Legislative Notebook

Week 17 (5/5 - 5/10) The 2014 legislative session was gaveled to a close on Saturday evening (5/10). Here are some of the big issue highlights from a long, busy final week:

Minimum Wage - On Thursday evening (5/8) it was looking like the wheels were coming off the tracks on this one. Progressives and liberal Democrats were aghast that the deal on the table retreated so far from the House's original position of moving to $10.10 on January 1, 2015, while the Republicans flexed their muscle by not acceding to a rules suspension in order move the agreed upon deal (a 3 year phase-in) forward. By Friday, however, reality set in and a new spirit of cooperation and compromise was in the air, with all House factions coalescing around the Senate's four year phase-in plan.

The House ended up concurring with that plan by a remarkable 132 to 3 vote (Wilson voting with the majority). So, if signed by the Governor - which is a pretty safe bet - Vermont's minimum wage will go from $7.25 to $9.15 on January 1, 2015, then to $9.60 in 2016, $10 in 2017 and $10.50 in 2018.

State Budget - Budget conferees came to agreement on the FY 15 state budget package on Friday evening (5/9). The full House gave its stamp of approval on the $5. 4 billion spending plan by a voice vote on Saturday evening. This represents a 4.1 percent increase over the current fiscal year and includes $1.4 billion in General Fund spending, $1.5 billion for the Education Fund and $685 million in transportation-related expenditures.

Taxes - After some arduous negotiations, the conference committee signed off on a tax bill late Friday evening. The bill that made its way to the full House and Senate for final ratification on Saturday dealt with a host of both general fund and education fund issues. To close a $5.5 million gap in the general fund, the tax deal included a 13 cent tax increase on cigarettes, and an increase in the health care-related employer assessment, along with some smaller revenue items. One of the more creative (some would say unusual) parts of the bill, entails a provision that would require the state to publish the names of the biggest tax delinquents. It is hoped that this scarlet letter approach to tax collection will bring in an additional $800,000 next year. On the property tax front, the final bill calls for a 4 cent increase in the homestead base rate and a 7.5 cent increase on non-residential property. Unfortunately, it does not include any of the hard fought House provisions that would have at least started to scale back some questionable education fund-related spending programs. The Senate, regretfully, was unwilling to make the tough decisions necessary to very modestly reduce income sensitivity adjustments and renter rebate benefits, or to phase out the wrong headed and counterintuitive small school grant program. The bill, surprisingly, was approved on a voice vote in the House on Saturday afternoon. Given our inability to make meager progress in even nibbling around the edges of the school funding spending problem, I just couldn't bring myself to support the final version of the bill.

School Governance - A big disappoint for me here. Yes, I know the House version was a game changer and apparently too aggressive for many, including the Senate to buy into. But, you would think that the legislature would respond in some constructive manner, even in a modest way, when the best and the brightest educational leaders in the state forewarn that there are serious cost and quality storm clouds on the horizon for Vermont's education system. The Secretary of Education (who, by the way has turned out to be a fantastic choice) says that many small school districts have entered a "death spiral;" a downward spiral that will most likely mean that the kids needing the most help, won't get and will fall further behind. It amazes me, in a disillusioning way, that we ended up sitting on our hands on this one.

Jeff Wilson represents the towns of Manchester, Arlington, Sunderland and Sandgate in the state legislature.


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