School Choice Threats - The very real threat to school choice continues to evolve, with battle lines being drawn on several fronts. The most immediate threat concerns Senate bill S91, which would impose a variety of mandates on independent schools that serve tuition towns, such as Londonderry, Stratton, Weston, and Winhall. Some of the mandates that have been under discussion are so onerous, that they would have the practical effect of closing many of Vermont's independent schools. I am optimistic that this bill will be watered down - and perhaps won't see the light of day. Nonetheless, I make it a point to be proactive with my friends and colleagues on the House Education committee, and speak with them almost daily about how important school choice is to our community.
A second, albeit longer-term, threat to school choice is developing in the form of forced school district consolidation. It has become clear to education leaders and legislators of all stripes that voluntary school district consolidation is unlikely to result in any meaningful results. As a result, the House Education committee has started discussions about a state-imposed consolidation plan, which would eliminate all of the individual school districts we have today, and push towns into a small number of regional school districts.
At this point, you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with school choice. Well, under current law, real school choice (which includes the choice of public or independent schools) is only available if the district does not operate a public school. As soon as school districts are consolidated into larger units, the practical effect is that the larger school district would likely have at least one public school in operation, so school choice would no longer be an option. For example if Winhall was subsumed into a larger school district with Manchester, Londonderry, Peru, Landgrove, and Weston, the Winhall elementary students would be required to attend Manchester Elementary or Flood Brook, absent a change to the law, since the Mountain School and Maple Street are independent schools.
In an effort to get ahead of this threat, I have introduced H816, legislation that would specifically allow towns to continue offering school choice, even if their school districts are consolidated into larger units. While I don't expect forced consolidation to become law this year, I felt it was important to put the issue on the table, so there is a clear understanding of how school district consolidation would impact school choice. We may be a few years away from forced consolidation, but there is growing momentum, and we must all remain vigilant.
Education Property Taxes - It is difficult to have any discussion about education in Vermont, without touching on the subject of money. As many of you have already heard, the Governor's administration has proposed a 7 cent increase to the statewide property tax rate. Rest assured, I cannot find myself voting for that kind of increase without some focus on cost containment.
One specific cost problem I have focused my attention on concerns the newly mandated annual audits that all school districts are required to pay for. As a CPA in my professional life, I can appreciate how important regular audits are, but I also understand that there are situations were the cost/benefit of annual professional audits simply does not make sense. Unfortunately, the mechanics of our school funding formula dramatically magnify the costs of these audits, such that they have a disproportionate impact on the tax rate.
A number of small school districts across the state have seen their tax rates skyrocket in the past year as a result of this new unfunded mandate.
In response to this problem, I have taken the lead on developing a solution (House Bill H815) that has attracted 17 co-sponsors from both major parties. Higher Education Affordability - While K-12 education typically attracts the most attention in Montpelier, we need to remind ourselves of the importance and value of post-secondary education - particularly in today's increasingly competitive global economy.
As anyone who is in college, or has had to pay for a child to attend college, knows, the cost of post-secondary education is not cheap, and its not getting any cheaper. Fortunately, Vermont has a valuable, but little used, tax credit to help families save for college with a 529 plan. I have introduced legislation, House Bill H854, which would increase the value of this tax credit for low and middle-income Vermonters, to make it easier for people to save for college.
Economic Development - With the imminent closure of Vermont Yankee, the Windham County region will have to navigate through a challenging economic transition over the next several years. There is no escaping the fact that many high paying jobs will disappear, which will have a ripple effect on the regional economy. In anticipation of these challenges, I have introduced legislation that would provide targeted economic incentives for the Windham region to help ease this transition.
Opiate Treatment - As I mentioned at the beginning of this update, Governor Shumlin has made opiate addiction a top issue for 2014. As a member of the House Judiciary committee, which has been tasked with developing solutions for this issue, I am keenly aware of the challenge we face as a state. Many people know of a friend or family members suffering from addiction, and if they do not, they know someone whose house has been broken into to get money to buy drugs. The House Judiciary committee worked extensively on a "Good Samaritan" bill that I co-sponsored in the 2013 session, which went on to pass the House and Senate; ultimately becoming law. Under this new law, a person calling 911 in a situation where someone is in danger of dying from an overdose, is immune from prosecution from that incident.
The bill has already saved at least one life. There is satisfaction in seeing efforts become fruitful!
Vermont Health Connect - The Governor also included a plug for Universal Health Care in his State of the Union address. The "How are we going to pay for?" question remains unanswered, and legislators are concerned. Michael Costa, Deputy Director of Health Care Reform - Finance, addressed the CPA Winter Meeting that I attended. It is his job to get something in front of the legislature in 2015 showing funding alternatives for a single payer health care system. He was unwilling to provide clues at this juncture. As many of you are probably aware, Senator Galbraith is pushing that issue, now. It will remain to be seen whether he gets an answer of substance before 2015; but, his suggestion that it might require an 11 percent employment tax on employers, with another 2 percent on employees, certainly gets the attention of Vermonters. The administration plans to present several funding options to the legislature this spring, with a finalized bill to follow in January of 2015.
In the meantime, very recently, I have spoken with a constituent who suffered a very frustrating experience dealing with Vermont Health Connect. It took too long, with too much DISconnection, but they are now covered.
When things go awry, and it just does not seem to be working, there are people at the State who can be helpful. I know it should not go to that extreme in the first place. Hopefully, the service has improved, and will continue to, but the problematic roll-out of Vermont Health Connect certainly offers a cautionary tale that we should all be mindful of as the state moves towards "single-payer" healthcare.
I know that many people have been struggling with the transition to Vermont Health Connect, so please don't hesitate to contact me if you need assistance.
Tim Goodwin represents the towns of Weston, Londonderry, Jamaica, Stratton and Winhall in the state Legislature.