Town Meeting is just around the corner and the annual deliberation over school and municipal budgets begins in earnest. Pomfret voters will be deciding whether or not to merge educational services with the Bridgewater School while keeping their school open under a new name. Barnard voters will be considering a moderate school budget increase of about 4% with a reduction in the combined base tax rate of about two cents ($1.67). The House Education Committee continues to pore over proposals for cost-saving, governance changes and funding adjustments and I will have more details about this at Town Meeting.
I will be supporting a bill to explore a reduction in the reliance on property taxes for education funding and a shift to an income tax surcharge. This could serve to broaden the tax base, simplify the formula and better accommodate a taxpayer’s ability to pay. As someone who currently does not own property I do not have a clear sense of how much I am helping to pay for education. If an income tax surcharge means I have to spend more money every year to help fund the education of my friends’ and neighbors’ kids as well as schools around the state, so be it. Education is the most important service a civilized society can provide and it’s in everyone’s best interest to contribute. But obviously the amount that we are spending needs to be addressed alongside funding changes, since we can’t make our system better just by reformulating the way in which funds are raised – especially with a declining population of students and high personnel and healthcare expenditures. Achieving cost efficiencies while maintaining and improving the quality of education will be our biggest challenge this session and it will take the full biennium to work through it.
In my committee, Agriculture and Forest Products, we are spending the week before Town Meeting on an intensive review of H.35, the Water Quality Bill, that passed out of the Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee last week. The 133 page bill addresses revisions to the Accepted Agricultural Practices for mitigating harm to state waters, the certification and regulation of small farms, strategies for reducing pollutant infiltration of waterways, and inspection & enforcement mechanisms for the agencies of jurisdiction. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time that we have a serious problem on our hands that hasn’t been sufficiently addressed in the past. Parts of Lake Champlain are considerably impaired due to agricultural, storm water, waste water and forest runoff, and the problem is not unique to the big lake. Other watersheds are impaired from the same sources. Unfortunately, this effort will require the raising of new revenue for state water quality funds. Our committee stands opposed to the Governor’s proposed fertilizer tax increase and multiple alternative options are being explored – from a 0.05% increase in the Rooms & Meals and alcohol taxes, to a statewide per parcel fee. These decisions will be made in the money committees and debated on the floor. Fortunately, we have access to millions of dollars in federal assistance to help us meet the pollution reduction goals required by the EPA. If we fail to address the problem ourselves the EPA will step in and mandate more expensive and less effective measures.
On a lighter note, 8th grader Elijah Dooley of Barnard recently completed his six-week stint as a Legislative Page, during which time he was responsible for delivering mail to members and carrying messages between members in the House and Senate. He had a front row seat for a lot of legislative action and gained a unique perspective on how people can work together to solve big problems. I hope to see him back up in Montpelier playing a different role in the future.
Earlier this week I visited classes at the Barnard Academy and Woodstock Middle School to talk about how bills become laws and some of the issues we are currently dealing with. I’m always impressed with the thoughtful questions the kids have and their perspectives on how they think the grown-ups are running things. It’s important to get them interested and engaged in the democratic process at a young age, and I hope we don’t leave too many messes for them to have to clean up in the future.
Keep in touch, and I hope to see you at Town Meeting. You can reach me at 234-9125 and email@example.com.