It is unclear at this point if the House Ways & Means Committee will set the final property tax rates in time for Town Meeting. School budgets are still being set around the state so the statewide average is still in flux, but we are almost certain to see a rise in rates in the range of $0.04-$0.07. The perennial pressures on education spending which result in steadily rising property taxes (by alarming rates, in some cases) has led for calls to fundamentally transform the state funding formula or parts of it, and/or to radically restructure school districts. In all likelihood this will not be accomplished this year, although there are many proposals on the table for near-term adjustments that can be made to mitigate higher tax rates while a new system is developed and vetted. Among other things, we are looking at setting standards for student/teacher ratios, restructuring supervisory unions and adjusting the Income Sensitivity and Current Use programs. This will be a heavy lift but one that needs to happen sooner rather than later.
Before the end of this session your legislature will also have passed a budget, which will hopefully be not only balanced but include sustainable levels of program funding that aren’t dependent for the longer term on one-time monies and federal grants. I expect there will be a hearty debate over which lines in the budget can be cut or reduced as well. I will have a difficult time supporting any budget that continues to rise at an unsustainable level even if I support a lot of the measures it funds.
Some of the other major issues being worked on include EPA-mandated Water Quality legislation designed to reduce the amount of phosphorous entering our waterways and lakes. Labor issues include proposed changes to the minimum wage, earned paid sick days and early educators’ right to unionize. And of course there is the subject of the governor’s much-publicized State of the State address – our growing opiate addiction epidemic. Remedying this will necessitate more tools for law enforcement, enhanced monitoring by prescribers of prescription opiates and increased resources for addiction therapy and recovery.
I would like to finish this update with some good news: The number of jobs in the agriculture sector is rising every year and Vermont products are world-renowned, which expands our export markets while growing supply and demand here at home. Our forest products sector alone is valued at almost $3.5 billion and growing, and new entrepreneurial endeavors in the working landscape are spurring economic development and creating jobs while sustaining Vermont’s character and natural resources.