This week, we had “off” from the Legislature, which really just means we weren’t in Montpelier. I put the word “off” in quotes because we did spend a good deal of time as legislators attending Town Meetings, which is one of my favorite things to do. Rep. Matt Trieber and I were in Rockingham on Monday night and then visited our four smaller towns on Tuesday. Matt attended the Westminster meeting on Saturday, which I unfortunately missed due to a Council of State Governments Eastern Regional Conference meeting in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, we started in Brookline at 9:30 AM, chatting with folks until the meeting officially started at 10 AM. We are fortunate in that we have an opportunity to speak at the smaller town meetings. We keep our remarks relatively brief so that there is plenty of time for questions and comments. I spoke about the budget challenges we face including the $70 million budget gap and the increasing difficulty of making reductions given the fact that we have made significant cuts for six or seven years in a row. I also spoke of a couple of bright spots including the Working Lands Enterprise and Farm to Plate Initiatives, which are creating jobs and promoting economic development. Matt spoke of the efforts in the Human Services Committee to make changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program known as Reach Up. The goal is to promote employment by allowing individuals to keep more of their money and allow for savings without a negative impact on their benefits, known as the “benefits cliff”. An additional goal is to do this at no additional cost to the state.
In Brookline, we heard about the need for broadband/internet and cell service and whether or not we can, on the state level, encourage competition amongst providers. There was concern about the excessive cost to the town of tax appeals when the process is taken to the Supreme Court. The point was made that if the State Appraiser values a property and it is appealed to a higher level, why should the town bear the costs? There was also a question about the need to repay the state for capital costs if the town buys the old Brookline school building.
The meeting in Athens was well underway when we arrived but they were very gracious in allowing us to interrupt the orders of the day. One comment and concern had to do with the high property tax rate. This always makes me wonder if the person asking the question is taking advantage of the income sensitivity opportunity available with Acts 60/68. In this case, the questioner does, indeed, file the proper documents in order to receive income sensitivity, but is concerned that as she approaches retirement age and wants to make a life change, might find it difficult to sell her house. It should be remembered that anyone buying her house may also qualify for income sensitivity depending on how much they earn.
When we arrived in Grafton, they had already finished their meeting in what was, perhaps, a record time of one hour and four minutes! Thankfully, there were still folks present having lunch so we were able to visit informally and, yes, have some of Chris Wallace’s pecan and lemon buttermilk pies (it’s not all hard work!).
It was then on to Windham where we had lunch and spoke when the meeting reconvened. One question concerned the status of H.112, which would require the labeling of food produced with genetic engineering. I was happy to report that the bill has passed the Senate Agriculture Committee and is currently in Senate Judiciary where it will be worked it after crossover on March 14th. Support is strong for the passage of the bill. Thanks to everyone in all of the towns for their thoughtful questions, thoughts, and comments!
Our last stop was the polls in Rockingham where we visited with voters and candidates for office. Congratulations to everyone in all of the towns who won the positions they sought and a sincere thanks to all who threw their hats in the ring and ran. It’s that kind of participation that makes our communities and democracy stronger.
While the school budgets passed in all of our towns with the exception of Leland and Gray Union High School, which will be reconsidered on April 2, there were 30+ budgets that failed statewide. This will undoubtedly promote additional conversation about education finance reform. My hope is that we will take a thoughtful approach that involves a grassroots engagement process, such as that used in the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, rather than a top down, “Montpelier knows best” approach.
Getting public input up front allows people to express their values, contribute creatively, and feel invested in the final product rather than reacting to a predetermined plan. I believe we should look for ways to save money such as in the consolidation of services model employed at the Windham Central Supervisory Union rather than trying to once again squeeze the life out of our small schools when they are, in most cases, doing an excellent job educating our children.