Just as we can count on the leaves to turn color every autumn, this is the time of year when we can all expect the dreaded property tax bill to arrive in the mail. That bill is a painful reminder of how big an issue the education funding property tax is for many communities in Vermont, including the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall. That is every town in our district! Just as this is a big issue for many property owners in our area, I can assure you that it is one of my biggest priorities as a candidate to be the next State Representative for our area.
Not very many people I know take much pleasure in paying them, but property taxes are the major source of revenue for a pretty important function in society - the education of our children. The problem is that Vermont's education finance formula, Act 60/68, has become overly dependent on the property tax as a funding source.
Equalized Pupils, Phantom Students, Excess Spending, CLA, and COD: these terms probably don't mean much to most taxpayers, but as a Lister and former school board member, I have become all too familiar with the intricate details of this convoluted education funding formula.
While I would love to see Act 60/68 repealed, the reality is that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Last year the Legislature spent $200,000 on a study that more or less concluded that Act 60/68 was working. Earlier this year, the Governor declared that the old battles over education funding were over. There simply is not the political will in Montpelier to tackle wholesale reform anytime soon.
As a candidate for state representative, I could easily promise major change to our education funding laws, but I won't do that. We already have a filing cabinet full of alternatives that could be considered, but never seem to make it to front burner. In my view, a smarter, and more realistic approach, is to focus on ways to tackle some of the hidden tax increases that have slipped through the net of the tangled, complex web of education finance laws.
For example, under a formula established under Act 68, the state's General Fund is supposed to contribute a set amount of money to the Education Fund, with annual inflationary increases. But, in recent years, that transfer was reduced - leaving property taxpayers to make up the difference. At the same time, other demands have been placed on the Education Fund, which are not directly related to K-12 education (prisoner education, for example).
These subtle changes are hard to spot, and are often buried in the detail, but they add up to significant dollars on our property tax bills.
While several local legislators have been successful in highlighting these stealth tax increases over the past few years, more work needs to be done to raise awareness and address this growing problem.
For starters, we need to work to ensure that the state restores the General Fund transfer back to the levels set forth under the original Act 68 formula - which would bring an additional $27 million into the Education Fund, which would allow for a reduction to the statewide property tax rate by about 2.5 cents.
Earlier this year, the legislature set up a system that would use future General Fund budget surpluses to restore this transfer, but this mechanism will sunset in a few years. We should eliminate the sunset until such time as the Education Fund is made whole again.
While we need to correct for past transgressions, it is important that we pay close attention and do more to stop these increases before they come into effect.
That requires a detailed understanding of the funding formula and the accounting skills to identify and highlight these "raids" on the Education Fund. As someone with the requisite knowledge and skills, this is a challenge that I look forward to taking on.
Tim Goodwin is a candidate for the Windham-Bennington-Windsor House district, which includes the towns of Jamaica, Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall.