It may be a little bit early to say that the end is in sight, but it is becoming clearer which legislative initiatives will make it to the Governor’s desk, and which won’t make the cut. It would be my guess that we’ll wrap-up the session by mid-May. Here are a couple of the highlights from Week 13:
Decriminalization of Marijuana – On Friday (4/12) the House gave preliminary approval to a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote on this measure was 98 in favor, with 44 opposed (Wilson voting with the majority). This legislation would make the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a maximum fine of $300. Currently, Vermont statute treats possession of any quantity of marijuana as a criminal offense. If signed into law, Vermont would become the sixteenth state to approve legislation of this nature, and would join New York and every other New England state, with the exception of New Hampshire, in treating small quantity possession non-criminally. The chances look good at this point for this bill to make it through the Senate and to be signed into law by Governor Shumlin.
Education Finance Reform – Getting the public education equation right is a daunting challenge that has consumed an enormous amount of time and resources over the past decade, on both the national and state levels. This is important stuff that will largely dictate our future success or failure in the global economy. Generally, I think our state has done a pretty good job on this front and there are some exciting, new initiatives being developed by inspired and dedicated Vermont educators. However, there are legitimate questions being raised about whether the current system is as optimal as it should be when it comes to service delivery, educational performance and fiscal sustainability. In an effort to tackle some of these concerns, the House Ways and Means Committee (my committee) spent most of Week 13 crafting a bill that seeks to rework certain aspects of the current education tax and expenditure dynamic. The bill, approved by an 11-0 vote by Ways and Means on Friday (4/12), recommends the following changes:
- Excess Spending Threshold – This threshold, as currently structured, penalizes school districts that exceed 125% of the average statewide per (equalized) pupil spending. Ways and Means, in an effort to tamp down spending, is proposing that this penalty threshold be reduced to 123% in FY 15, followed by a further reduction to 121% in FY 17.
- Income Sensitivity System – This part of Act 60/68 enables certain taxpayers (mostly those with household incomes under $90,000) to pay their education taxes based on income, as opposed to homestead property value alone. The bill would reduce the maximum benefit under this system from $8,000 to $6,000, increase the eligibility slope (enabling more Vermonters to qualify), but reduce the overall assistance levels. In all, it is anticipated that these changes will bolster the Education Fund by $3.5 million in FY 15.
- Small School Grants – The bill calls for most small school grants to be phased out over a four year period, starting in FY 16. This should help the Education Fund’s bottom line by about $7 million when the grant is gone for good. Schools deemed to be geographically isolated by the Secretary of Education would continue to receive the grant.
- Renter Rebate – The calculation governing this payment to renters, under the proposal, would be reduced from 24% of gross rent, to 21%. This would have the effect of saving about $2 million in FY 15 ($1.3 million Ed Fund & $600,000 General Fund).
In addition, the bill calls for the Secretary of Education to refine the Agency’s data collection methodology, so that the State will have a more accurate picture of staff per student, teacher per student and administrator per student ratios for each school district in Vermont. The legislative intent associated with this data collection, is to use it to devise a cost control system that will penalize school districts having ratios that are too low. The thesis is – personnel costs drive high taxes and we simply cannot afford to pay for the inefficiencies that come with some of the lowest personnel-to-student ratios in the nation. The bill will go to the floor for debate the week of April 15th.
– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative