This legislative update is provided by Campaign for Vermont, a member-supported not-for-profit that advocates for policies that help middle-class Vermonters. For more information, see www.campaignforvermont.org. – Editor.
The Scott Administration is pushing a proposal to consolidate the oversight of Pre-Kindergarten into the Agency of Education (AOE). This comes after years of struggling with dual oversight between AOE and the Agency of Human Services. The new plan would streamline oversight and remove some duplication between the two agencies.
The Senate Education Committee was briefed this week on the school choice policy impacts of Espinoza v. Montana in which the U.S. Supreme Court last year determined that religious schools shall not be excluded from public tuition dollars under federal law. There is another layer in Vermont because our state constitution structures separation of church and state differently than the federal constitution. AOE has told tuitioning districts they may pay tuition to religious schools provided that tuition doesn’t pay for religious activities. A similar lawsuit regarding the state constitution is pending. It does appear that religious schools will soon receive public tuition dollars.
The perennial push from teachers’ unions to adopt an income-based education-funded system is already underway. No specific proposal has emerged yet. The thinking here is that income is a better indicator of ability to pay. However this scheme could raise taxes for retirees on fixed incomes. It will not reduce overall spending. At present two-thirds of taxpayers already pay based on income. Critics suggest energy might be better spent focusing on addressing spending challenges.
To that end, a perennial proposal to re-adjust the weighting factors that determine local property tax rates looks to have real teeth this year. The proposal is based on a UVM study on how to best distribute state funds. It proposes getting rid of flat block-grants and moving to weighting factors that can scale taxation for factors like school distrit population density and poverty rate. Campaign for Vermont would like to see more analysis on impact to specific school districts. But the idea has promise. As with most changes of this scale, this is likely to take two years to pass through the legislature.
The legislature is still grappling with what was spent of the federal Coronavirus Relief Act monies and what we got for it. This process is likely to take the first half of the legislative session. Legislators want another round of federal funding, but there is little consensus on how to spend it. Certain industries have been severely impacted. Getting them meaningful relief has been a challenge. There is currently only one proposal on the table, called the Economic Solutions Act, that seems to overlap a fair amount with existing programs.
The one area there is any amount of clarity is on broadband buildout. The state spent about $3k per house on fiber buildouts in the Fall. Granted these were all federal dollars used for critical infrastructure, but this seems like a steep price tag. Another challenge facing rural providers is that even when fiber is available, most consumers choose internet packages with speeds that could be achieved via copper wire. This leaves providers maintaining infrastructure without revenues to cover it. No solution for this particular issue has been identified yet, but lawmakers are gravitating towards setting up a central funding source that regional stakeholders could tap into for capital investments.
Campaign for Vermont believes broadband is essential to Vermont’s economic future, particularly in a post-Covid world.
State leaders are finally onboard with addressing Vermont’s pension deficit. Treasurer Beth Pearce pitched a repair plan to both the House and Senate over the past two weeks. House Speaker Jill Krowinski has asked the legislature to put “all options” on the table so they can be sorted and evaluated.
Teacher and state employee unions have proposed raising income taxes on Vermont’s top income earners to pay for the pension shortfalls. Understandably, they seek avoid their members having to pay higher contributions or receive less benefits from the system as the Treasurer’s plan asks.
After getting cut short last year, reforms to the state ethics commission are moving forward again. The House Government Operations Committee advanced a bill this week that would make changes to the commission to support their operations. These changes nibble around the edges. They do not take up the more important state code of ethics the commission had drafted. Larry Novins (Executive Director of the Ethics Commission) asked the Committee to codify the code into law. It chose to pass.
Also underway down the (virtual) stairs in Senate Government Operations are efforts to expand universal mail-in voting as a permanent feature of our elections process. The committee is wading through nearly three dozen proposals. Campaign for Vermont supports the opportunity to expand access to voting. But the Legislature must ensure local elections officials have the resources to support this type and scale of voting. Mailed ballots take longer to process than an in-person ballot. A town clerk could become overwhelmed. The November election also revealed much work to do in order to clean up our voter checklists. This should be a component of the rollout plan as well.