James: The Yield Bill: Knowing how to listen

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In a recent letter to the Manchester Journal, Rep. Cynthia Browning (I-Arlington) wrote that the Vermont legislature had raised education property taxes.

That's an alarming statement. But it's also an outlier opinion that 127 of her colleagues in the House of Representatives, including me, did not share.

H.959, also known as the "yield bill," was brought to the floor on May 29 with unanimous 11-0 backing from the bipartisan Ways and Means Committee. Presented and defended by Rep. Scott Beck (R-St. Johnsbury), after two days of discussion the bill passed 127-20 on a roll-call vote. The "yes" roster included a broad coalition of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and Progressives.

Since then, H.959 has been approved by the Senate and was signed into law by Governor Scott on June 30.

As many Vermonters know, the Education Fund faces a revenue shortfall for the current FY21 fiscal year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the economy came to a screeching halt in mid-March, the consumption taxes that help to feed the Education Fund — like the sales tax and the rooms and

meals tax — slowed to a trickle. At one point in April, it looked as though the Ed Fund deficit could reach as high as $166 million. With updated revenues as of late July, that gap has dropped to $92 million.

Meanwhile, on Town Meeting Day, just before the shutdown, voters all across the state approved school budgets for the upcoming 2020-2021 year that they feel are fiscally responsible. Here in the Northshire, for example, the Taconic and Green Regional School District's $33.5 million budget passed by a margin of 2,381 to 929, supported by residents across nine communities.

What does the legislature have to do with this? Every year, after voters have approved their local budgets, the Ways and Means Committee develops a yield bill for consideration by the House and Senate. Without getting too far into the weeds, this bill determines the statewide education property tax rates that will provide sufficient funding — based on the budgets that school boards have developed and voters have considered and approved.

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In crafting this year's yield bill in May, the Ways and Means Committee faced two hard facts. One: Voter-approved budgets were already in place, with the school year rapidly approaching. Two: The Education Fund is facing a big consumption-tax revenue gap that needs to be filled, one way or another.

One solution would have been to jack up education property tax rates — by as much as 15 to 22 cents — to cover the entire shortfall. Committee chair Rep. Janet Ancel and her Ways and Means colleagues were united and unwavering: That was not an option.

Instead, the committee decided on a path that, in the final vote, 127 legislators agreed was logical: To set the yields (and therefore the education tax rates) at the level required to fund the school budgets that voters approved on Town Meeting Day. That translated to a statewide average increase of about four cents.

In H.959, the committee also listed seven specific ways that the legislature would deal with the remaining revenue shortfall, including using federal funds if possible, borrowing, or using reserves.

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As described by Chair Ancel and other committee members, it's a balanced plan: It covers taxpayer-approved budgets with the expected tax rates, while leaving options to cover the COVID-related consumption-tax gap in other ways.

"Remember, this bill is just one piece of the puzzle," said Chair Ancel on the floor on May 29. "There will be another bill. This strategy is just part of the solution." Now in temporary recess, the legislature will re-convene on August 25 to take up the full FY21 budget. At that point, the state's fiscal picture will be clearer, as will — hopefully — the guidelines about using federal funds to replace lost revenues.

In her letter about the yield bill, Rep. Browning speculated that I voted for H.959 because I "failed to understand the issues" or that I "vote as I'm told by leadership." In writing this column, I wanted not only to discuss this important bill from my own perspective — and the perspective of many other legislators — but to shine a broader and more positive light on how I see the statehouse.

First of all: transparency. You don't have to take my word for anything I've written above. While the Vermont Constitution requires that the statehouse doors are always open, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, attending a committee hearing or watching a floor debate pretty much required a trip to

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Montpelier. But since the legislature went remote this spring, our Zoom meetings have been

broadcast live on YouTube and posted on the General Assembly website. To write this column, I went back and listened to all four hours of our floor debates on May 29 and June 3. I re-checked the vote totals, re-read the proposed amendments, and looked back at the vote explanations. You can do that, too: It's all posted at legislature.vermont.gov.

Vote explanations are limited and brief, but skimming over them in the May 29 House Calendar did remind me of the certainty I felt in casting my vote. One in particular jumped out: "I voted yes on H.959," said Rep. Robin Scheu (D-Middlebury). "The projected deficit in the Education Fund is a COVID-19 problem, not a school budget problem. Communities across the state passed what they believed were responsible and appropriate school budgets this year. We cannot punish schools, students, and communities for a global pandemic that is entirely not their fault. In fact, when students come back to school, they are likely to need more assistance, not less, and we must ensure we have the resources to allow schools to do what we are asking of them. We need this bill so our schools and communities can move forward."

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to my second point: Working together. In my first term, I've found the statehouse to be a highly collaborative, cooperative workplace. Is it partisan? Sure, but mostly on high-profile bills that draw media and voter attention. For the most part, it's a thoughtful,

friendly and respectful place to get things done — especially in committees, where the day-to-day work is accomplished and legislation gets hammered out, line by line.

So when an important bill like H.959 comes out of committee with unanimous 11-0 support, that means something to me. So does a roll-call tally of 127-20.

I don't call that being told how to vote. I call that knowing how to listen.

Rep. Kathleen James is a Democrat who represents Bennington-4 (Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland) in the Vermont House of Representatives. She serves on the House Education Committee. You can learn more about her at kathjamesforstaterep.com or follow her on Facebook: @kathjamesVTstaterep. Email: KJames@leg.state.vt.us.


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