals that can have serious health effects on humans."

The resolution also notes the age of the three parallel pipes -- they were built between 1941 and 1965 -- and says crude oil spilled from the system in 1950, 1960 and 1977.

-- Goodwin said he favors a moratorium on development of commercial wind turbines. Bills introduced in the House and Senate would ban turbine construction for three years.

"I read in wind-power proponents' publications that, when polled, Vermonters disclose that they are overwhelmingly in favor of wind-energy development," Goodwin wrote.

"Yet, when a community approaches the threshold of development and weighs the costs and sacrifices against the benefits, their frequent decision is that Vermonters should not allow their ridgelines to be developed by industrial wind projects now any more than Governor George Aiken should have been amenable to the construction of highways on the ridgelines years ago."

He added that "we need education concerning wind-power development before we approach the threshold of development."

Mike Faher is the political beat writer at the Brattleboro Reformer. He can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.