The last week of January in the Vermont House of Representatives was a wild one as we focused on Budget Adjustment and on Education Reform.
The Budget Adjustment package makes mid-year corrections to spending to meet the needs of Vermonters. The spending update seeks to tackle the opiate crisis in our state by supporting a child protection package. This investment was made while keeping within a 2.5 percent growth rate but provides funding to the Department of Children and Families in order to address the rising caseload of children at risk and to seek to better protect them. As the Chairperson Rep. Ann Pugh of the committee on which I serve, House Human Services stated, "The drug epidemic is causing serious problems in our communities and in order to obtain control we must increase access to prevention. Eighty percent of new cases at the Department of Children and Families are from families with addiction issues. We are putting our state's future at risk if we don't protect our children and strengthen our families. Dealing with this must be a top priority." I concur whole-heartedly.
We have taken testimony in our Human Services Committee by social workers and those in the DCF about the case overloads. It is alarming. Frightening in fact. At a legislative meeting I attend recently at the United Counseling Service in Bennington the Chief of Police was lamenting the fact that the police are now being forced into the role of being social workers and doing jobs for which they are untrained. The support of the children and families in the budget adjustment is very basic and necessary. Included in the budget adjustment are an expansion of needle dispensaries. Were you aware that the use of hazardous/dirty needles can cost the state up to $80,000 per infected person? The dispensary figure and clean needle adjustment to the budget is a preventive measure that costs less than half that amount.
Other parts of the budget adjustment also seek to build long-term sustainability and affordability in the services we provide to other Vermont populations. For example, the budget adjustment reflects our values in supporting hard working Vermonters by offering services like health care coverage for a family farmer who has never been able to afford the surgery he needs to keep him working and in business.
Act 46 and S. 233 At mid- week the focus shifted from the budget adjustment to Act 46 and the Senate proposed amendment S.233. First, I voted for an amendment to repeal the thresholds of Act 46 based upon the position held by a large majority of constituents that I heard from in Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate. The amendment that I reluctantly supported was defeated by a wide margin. After much wrangling the House passed the compromise bill offered to the Senate that softened a cap on school spending. The vote was 92-32 and was taken at 1:30 am on Saturday morning. The amendment for Allowable Growth in Education Spending for Fiscal Year 2017 give districts more leeway this year and removed the cost containment provision altogether for fiscal year 2018. (I personally feel this 2018 decision is a mistake as it will probably negatively impact property taxes and property tax relief is one of the important issues that we have been seeking to address during this biennium.)
House Republicans last Friday wanted to keep thresholds on the caps in place without any compromise. Thresholds are a cost containment measure. Cost containment has been a largely bi-partisan argument all along, one which I support. The Education Committee clearly started out seeking to cap spending further, which it was hoped would eliminate or at least lessen a rise in property tax rates. The Ed Committee sought to pressure schools to be more prudent by applying penalties for educational over-spending while still urging districts to provide for the highest quality education for students. Some schools indicated it just could not be done and that the Ed Committee was asking too much. Thus, some local schools rejected the thresholds while others complied. (Statewide we have watched a decline in school enrollment and growing educational expenses for more than a decade.) Something had to be done. Once the Senate voted to repeal the thresholds of Act 46 it was up to the House to decide what to do. For the past month the Education Committee sought to listen to the districts but not scrap all reform measures. By doing this, the House pushed the Senate away from their repeal position.The compromise came this past week. It was decided by the House and Senate that we would raise the allowable growth figure by 0.9 percent and it was agreed that every district that spends $14,095 or less are exempted from spending thresholds. The Agency of Education will use whichever calculation best supports a district staying within spending limits. Penalties will go up from 25 percent of every dollar spent over to 40 percent. There was fear that if the Senate version, S. 233, was not passed before January 31, 2016 that there would be insufficient time for towns to warn school budgets before Town Meeting Day. Thus the Democrats pushed back against the Republicans and urged for the midnight vote rather than wait until a Tuesday debate that the Republicans had hoped for. By voting passage of S.233 the hands of local school boards were untied and they were able to produce their budgets and send them to the printers. Now we will all have to live with a compromise position until we find a way to provide the highest quality education for our children and come up with a more equitable tax structure for property owners not tied to educational reform.
Steven Berry is a state representative to the Legislature from the district which includes Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate.