A bill intended to address years of inequitable funding in Vermont's K-12 public schools has passed the House of Representatives.
The bill, S. 13, establishes a task force to study how to implement new per-pupil weighting factors into the state's education funding formula. The bill passed unanimously on second reading, 127-0, and the House suspended its rules to send it to the Senate for concurrence right away.
Since the Brigham court decision in the 1990s threw out Vermont's education funding system as unconstitutional, the state has used weighting factors as part of a formula intended to provide equitable opportunity to students regardless of geography.
The idea was that some students, such as new English learners and children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, are more expensive to educate, and that counting them as more than one child would provide additional taxing capacity.
But a study undertaken by the University of Vermont in 2019 determined that the weights used by state were not created on an empirical basis, and produced new weights.
The bill as it arrived from the Senate allowed for the task force to consider categorical aid instead of the weights, or modify or ignore the weights altogether. But the House Education Committee's version of the bill firmed up the commitment to implementing the weights, and the House Ways & Means Committee followed through on that commitment.
The bill also brings the state excess spending penalty to a halt for two fiscal years, and asks the task force to “recommend ways to mitigate the impacts on residential property tax rates and consider tax rate equity between districts."
In remarks before the vote Tuesday, Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, one of the leading voices in efforts to correct the weights, thanked Speaker Jill Krowinski for having the patience and resolve to address the issue in this session.
"I want to thank you for communicating with all of us on what is an extremely difficult issue, and for listening to the voices of Vermonters who have been hurt and harmed for many, many, many years," Sibilia said. "I want to thank Vermonters who have been advocating for this for more than a decade for their fortitude and willingness to step forward."
While the effort has been difficult to this point, it will get harder next session, when the task force's recommendations likely mean some districts will face higher education property taxes. She asked her fellow members to pay attention to the task force's work, and to prepare constituents for the possibility that their tax bills might look very different in a year.
She also said she looked forward to the possibility of a stabilized, equitable education funding system that provides funds according to need and not geography."
In other business, a bill intended to help cannabis entrepreneurs disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition passed on second reading in the House.
The bill, S. 25, would require the Cannabis Control Board to consider reduced license fees for those entrepreneurs, and proposes a $750,000 low-interest loan fund. It also requires integrated license-holders — those allowed to both grow and sell cannabis — to purchase at least 25 percent of their supply from small growers. It passed on voice vote.
The bill also allows cities and towns to hold Australian ballot elections asking voters to approve retail licenses for cannabis establishments. A proposed amendment that would have included additional cannabis businesses, such as cultivators, wholesalers and testing laboratories, was voted down.
A second proposed amendment would have sought additional limitations on advertising, to assure advertising does not encourage consumption of cannabis. That amendment also was defeated.
The house passed on voice vote an amended proposal to eventually provide for mechanism to expunge criminal records of persons who have not committed violent offenses, met the conditions of probation and stayed out of trouble.
The bill also allows the Cannabis Control Board discretion on issuing integrated licenses, and asks the board to consider reduced license fees for individuals who historically have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition.
As passed by the Senate, S. 7 allowed for the expungement of most criminal convictions other than the most serious crimes — also known as the “big 12.” But the bill was amended after the Scott administration raised concerns about how it would be implemented, and the bill was amended to address those concerns.
S. 7 now asks the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee to consider how to simplify and automate the process of expungement and sealing of criminal history records, and consider a comprehensive policy for expungement or sealing of records for all or most offenses. That report is due next year.
“When we think in terms of a young person committing a property crime … [they] are certainly deserving of a second chance so we’re not putting them onto a revolving court system ... or keeping them from building a future,” Rep. Chip Troiano, D-Caledonia 2, said.
In other business, S. 15, a bill expanding voting by mail to all general elections, was sent to Gov. Phil Scott's desk on Tuesday.
The bill also allows voters to fix their ballot if it has been deemed "defective."
“When we make voting more accessible, more people vote. When we make voting more accessible, democracy better reflects the will of the people," Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint said. “We have to do all we can to ensure that all eligible voters can easily cast their votes and have equal participation in the work of our state and our nation."
“The passage of our bill sends a clear signal that we believe our democracy is stronger when we make it more accessible and open to all Vermonters,” House Speaker Jill Krowinski said. Noting that other states are restricting voter access, Krowinski said S.15 "creates the opportunity for strong voter turn for years to come.”