Most of the work during Week 7 of the session was taking place in committee, with very little action occurring on the House floor. This is fairly typical just prior to town meeting, but the pre-“crossover” lull seems a little more pronounced this year. I think the modus operandi governing the session will be to balance the budget, keep your head down and adjourn as early as possible. I could be wrong (yes – my record of legislative predictions is so-so at best), but that’s the feeling I get around the statehouse these days. Anyway – here’s some of the highlights from the past week:
Education Governance: By the week’s end, the House Education Committee was wrapping up its work on school governance reform legislation and is scheduled to unveil its detailed bill on the subject the week of February 25th. It is anticipated that the legislation will call for a major revamp of Vermont’s school decision-making structure, whereby the current 282 school districts (1440 school board members) will be reworked and consolidated down to 30 to 60 unified supervisory/school districts. This unified district approach envisions that each of the new “Education Districts” will be governed by one school board, with one superintendent. The proposed road map to effect this dramatic change entails a four year planning process that contemplates a design team, appointed by the Secretary of Education, to work with local districts and supervisory unions to redesign the system and redraw jurisdictional boundaries. As I have noted in past commentary, a revision of this magnitude will bound to be very controversial; any substantive change usually is. Controversial or not, I am a big supporter of this effort and give the Speaker and House Education an enormous amount of credit for trying to tackle this one. With a decreasing student count, Vermont’s current system has become ponderously inefficient and often is an impediment to finding capable leadership and producing equitable and optimal student achievement. It’s time for a much needed change.
Clean Water – On the 18th, the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee released a briefing paper, outlining its most recent thinking on its legislative effort (H. 586) to clean up Vermont rivers, lakes and streams. Yes, we do have a problem (largely phosphorous loading); a big problem in Lake Champlain especially. A 2013 report estimated that it will cost over $100 million a year, over ten years, to adequately address water quality issues statewide. The bill, still being fleshed out in committee, calls for a new regimen of rules, regulations and requirements that would reduce deleterious agriculture, stormwater and construction run-off that has contributed to poor water quality in parts of Vermont. To get started on this enormous undertaking, the bill also calls for $10 and $20 fees (residential & commercial respectively) on new lots, along with a 0.5% increase in the rooms and meals tax. The $3 to $5 million that would be raised by these new taxes and fees would be used to fund the staff and resources needed to start down the path to remediation. The water quality issue represents one of many issues the state needs to come to grips with and I think my colleagues on Fish and Wildlife are doing the responsible thing by addressing this matter. But, I’ve got to ask – if this represents a vital need, why wasn’t the new program expenditure and the revenue offset addressed by the Administration in its budget proposal? Moreover, I think it would be an economic miscalculation to raise the rooms and meals any higher. Since any new fees and taxes have to be approved by the Ways and Means Committee (my committee) before going prime time, I will at least get a chance to have my say on the revenue end of the bargain. Stay tuned.