MONTPELIER — One by one, the priorities of the 2021 legislative session are finding their way across the finish line in the Vermont General Assembly as its final hours tick away.
Wednesday, bills providing for high-speed broadband expansion and a proposal for significant change in how the state funds K-12 public schools were among measures passing in the Senate.
The broadband bill, H. 360, emerged from a House-Senate conference committee on Tuesday night, and was passed by the Senate unanimously. It now goes to the House, and if it passes, to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.
Another bill, S. 13, addressing how to implement new per-pupil weighting factors in the state’s school funding formula, passed as amended by the House and was messaged to Scott’s desk.
The House and Senate produced versions of H. 360 with the same goal — achieving universal high-speed broadband access across the state using locally based Communications Union Districts (CUDs) as a means of awarding federal grant dollars and tax incentives, but enough differences to make a conference committee necessary.
Most of the bill remained unchanged: It provides federal dollars to CUDs and small telecoms which have developed business plans to provide universal high-speed broadband access in unserved and underserved areas of the state.
The bill does not, however, include sought-after grant dollars for immediate broadband access using mobile or satellite services. Advocates for that plan said those services should be made available until fiberoptic networks are built.
Key differences resolved by the conferees included:
• Adopting the Senate’s version for the governing entity as a the Vermont Community Broadband Board, rather than an authority.
• Defining “small communications providers” allowed to take part along with CUDS as serving not more than five counties;
• Allowing the governor’s office to appoint the first executive director of the board, in the interest of speeding along the process of buildout;
• Accepting a House proposal that 0.4 percent of the Universal Service Charge be applied to the Vermont Community Broadband Fund.
In approving S. 13, the Senate OK’d House changes that focused a proposed task force’s attention on implementing new per-pupil weighting factors as a means of correcting inequity in school funding.
A study found the current weights inadequate and presented new weights, taking into account the cost of educating students who are living in poverty, learning English as a new language, or living in rural districts. The bill directs the legislative task force to produce an implementation plan that puts the new weights in place, but also mitigates likely increases in education property taxes that will result from the changes.
Maggie Lenz of Lenonie Public Affairs, an advocate working on behalf of the Coalition for Vermont Student Equity, said the coalition was “extraordinarily happy” to see the bill pass unanimously in the House and Senate. The coalition hopes Gov. Phil Scott will “fully endorse [the task force’s] important work by signing the bill soon,” Lenz said.
Several school districts in Southern Vermont are members of the coalition. Parents and elected school leaders have said for years that underweighting has cost students educational opportunity by forcing districts to choose program cuts or high education property taxes.
“It’s a vehicle for correcting years of inequity experienced by the districts in our coalition,” Lenz said of the bill. “But the real work is going to begin with the convening of this task force. We’re not going to be letting up on the pressure until a plan on implementing the per-pupil weighting formula report as written is delivered and implemented next year by the legislature and signed by the governor.”
The Senate also concurred with minor changes to three House initiatives: H. 426, which would charter a study of public school building needs; H. 435, a corrections reform bill; and JRH 2, a resolution in which the Legislature apologizes for its role in promoting eugenics practices and policies, including a 1931 bill allowing for sterilizations.
All three were messaged immediately back to the House.