The Word in the House 2016-02-01 - Parliamentary Procedure and Politics

Act 46 was crafted last year to address the realities of increasing education costs due to declining enrollment and a 130 year-old structure of governance. In many parts of Vermont implementation has been an overwhelming success. But for some it was clear that the cost containment threshold provisions weren’t working as intended. A bipartisan group of lawmakers worked together to craft a solution in time for Town Meeting.

After four weeks of hammering out House and Senate responses to the outcry by school boards, the end seemed to be in sight. Senate bill S.233 would have repealed the spending thresholds altogether.  The House voted to amend the bill by adjusting the threshold for per-pupil spending increases upward by 0.9%, reducing the penalty from $1 to $.25/dollar of excess spending, and giving school districts the option of which Agency of Education calculation to use.  The Agency’s original calculation was modified mid-January and changed the effect on tax rates for many districts.  The House decided to let each school district choose the calculation that provided the better benefit.

After considerable debate and a number of further amendments which were defeated last Wednesday, the House approved by a wide bi-partisan margin the amendment and sent it back to the Senate.  The Senate accepted most of the changes but further modified it on Thursday evening and sent it back to the House. It looked like the bill would get to the Governor’s desk by Friday afternoon just barely in time for many school districts to finalize their budgets by the Sunday deadline for Town Meeting agendas.

The additional changes the Senate made included bumping up the excess spending penalty to $.40/dollar, exempting from penalty those districts whose per-pupil spending remained below the statewide average despite year-to-year increases that exceeded the threshold, and eliminating the spending threshold entirely for the 2018 budgets.  To get a final vote in the House, however, required a suspension of the rules since one legislative day is required for a bill to appear on the House Calendar before a vote can be taken. This is where it got sticky. Despite assurances by both the Education and Ways & Means Committees that the 2018 budget provisions would be reviewed later this session, the Republican minority refused to suspend the rules.  This set up a situation where the bill could not be passed in time for those remaining school budgets to be finalized and meet the 30-day notice requirement for Town Meeting. 

After repeated conferences of the party leaders with Speaker Shap Smith failed to resolve the impasse, the Democrats and Progressives agreed to adjourn for the day and reconvene at one minute past midnight.  That would officially be the next legislative day and allow us to take up the bill and vote on it.  When we reconvened at 12:01 AM, another amendment was offered that would have prevented the bill’s passage until Tuesday at the earliest. After an hour of debate including two roll-call votes, the bill was passed as amended by the Senate and sent to Governor Shumlin who signed it hours later with the following statement: “Act 46 is working better than I had imagined. Over half of all students in this state now live in communities that are moving forward with or having serious conversations about how to work together to improve educational quality and provide relief to taxpayers. That is happening because of Act 46 and it is how we will right size our education system to reflect the fact that there are 20,000 fewer students today than in 1998. The spending caps had become the enemy of that important work, and I am pleased the Legislature acted quickly to make this change.”

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