Looks like we are entering the final quarter of the 2014 session, with most pundits predicting that this year’s work will be wrapped-up by early, to mid-May. Of course you never know when things might blow up, but my money’s on us sticking to the schedule given the Speakers track record of successfully working through any surprises that may pop up along the way.
Minimum Wage – The House started the week off with a fairly lengthy debate about raising the state minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. As it turned out, the focal point of this discussion turned out less about if the minimum should be increased, and more about when. The Governor had proposed a three year phase-in to the new $10.10, but the Committee shepherding the bill on the floor (General, Housing & Military Affairs) felt strongly that a quicker effective date (Jan 1, 2015) was the way to go. Committee proponents bolstered their case by citing a report from the Legislature’s economist (Tom Kavet) that raising the minimum wage to the $10.10 figure would inject $30 million of new economic activity into Vermont’s economy, help some Vermonters pull themselves out of poverty and would have a negligible negative impact on small business. Opponents made the claim that the increase was too much, too soon and that business owners would have a tough time adjusting to a 16% increase in one fell swoop. In the end, an amendment to slow things down to the Governor’s three year timeline failed on a vote of 82 to 63 (Wilson voting with the minority) and the bill passed the House on an 87 to 57 vote (Wilson voting with the majority). The bill now moves to the Senate, where word has it that most Senators are more inclined to approve the phased-in approach. If so, does that mean the eventual compromise will be a two year timeline to get to $10.10 – we’ll see.
School Governance – It was nip and tuck for a while, but by the end of the week the Ways and Means Committee (my committee) voted out a far-reaching revamp of Vermont’s K-12 system of school governance and decision-making. The bill calls for a nine member design team to devise a new governance plan that would consist of 45 to 55 school districts, containing 1000 to 4000 students each. The road map to this new system entails a lengthy evaluation and public hearing process that would ultimately blossom into a new governance landscape in 2020. The contemplated overhaul will result in many fewer school districts, school boards, school board members, and a more streamlined and flexible administrative regimen. Although there were strong votes in both the House Education Committee and in Ways and Means in favor of this legislation, it has been, and will continue to be, a very controversial proposition; any policy calling for fundamental, extensive change always is. Even more disturbing though, is the thought of doing nothing; the status-quo is not working and there are clearly more storm clouds on the horizon when it comes to school cost and performance. We heard a good deal of testimony to this effect, portraying the current system as disjointed and woefully inefficient, gripped with an imminent leadership crisis and growing inequities from school to school. As you might be able to tell, I’m a big proponent of this initiative and am a firm believer that the time has come to move forward. I imagine it will prove to be quite a lively discussion on the floor; especially for me, since I’ll be one playing point in trying to move it through the House. Should be fun.
– Jeff Wilson, Manchester, Vermont, State Representative