After what has seemed like an extremely cold winter, there was actually a hint of spring in the air here in Montpelier. The sun shone and the thermometer crept above freezing giving us all hope that warmer weather would soon return.
With the Budget Bill behind us, we continue to work on a number of important pieces of legislation. One such bill is the Education Financing bill, H.889. This is the bill in which we set the state property tax rates and other factors such as base education funding.
The language in statute [32 VSA, Sec. 5402(a)] calls for a homestead property tax rate of $1.10 per $100 of value and a non-residential property tax rate of $1.59 per $100. Every year, we go through a process that includes an evaluation by the Commissioner of Taxes, which takes into consideration several factors including the statewide grand list, property tax adjustments (income sensitivity), school spending, the equalized pupil count, base education amount per pupil, the General Fund transfer, and other sources of income such as the Lottery, Purchase and Use, and dedicated Sales and Use transfers. Based on this assessment and other information, the Legislature makes a judgment as to what the actual property tax rates and base education amount should be.
Historically, we have always been able to lower the rates from $1.10 and $1.59, as is the case this year. For homestead property, the rate will be $.98 per $100 of value and for non-residential property it will be $1.515 per $100. This is an increase of a few cents over last year's rates but in the case of homestead property, slightly less than what was recommended by the Tax Commissioner ($.99), slightly more for non-residential property ($1.49). The base education amount per pupil will be $9,382, which is an increase from last year's $9,151. Base education is what we used to call the block grant that comes to schools for each equalized pupil in attendance. That amount is, in some cases, augmented due to factors such as poverty and educating students for whom English is a second language.
One concern is the fact that H.889 contains language that will phase out Small Schools grants starting in FY2019 for schools with fewer than 100 students or an average grade size of 20 or fewer students unless they are deemed "geographically necessary." These grants are extremely important to many schools in Windham County. The provision for Small Schools grants was added to Act 60 shortly after it was enacted because it was recognized that a funding formula based on per pupil spending was unfair to small schools, which did not have the advantage of economy of scale. It is also acknowledged that in most cases small schools do an excellent job of educating our students. In a study done at Ohio University, the "achievement" gap related to performance for students in poverty was found to be smaller in small schools. State Rep. George Cross, a retired educator from Winooski, suspects this holds true for Vermont as well.
I would encourage anyone who wants the Small Schools grants to continue to contact their Senators. This can be done by calling the State House toll free at 1-800-322-5616 and leaving a message with the Sergeant at Arms or by accessing their contact information on the legislative website - www.leg.state.vt.us.
H.112, the bill that would require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering, was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. It is now in the Appropriations Committee and will presumably go to the Floor of the Senate soon. The Senate has added a provision that would create the "Genetically Engineered Food Labeling Special Fund." The Fund would be able to accept public or private donations, gifts, bequests, or grants made to the state of Vermont and would be used for several purposes. For instance, the money would be available to the Attorney General to "pay costs or liabilities incurred in implementation and administration, including rulemaking, for the labeling of food produced from genetic engineering." If additional funds were raised, the Secretary of Commerce and Community Development could use the money to help manufacturers and retailers of food meet the labeling requirements of the legislation. The fund could also accept money appropriated by the General Assembly.
When H.112 passed the House in 2013, it stated that the bill would take effect on the first of two dates: Either 18 months after two other states enacted legislation with requirements substantially comparable to what we did or July 1, 2015. We allowed time so that producers would have the chance to use up their packaging and/or potentially reformulate their products. The Senate's effective date is July 1, 2016, which still allows time for producers to adjust, but does not rely on passage in other states.
When the bill is completed in the Senate, the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee will review the changes and decide whether or not to concur with the Senate. If we choose to not concur, our options are to concur with further proposals of amendment or ask for a Committee of Conference.
Rep. Carolyn Partridge, D-Windham, is chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Forest Committee.