Last week I wrote about a fiscal briefing that was presented to legislators at the State House two weeks ago. The outlook was gloomy and it appears that the administration will seek to manage the larger than expected discrepancy between revenues and spending ($100 million, give or take) through budget cuts alone and not tax increases. While this may be welcome news to taxpayers, some of the cuts could have negative ripple effects across the spectrum. The money committees in the House and Senate will have a chance to weigh in on these measures when we gavel back into session in early January.
On the education finance front, the property tax base is slowly increasing but isn’t expected to fully rebound until 2017. This will increase near-term pressure on education tax rates until or unless we are able to quickly reformulate the financing mechanism and impose spending controls at the same time. Both tasks are inherently problematic but a multitude of potential solutions are on the table. If you paid attention to the various schemes proposed by the four main candidates for governor and lt. governor then you got a sense of how varied the possible solutions are. Statewide enrollment numbers aren’t expected to improve anytime soon unless we can figure out an ingenious way to incentivize procreation or make our tax structure more competitive with our neighbors, so we need to quickly adjust to this reality as well. Some consolidation and administrative streamlining will be necessary but we need to fully evaluate both the economics of any changes and their effects on educational quality and access. One of the ideas that’s been floated is to reorganize districts around tech centers. Having worked in special education for years I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformations that have occurred in students who have the opportunity to access quality education in trades, specialties and human services when the traditional school curriculum isn’t serving or engaging them. With so much attention focused on the cost of education as reflected in rising property taxes, it will be very important to keep quality of education at the forefront of our minds as we make these hard decisions. I have a lot of confidence in Rebecca Holcombe, the Secretary of Education, to help the legislature chart the right course. Universal pre-kindergarten, which will better prepare our children for later learning, has been delayed one year to allow schools to adequately plan for implementation.
The Vermont Health Connect website is back up and running with mixed results. If you have any problems enrolling or using the website please let me know and I can try to escalate a remediation. As more people receive coverage through the exchange we await a comprehensive plan for the culmination of Act 48 of 2011 – a state-run single payer healthcare program. When the administration releases its plan for Green Mountain Care in January we can begin to have the full debate about whether or not we can and/or should become the first state to ensure access to healthcare in the only developed nation without some blend of universally available public health coverage. Many healthcare professionals I talk to would welcome such a change but a lot of you have expressed serious reservations and concerns. Let’s keep this dialogue open as we fully explore our options. I’ve said this before, but I strongly believe that until we are able to address the root causes of high and rising healthcare expenditures (nutrition, lifestyle, environmental factors and pharmaceutical-intensive treatments) any kind of “reform” – no matter how well intentioned and designed – will be a small band-aid on a large wound. As with education and budgeting we need to let the desired outcomes drive the policies and set the goals.
Having said all of the above, we still have a lot to be thankful and hopeful for here in Vermont. We’re all stakeholders in Vermont’s future so I hope that we can continue to have civil and productive conversations about how to manage our little corner of the globe with our friends, family, neighbors and policy-makers. I’ll be spending the next month doing homework, preparing legislation and handling constituent issues and comments. You can always reach me at 802-234-9125 and email@example.com. Happy holidays to everyone and keep in touch.