Back from Town Meeting break, both the House and Senate hit the ground running on the 11th to meet the first part of the two-part “crossover” deadline. Except for the money committees (Ways and Means & Appropriations) all legislative committees needed to get their priority bills in final form and voted out to the floor by the end of the week (3/14). And by the end of next week (3/21), all bills that survived part one of this process, will need to make the jump from one body to the other (House to the Senate & vice versa). Any piece of legislation that doesn’t successfully navigate both ends of the crossover test, will be dead and gone for this biennium. The big exception to this rule in the House (besides money bills) relates to the governance legislation that the House Education Committee is laboring over. This is a big, controversial lift for the Committee, and they have been given some extra time to see if they can successfully put the pieces together.
Education Finance – With 35 school budgets defeated at town meeting, there was a good deal of attention given to the topic of education finance last week. In fact, my committee (Way and Means) spent the lion’s share of its time on this issue and rolled out an initial reform draft for review and consideration. The proposal represents some good work, but don’t expect any silver bullet resulting in a significant tax reduction – because there is no silver bullet. The overall tax levy will remain high, and get higher, unless we can reign in education spending (the highest in the nation per $1,000 of income). The draft Ways and Means plan recommends a $0.99 homestead property tax rate, along with a $1.52 nonresidential statewide rate. The former is 2 cents lower than the Tax Commissioner’s December recommendation, while the latter is a cent higher. The proposal scales back the maximum income sensitivity benefit, from $8,000 to $6,000, and reduces the amount allocated to renter rebate payments. The draft also calls for phasing out Small School Grants for all small schools, except those found to exist due to geographic necessity. The most meaningful part of the bill probably relates to the attempt to control future spending by imposing a new regimen of excess spending penalties. Conceptually, there seems to be near universal consensus on this score, however, we are finding that it is a pretty tricky challenge to get the mix right. Ways and Means hopes to move an Ed Finance bill to the floor by the 19th.
Health Care – The big surprise last week, at least for me, was the Governor’s decision to postpone any discussion of health care financing alternatives. This is a very big issue, with a very big price tag, and we were told from the Day 1 of the session that the Administration would be rolling out “single payer” financing ideas and alternatives to the House Ways and Means Committee in March. Apparently, that’s not going to be the case, with the Governor explaining that the Administration’s analysis associated with this daunting task still needs more work to “get it right”. What does this mean? I certainly don’t have the inside track on what this really means, but it would seem to me that it will be pretty darned difficult to keep to the goal of approving a finance plan in 2015 without the Legislature getting a head start this year. Could this also mean no “single payer” in 2017 – stay tuned.
– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative