The lawmakers return

Last week was a busy one in Montpelier, as lawmakers returned for the opening of a new legislative biennium. As always, there are plenty of issues to occupy their attention. Left largely unmentioned in Gov. Peter Shumlin's otherwise interesting and thought-provoking inaugural address was the awkward issue of a projected $50-70 million budget shortfall that needs to be closed somehow prior to finalizing a state budget for the coming fiscal year. We've been through this exercise before with regularity since the onset of sluggish economic times in 2008, and seem likely to again. The wild cards in the equation remain the amount of federal revenue that will flow into state coffers, and how to plan to pay for the transition to a new state health insurance and wellness scheme. That latter issue, originally expected to be a focus of this session when cost and funding mechanism information was supposed to be discussed and debated, seems to have been pushed back further on the calendar. Without knowing how Vermont's bold experiment in health care is to be paid for, it's hard to weigh the pros and cons.

However, there are a host of other issues. Beyond the budget, we're likely to hear debate over decriminalizing marijuana sales and another round of discussion over "Death with Dignity," or "physician assisted death." The latter subject has come up several times in the past few years but has never secured enough votes for passage. The Journal has supported this proposed measure - which would allow terminally ill patients, after a long and thorough process to ensure this is a rationally thought-out decision and an act of their own free will - to voluntarily end their lives without further pain or expenditure of funds. We continue to support this humanitarian measure and hope that this time it will get the needed votes in both houses of the Legislature. We understand there are two morally defensible points of view on this issue, but feel the weight of evidence argues for allowing this option to individuals who are ready for it.

Marijuana decriminalization also seems to be an issue whose time has come. This is distinct from outright legalization, although many would argue that it's a logical next step. But this is an issue that merits careful, data-driven reflection. On the one hand, we think Vermont, like the nation as a whole, has "bigger fish to fry" with our relatively limited law enforcement capabilities. Those would include the rash of property crimes and burglaries that seem to be on the rise, driven perhaps by prescription drug dependency. Those are areas worth focusing on. By contrast, snaring an 18 year-old student on a possession charge for small amounts of marijuana seems like an inefficient use of police time and effort. On the other hand of course, many would argue that marijuana is a "gateway" drug that often leads on to other, more destructive forms of drug abuse. For the moment, we lean towards encouraging passage of such a decriminalization bill, but will be following this debate with interest and open minds. As always, we encourage readers to write in and share their views on what is sure to be a sensitive topic.

The main event last week, was, however, Gov. Shumlin's inaugural address, during which he broke somewhat from tradition to focus more or less exclusively on the role of education, especially how it pertained in preparing today's students to take part in the workforce of tomorrow, and how we as a state need to do better than we already may be doing.

Space does not permit detailed analysis of the four main changes the governor would like to see in the state's education structure here. He called for a greater investment in early childhood education (his way of paying for it - a diversion of $17 million from the state's Earned Income Tax Credit - may well flummox lawmakers who favor such an expansion, but are loath to pay for it by undermining a tool that benefits low-income Vermonters); an enhanced free lunch program for low-income students, expanded dual enrollment programs to give qualified students a chance to get started early on college courses, and a new scholarship program designed to encourage more Vermonters to attend college in Vermont. The governor also stressed the importance of upgrading math and science offerings.

All of which sounds good and is hard to argue with, although some will, and probably should. On one level, the governor passed on the chance to be bold and call for some farther-reaching overhauls that address the fundamental question: How can education costs, financed largely by state property taxes, be responsibly contained at a time when the number of students being educated in the state continues to decline? We agree wholeheartedly with much of what the governor had to say about the absolute necessity of doing the best that we can to prepare today's youngster's for the workplace of tomorrow. He's right - that has a real bearing on how the state's economy will eventually perform. Despite no shortage of effort and good will, there remain troubling performance gaps, mostly between low income students and their more affluent counterparts. Once upon a time, a high school degree was sufficient to ensure a good paying job for life. No more. Despite all the woes of college debt, there's no question that the need for more education past high school is virtually a given, if someone wants to have a chance at what used to be known as a "middle class life style."

What the governor offered instead was a small bore menu of worthwhile ideas, but they don't address the central issue of costs directly. Perhaps that's yet to come, when the governor delivers his annual budget address later this month. In tone and emphasis, the governor is on the right track, but we hope he doesn't stop there. That $50-70 million hole at the end of the budget won't go away by itself, even if Act 68, the state's education financing law, isn't going away either.


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