Governor Douglas, Democrats vie over education proposals
The governor announced his plan on Thursday, but Democrats in the Statehouse say his strategy of playing musical chairs with education funding is receiving little support.
"While the debate over how to bend the curve on increasing school spending is not new, we cannot wait to find a sustainable solution to this challenge," said Douglas.
Education spending comprises nearly one-third of all state spending, and Douglas hopes to move the employer's portion of teachers' retirement from the general fund into the education fund as a way to begin building a new system.
This maneuver, while not causing a modification in benefits, would strengthen the link between wages and education costs, allowing the state to leverage an additional $57 million in federal funds for additional millions in Medicaid programs.
"Without this money, our choices for additional cuts would be dire," said Douglas. "For example, in our human services system, it could mean ending health coverage for 7,500 Vermonters in poverty by cutting Vermont Health Access Plan by 25 percent, plus stopping medical transportation for all Medicaid recipients, plus ending our Traumatic Brain Injury programs, plus completely eliminating our Dr. Dynasaur program, terminating health coverage for 24,000 kids."
Democrats contend that moving $40 million from the teachers' retirement payment into the education fund would cause an increase in local property taxes. That is what Douglas is not saying, but that is what the reality is because the education fund is paid for by taxpayers, said Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, said shifting $40 million of the teacher's retirement and $23 million of education spending back to local communities will result in a $200 per-parcel property tax increase.
"I think this is the wrong time to shift Montpelier's budget deficit back to the local property taxpayer," he said. The state has always paid for the teacher's retirement and it would not be right to break that promise now, Shumlin added.
Rep. Gini Milkey, D-Brattleboro, said that Douglas has proposed time and time again not to raise taxes, but he is willing to raise fees for motor vehicles that all Vermonters have to pay.
"(Douglas is) just going to cause people's property taxes to go up and he thinks he can get away with doing that and say he's not raising a tax," she said.
"The governor's plan would do to our schools what his policies of neglect have done to our roads," said Mrowicki. "We can't have roads in the condition that they are and I don't want our schools trashed in the same way."
Other legislators agree with Douglas, that the Vermont education model is in formidable need of fixing from top to bottom.
Rep. Rick Hube, R-Londonderry, said "the cost of education is going up at unsustainable rate" with a declining student population. "A system that really fosters unsustainable spending leads me to believe it is fatally flawed," he added.
Applauding the governor for pushing education discussions to the top of the priority list, Hube said it would be premature to dismiss any proposals on the table right now and would be appropriate to listen to constituents before sitting down with the Legislature.
The purpose is not to bash education, said Hube, but to bring it more into balance and give Vermonters the opportunity to make good decisions about the schools with the information available.
House Republicans have listed property tax relief and education reform as their priorities this session.
"Unfortunately, Democrats made it clear that they intend to block any and all effort to fix Act 60." wrote House Minority Leader Patti Komline, R-Dorset, in a release. "I am hopeful that public pressure will force them to address the continuing implosion of our education funding formula."
To further point out the shortcomings in the education system, Douglas in Thursday's address said some have argued the declining number of students do not necessarily mean a reduction in operating costs of the schools.
"While it might be difficult to reduce costs, specifically staff, in such a situation, it is hard to understand how we have seen a 22 percent increase in the number of staff at the same time that there has been a 10 percent decrease in student enrollment," said the governor. "Not reducing costs is one thing -- substantially increasing them is quite another."
Nevertheless, many Democrats said the current system is a good way to fund education and needs a little fixing rather than a complete overhaul.
"We need a serious proposal, not an irresponsible plan that destroys our education funding plan without any alternative," said Mrowicki.
In addition to the proposed measure by the administration to transform the education system, Administration Secretary Neale Lunderville sent a memorandum to all Vermont school boards requesting them to adjust their proposed 2009-2010 budgets not to exceed per-pupil spending levels from the current fiscal year.
"We recognize that there is no 'one size fits all' approach to this request because of differences in approving school budgets. We pledge to work with school districts to help meet their individual needs and circumstances to ensure that this process is expeditious and successful," wrote Lunderville.
Level-funding the local education spending per-pupil in each district is one of the suggested details by Douglas in the fiscal 2010 Education Fund proposal, which also includes level-funding education categorical grants at fiscal 2009 levels and eliminating eligibility for property tax adjustments for households with incomes greater than $75,000.
According to the governor, this proposal will benefit residential property taxpayers with a $20 million cut as capping education spending at 2009 levels will negate spending increases that cause local tax rates to rise.
The move to freeze local school budgets has also drawn fire from lawmakers, who say Douglas is trying to circumvent town meetings in order to push his agenda.
"Being a free country, he can say whatever he wants, but what authority does he have over a town school board?" said Milkey.
Reps. take extra week off to save money
Another way the Legislature will cut state spending from the budget will be giving themselves an extra week off in March. Lawmakers will have a second unpaid week at home following the week Town Meeting Day.
In late December, Shumlin and other senators researched the possibility of starting the 2009-2010 session two weeks late to allow lawmakers time to wait for the expected stimulus package from Washington, D.C., but the idea was met with resistance prior to the start of the legislative session.
"The House Speaker (Shap Smith, D-Morrisville) and I are committed to reducing legislative pay by 15 percent ... this will help us do that," said Shumlin. "Legislators don't get paid much, but we all have to share in the pain."
Senate passes sex crimes bill
Although the budget crunch was the primary focus of the Legislature since the session began two weeks ago, the Senate passed a bill designed to prevent sex crimes and make them easier for prosecutors when they occur.
Unanimously approved on Friday, the measure expands the special investigative teams devoted to sex crimes and introduces a new crime of aggravated sexual assault on a child younger than 16. The new offense carries a mandatory 25-year minimum sentence.
According to Shumlin, this comprehensive bill puts Vermont as a national leader in protecting children.
"We have the best tools available to us when our children have been sexually abused by people they should be able to trust, he said. "The challenge of sexual abuse against children is that the perpetrators are often family members or close friends of the victim."
The provision comes seven months after the nation mourned the loss of 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, who was kidnapped, raped and killed by her uncle in central Vermont.
The bill is now on to the Vermont House, where portions of the measure are expected to be further discussed.
Elsewhere in the Statehouse
* The General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee is expected to strongly advocate for the creation of quality, affordable rental housing as a key component to any economic stimulus package considered after hearing from state and nonprofit agencies concerned with the housing.
According to Wardsboro Democrat Rep. John Moran, the full committee is also planning to travel to Bennington County on Jan. 29 to visit the Veterans Home in Bennington, tour mobile homes in Pownal and hold open hearings on several projects in Stamford, Readsboro and Pownal.
* The Transportation Committee heard testimony from pavers, public transport companies and a variety of administration officials to better understand the spending priorities in the transportation budget.
One of the major issues is the proposal to cut the Ethan Allen train from Rutland to New York as a way to decrease the budget deficit, said Rep. Mollie Burke, P-Brattleboro.
Both the Rutland business community and rail advocates are opposed to the measure, saying the train brings in tourist revenue. Improved marketing tactics and better coordination between the train and bus schedules would increase ridership, advocates said.
Chris Garofolo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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