The Word in the House 3/1/2018 - Proposed Education Funding Changes

As we approach Town Meeting Day the issue of how to fund our K-12 education system is once again in the news. The fact that we continue to have the discussion from one year to the next indicates that it is not easy to address all the concerns regarding property taxes, budgets and services that are needed. Moreover, the current funding system is nearly impossible for the average Vermonter to understand and for most legislators to explain. At a briefing I attended, the remark was made that the system could be simple or fair, but not both. This year the House Ways & Means Committee decided to take a fresh look at how we fund education with an eye toward making it easier to understand while maintaining fairness in application.

Before describing the proposed changes, it is important to review the roles of the municipalities and school districts, the voters and taxpayers, and the state. School districts decide what is needed to educate their children and put together a budget, with taxpayer input, to meet those needs. The budget is presented to the taxpayers who then either approve or disapprove it. The state, on the other hand, is responsible for raising the money to fund all the budgets passed across the state. Today, that funding consist of 36% of the sales tax revenues, 100% of the lottery revenues, a transfer from the General Fund, federal dollars, and a statewide property tax. The burden on taxpayers is reduced by adjustments to the property tax assessments based on household income, and a fixed rate is assessed on all non-residential property.

The new proposal, which has not yet been finalized, would keep the non-residential rate the same, but would change the other allocations significantly. The General Fund transfer would be eliminated, but 100% of the sales and use tax revenue as well as 25% of the rooms and meals tax would go to the Education Fund. The income sensitivity adjustment would be eliminated and be replaced by a direct school income tax based on adjusted gross income. Low income residents and property owners would continue to be assisted by creating a homestead exemption, by exempting the first $47,000 of income from the school income tax, and by retaining the renter rebate program. Also, responsibility for several programs that do not go directly to K-12 education will be moved to the General Fund. Together, these changes would reduce reliance on the residential property tax by moving to a tax that is more closely related to ability to pay and would more closely link decisions on school budgets to the actual homestead tax paid.

Finally, while the Common Level of Appraisal (CLA) adjustment would continue to be a factor on the local level, the per-pupil property tax yield would be reduced from $13,000 to about $5,000. Since the base statewide property tax would be reduced from $1.00 to $0.25, the Champlain Valley School District, which spends about $15,000 per pupil, would see an effective tax rate of $0.75, three times the base rate.

Final details remain to be worked out, as well as a decision as to whether the new funding system will go into effect this year or next. The legislature will continue to look for a fair, easy to understand funding formula that provides a quality education for all the children of Vermont. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (

The Word in the House 2/22/2018 - Gun Violence Op-ed

It was only after the senseless massacre of 17 students and teachers in Lakeland, Florida, last week that I learned that 17 other school shootings had occurred in just the first seven weeks of 2018. How could I have not known that there were so many? Has it become so common that we don't even notice?

Once again we hear public officials offer condolences, thoughts and prayers, sincerely I'm sure, for the victims and their families and their friends. Yet these expressions of empathy are just platitudes without a commitment to act to prevent these tragedies. Over and over and over again, even after the worst mass killing last Fall in Las Vegas, no action at all on any federal or state level has been taken to do anything about this cancer affecting our country.

We're told that it's “too soon” to talk about solutions. We're told that we “shouldn't politicize tragedy.” So, what happens? Nothing!

The Second Amendment gives us the right to bear arms. But with rights come responsibilities. What kinds of arms are appropriate for private ownership? In this gun-worshipping culture we have, it seems that no one at the federal or state level is willing to take the responsibility to keep weapons designed for military use in war out of the public domain. The AR-15, the weapon of choice for mass murder in the U.S., is one such weapon.

Since the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, in 2012 more than 400 people have been shot in more than 200 school shootings. Since that time more than 150,000 people lost their lives in the U.S. due to gun violence. (Google “gun violence in the U.S.”) Since Sandy Hook, 14 bills were introduced in the Vermont legislature to set reasonable regulations for firearms. With the least restrictive gun laws in the country, only minor changes have been made in the last six years in Vermont. Last year the House passed a Domestic Violence bill that would allow police to temporarily confiscate guns from a household when responding to a domestic violence incident. This would offer some protection for domestic violence victims during a critical period in a bad situation. That bill sits in the Senate waiting for action. As usual, a very vocal minority of gun owners turned out in force at a Senate hearing to oppose it.

I am willing to acknowledge that we have a lower level of gun violence in Vermont than elsewhere. However, looking at the characteristics of mass shootings, it can happen here. It's only a matter of time. We are fortunate that a potential school shooting in Vermont was thwarted just days ago due to swift law enforcement action as a result of a report by a concerned citizen of the threat seen on social media.

It's time we took action in Vermont on the bills currently under consideration to protect domestic violence victims (H.422), to ban “bump stocks” (H.876), and to require background checks for the sale or transfer of firearms (H.151, S.6). This will only happen, however, if good people demand it by calling their legislators in the House and Senate with the same sense of purpose as those who oppose regulation. Failure to speak up equals complicity when a similar tragedy occurs in the future on Vermont soil.