Monday February 11, 2013

There are several large bills being worked on in the State House. Work has begun in Appropriations on the budget or "Big Bill." The Fee Bill and Education Funding Bill are being worked on in House Ways and Means and the Agriculture Committee began work on H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering.

One of the challenges faced by the Appropriations Committee is the overall projected spending growth in the budget proposed by the Administration. The General Fund is projected to grow by 5.6 percent, State funds by 4.7 percent, and the Transportation Fund by 12.7 percent, much of which is Irene-related. The total budget is projected to grow by 4.3 percent.

Regarding education spending, Tax Commissioner Mary Peterson, in consultation with the Secretary of the Administration, the Department of Education, and the Joint Fiscal Office is required to recommend adjustments to the statewide property tax rates if the balance in the education fund stabilization reserve is greater than 5 percent or less than 3.5 percent.

Several factors are considered including the statewide grand list (which is still falling but projected to flatten out next year), property tax adjustments (income sensitivity adjustments were less than expected in FY12 and FY13), school spending (which is rising), the equalized pupil count (which is declining), base education amount per pupil (due to go up), General Fund transfer (recommended to increase), and the dedicated Sales and Use Tax (set to increase).


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Weighing all of these factors, the Tax Commissioner, in her letter to the House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem, recommended increasing by 5 cents both the base homestead property tax rate and the uniform non-homestead property tax rate to 94 cents and $1.43, respectively. Also recommended was an increase from $8.723 to $8.915 in the amount of base spending (what we used to call the "block grant").

The House Ways and Means Committee is trying to bring the base homestead property rate down from 94 cents to 92 cents, but since every cent on the tax rate represents $10 million, that would leave a $20 million hole. As the committee looks for ways to fill that hole, one option being proposed is to phase out the Small Schools Grants for small schools that are not deemed geographically isolated. While the proposal is to phase them out over three years, this would have a significant effect on 70-plus schools in the state, including several in Windham County. Under the proposal, Dover, Guilford, Halifax, Jamaica, Marlboro, Townshend, Wardsboro, and Whitingham would all see their grants phased out. Windham and Grafton are also small schools but are deemed geographically isolated.

When Acts 60 and 68 were enacted, the formula focused on per pupil spending. At the time, there was recognition that small schools would be adversely affected because they did not have the same kind of economy of scale that large schools did. Just opening the doors of a school requires electricity, heat, and other elements that are not affected by the number of students who attend. There was also recognition that schools that were geographically isolated could suffer under the Acts if adjustments weren't made.

The goal of Acts 60 and 68 was to offer equal opportunity for education regardless of a town's ability to raise revenue. If, all of a sudden without thoughtful policy discussion, we decide to eliminate these grants, the impact on our small schools and their towns could be devastating. The impact on several of the Windham Central Supervisory Union schools would range from 5 cents to 12 cents per hundred. Schools might be slowly strangled because of higher tax rates, regardless of their current contribution to the Education Fund. While school consolidation might make sense in some cases, one would question seriously if the tenets of Acts 60 and 68 were being upheld and that the goal of equal opportunity for education was being fulfilled.

Most school boards work hard to keep their budgets as low as possible, while still meeting the needs of the students. Particular pressures on many budgets this year include special education (never funded properly by the federal government) and health care costs. If we want to have a serious policy discussion about why costs are rising while the student population declines, that work should be done in the Education Committee.

The House Agriculture Committee took testimony on H.112, an act relating to the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. Dr. Michael Hansen, a Senior Staff Scientist at Consumers Union (Consumer Reports) gave a presentation regarding the imprecise nature of genetic engineering, the lack of objective testing and regulation in the United States, the health and environmental concerns that are emerging here and around the world, and his reasons for believing that H.112 would be legally defensible, if litigated by the biotech industry, which we are inclined to think would happen.

Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee.