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Interview with Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross

The Chittenden County Democrats Show on CCTV Channel 17, hosted by Bob Hooper and Rep. Mike Yantachka, featured Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross in May.  Secretary Ross discussed changes in the grading of Maple Syrup, the proposed efforts to reduce the effects of agricultural practices on Lake Champlain, the growing locavore movement, and the federal Farm Bill and its implications for Vermont dairy farmers.   Watch the interview here.

The Word in the House 4/3/2014 - The Budget

This is the part of the legislative session that becomes the most politically contentious and, for me, the most perplexing because we are dealing with very large sums of money.  Of the three money bills that are must-pass in every session of the legislature, the Transportation bill, the Miscellaneous Tax bill, and the Budget bill, the latter two were debated and passed during this last week in March.  Now they will be considered by the Senate, probably changed, and sent back to the House in the next couple of weeks. 

The revenues raised by the Miscellaneous Tax Bill presented by the Ways and Means Committee must balance with the expenditures in the Budget Bill presented by the Appropriations Committee.  These committees work very hard for three months with input from state government employees, legislators and citizens to craft bills that make investments in strategies that will reduce future costs, address poverty, tackle opiate addiction, spur job growth, fund needed programs for the elderly and the disabled, and drastically reduce Vermont’s reliance on one-time funds.  Not one legislator wants to spend money unnecessarily and everyone wants the money that is spent to benefit Vermont and its citizens.  The problem comes in trying to decide how to accomplish those competing goals. 

When these bills get to the floor they invariably divide the legislature along party lines.  While one side focuses on the size of the budget, the other focuses on what the budget can accomplish with the available resources.  Compounding the problem have been the federal cutbacks to food stamps and low income heating assistance. When the available resources are not sufficient to address the needs, a decision must be made to either find additional revenues or to ignore the needs.  Increasing taxes is always seen as a solution to be avoided unless the need is perceived to be great enough. This, however, can be a subjective judgment colored by political philosophies. 

Representative Martha Heath, Chair of the Appropriations Committee, stated what her committee tried to accomplish.  At the beginning of the session Governor Shumlin proposed a budget to support his goal of providing more effective intervention and treatment for opiate addicts.  He asked for $14M in revenue based on taxing health insurance claims.  This was unacceptable to the legislature because it would drive up health care costs at a time when we are trying to reduce them.  Instead, by making cuts to proposed expenditures and employing alternate funding strategies, the additional revenue needed was reduced to $3.3M. 

This year’s budget addresses the issue of homeless Vermonters by doubling the rental subsidy program, increasing funding for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, and increasing grants for homeless shelters.  It helps those who are living in poverty by increasing support to make high quality child care affordable and available so that parents can go to work.  In addition, substance abuse and mental health issues have been identified as the number one barrier to obtaining jobs for those served by the state’s Reach Up program.  Over $1M is appropriated to address this important issue.

The highly publicized opiate addiction problem facing our state and the toll it takes on our communities and our safety is also addressed. The budget invests over $10M in additional treatment and recovery capacity and expands statewide the successful rapid intervention program that moves addicted offenders into treatment prior to arraignment under certain circumstances because treatment is much more productive than imprisonment. The need is great, and these strategies, along with the efforts of our local communities, will reduce the number of Vermonters struggling with addiction.
While Vermont continues to do relatively well as we come out of the Great Recession, investment in job growth remains critical. The budget increases funding for Regional Development Corporations and Planning Commissions, invests in further capacity for the Employee Ownership Center, increases investments in our transportation infrastructure, and increases funding for the Working Lands Initiative to further spur this rapidly growing part of Vermont’s economy.
One of government’s most important roles is to insure that the disabled and the elderly are able to live with dignity and with as much independence as possible. This budget fully funds the caseload increases in Developmental Services and continues our investment in serving elderly Vermonters in their homes as they age through the Choices in Care program.   
This budget provides less funding than I would prefer for programs like low income weatherization and it fails to make whole the federal cuts to the food stamp program.  There is also a smaller increase in payments to home health care providers and to health care providers for Medicaid patients. But I support this budget because it is the best that could be accomplished at this time.

Legislative Report 3/26/2014 - More on Education Financing

A few days before Town Meeting, I wrote a post in Front Porch Forum explaining what factors go into how the statewide property tax which funds K-12 public education is calculated.  In the post I stated that school budgets, and therefore spending, are determined by local school districts, and the state's role determined by Acts 60 and 68 is to fund the budgets approved by the voters.  The local school districts receive targeted revenues which include Federal Title I money, donations, and some categorical state aid such as Special Education, transportation, technical education, adult education, and Essential Early Education. The amount of the budget that remains comes from the state Education Fund.

The Education Fund has several sources of revenue: a) about 35% of sales tax revenue, b) 100% of the lottery revenue, c) an amount transferred from the General Fund and other sources, and d) the statewide property tax less the Homestead Property Tax Adjustment.   The statewide property tax is calculated based on the projected value of all the property in the state (the Grand List), how the assessments in a town compare to fair market values (the CLA or Common Level of Appraisal), the per pupil spending in the school district, and whether per pupil spending in the district exceeds the state average by more than 23%.  There are two tax rates, the Residential and Non-Residential.  Residential taxpayers may get a tax adjustment based on their household income and house site value. These tax rates have to be set to amounts that provide the revenues needed for the Education Fund disbursements.
This year saw school budgets increase by only a few percent, while property tax rates in some towns went up by several more percent due to decreasing statewide property values, fewer students, and reductions in federal education spending. Based on projected school budget increases, a decrease in federal Special Education funding, and $20M less of one time funds used last year, the Commissioner of Taxes projected an increase of 7 cents in the statewide property tax rate this year.  The defeat of 35 school budgets throughout the state drove home the contention that the formula for state aid to education is not only too complicated to understand but has become unduly burdensome on property taxes.
Since Town Meeting, serious efforts have been made to rebalance the funding methodology by the Ways and Means Committee, and last week they announced that the increase in the Residential rate would be reduced from 7 cents to 4 cents, and the Non-Residential rate increase would go from 7 cents to 8 cents instead.  This will also result in an equivalent decrease of 3 cents in the Residential rate for the CCS District from that published in the Town Meeting school report.   Other suggestions have been considered including adjusting the current use formula and transferring additional money from the General Fund to the Education Fund.  Since the legislature always passes a balanced budget, if new revenues (taxes) cannot be found, then cuts have to be made somewhere else if more money is to be transferred.

The legislature has to address the education funding issue both immediately and strategically.  The reduction of 3 cents is a start, but we have to find a way to depend less on the property tax in the long term.  The Education Committee is also working on a plan to restructure the school system, but there are no guarantees that such a plan would save money.  There are still several weeks before a final budget and tax package will be voted on.  The committees are continuing to work to make the hard decisions that will be acceptable to both the House and Senate as well as to Governor Shumlin.  They will eventually strike a balance, but I predict that no one will be totally satisfied.