Now that we are home and the dust has settled, we have the opportunity to reflect on the events of the legislative session.
Perhaps the hardest task that was achieved was constructing a balanced budget. For eight or nine years, we have faced a budget shortfall, which means that our revenue did not match our desired spending. Because we always pass a balanced budget, we have had to make more and more painful cuts over the years. This year, the shortfall was $113 million, which was made up with $56 million in cuts, $32 million in revenue, and $25 million in one-time money.
A strong effort was made to institute more structural changes in order to bring spending in line with revenue projections. At the same time, we did our best to consider the needs of Vermont’s most vulnerable citizens. As a result of the deaths of two toddlers last year, we increased the workforce dedicated to child protection. One of the greatest challenges for people trying to move out of poverty is the loss of supportive benefits. Make a little too much money and critical support disappears. This is known as the “benefits cliff”. For those taking part in the Reach Ahead Program we added a second year of 100% childcare subsidy. This will assure those Vermonters in low-wage jobs that their children are being well-taken care of and safe. This is a good investment because as people gain work experience and become more self-sufficient, they are less reliant on public assistance, which decreases the pressure on the budget.
Members of the House Agriculture and Forest Products Committee are very pleased that the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative ended up with $700,000. Funding had been in question so we are glad that we can continue to make these important investments that have increased economic output and created jobs.
A number of organizations that were on the chopping block also made it through the process. These include the VT Arts Council, the Humanities Council, and the Women’s Commission. Consideration was given to closing the Veteran’s Home in Bennington but the idea was rejected.
The Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) that helps keep Vermonters warm is funded, which is reassuring after this last winter. We also fully funded the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund, which will reduce the amount raised through the property tax.
I am particularly proud of the work we did on the Water Quality bill, H.35. In the past, efforts were made and a lot of money spent on the Clean and Clear program with little observable improvement. It is probably true that Lake Champlain would be in worse shape if we hadn’t made that effort. We now have the technology and funding to redouble our efforts. It is hoped that H.35 will go a long way toward fulfilling the Environmental Protection Agency’s requirements regarding a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for cleaning up the Lake Champlain watershed.
The Education Bill, H.361, was a real challenge for many of us. It was suggested that we should think of the State as a whole and not just our own districts. Perhaps, there are areas in the State that need to start a conversation about the quality and cost-effectiveness of their schools, in particular high schools, and this might get them started.
Where H.361 really misses the mark is the presupposition that small schools can’t offer great educational opportunity at a reasonable cost. That may be true on the high school level but it is not true on the elementary level. The bill does not look at what we are getting for our money, something Rep. Ann Manwaring really wanted to study. What outcomes are we getting for what we spend? The cost-containment element may not be workable. One special education student will potentially blow a town’s school budget out of the water. Increased fuel prices could have the same effect. The good news is that the Burlington School system has already announced concerns so it won’t just be small schools that are affected. If the pain is too great, we will be back next year reexamining this measure.
My disappointment lies in the fact that there could have been better process. Yes, the committee took testimony but, in my view, there needed to be a much larger conversation. Education of our children is, bar none, the most important investment we make as a state. Last year, I advocated for a statewide conversation conducted by a neutral entity like the Vermont Council on Rural Development to determine what Vermonters valued and what they thought was important in education. The VCRD did a study several years ago that formed the basis for the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative that gave strength and credibility to our work. A similar exercise would have gone a long way to getting investment from Vermonters in what we did. Instead, we had many of the same faces reaching what seemed to be a predetermined outcome.
One of the major reasons we started this conversation was some people’s concern about property taxes. When I learned that this proposal would save $25-50 million, which equals two and a half to five cents on the tax rate, I immediately knew that it was not going to satisfy those who were complaining. In fact, the first person to stand up in debate said exactly that – it wasn’t good enough.
A more inclusive process would have been preferable – one that sets out goals, values, and principles and takes a thorough look at what we are getting for our money, what we are doing right, and how we can improve. If our value is a good education and small schools are achieving that goal, maybe we should encourage them instead of constantly making them the bad guy. Or let’s be honest and admit that we are really concerned about money and stop couching the conversation as concern about opportunity