Act 46 and School Choice updates: Last week I participated in a regional panel discussion on Act 46 sponsored by Marlboro Colleges Center for Creative Solutions alongside Brad James from the Agency of Education, Superintendents Ron Stahley and Dan French, Wilmington student Peyton Eisler and Whitingham student Kassidy Walkowiak. It is inspiring to have students voices engaged in the discussion about what the future education delivery system in our region should be.
Dover has recently voted to move forward and study becoming part of a side by side study with one or more districts. This means working with one or other districts to see if educational opportunities for kids can be improved by joining forces with another district. Though yet undetermined, the most likely districts for Dover to work with are Wardsboro and or Marlboro. Dover and Wardsboro operate pre-k through 6th grade and Marlboro operates pre-K through 8th grade. Any merged district is required to operate the same for all students under one unified budget, so in this case, if all three school districts merged, all students would likely retain school choice beginning either in the sixth or eight grade depending on the results of the study and the articles of agreement agreed to by the districts studying the merger. The final decisions to merge and approve the articles of agreement rest with the voters of each district. Searsburg, which does not operate a school and has complete school choice, is continuing to try to work with another geographically reasonable non-operating district to fulfill the requirements of Act 46. Readsboro and Stamford, which both operate pre-k through 8th grade, are part of a study committee with Halifax which also operates a pre-k through 8th grade. In all cases, in our district, school choice as it exists now is able to be preserved under the original language of Act 46 if the voters choose to do so.
You may have heard or seen that school choice is under threat from Act 46. Act 46 very stated that no town could be forced to give up school choice. Some towns in Vermont have recently given up school choice by vote of the residents.
Yield bill: The House passed H.843 which set the property tax yield at $9,701 and the income yield – for those that pay using income sensitivity – at $10,870. The penny rate is still used to calculate the nonresidential property tax for commercial property and second homes. Under the current education tax proposal, the rate would be reduced from $1.59 to $1.53 per $100 of assessed property value. H. 843 also changes the excess spending threshold from 121 percent to 119 percent. This is the old cost containment piece that almost exclusively impacts small and rural schools. Rep. Oliver Olsen (I) Londonderry, working with Rep. Ann Manwaring, myself and others, led an effort to postpone the re-engagement of
the excess spending thresholds until a study could be done to determine if changes needed to be made in other aspects of the funding system. He read from the course catalogues from several of Vermont’s high schools, highlighting the current inequities in opportunities between rural and more urban high school districts. This is the exact issue my constituents have have been raising for years. The House was determined to pass the excess spending thresholds, and so as a result, turned down Rep. Olsen’s amendment. However the next day, for the final reading of the bill, I led efforts to resurrect Rep. Olsen’s study language on how pupils are counted in an amendment that will study whether we need to be looking at a heavier weighting for students in lower population density areas. This amendment passed! Though the study will not be completed until 2017, it has the potential to FINALLY begin to assess whether or not equal funding is providing equal educational opportunities for students in districts of all sizes.
Independent Contractors: On March 11th, after 52 hours of testimony and almost as many witnesses, the House Commerce Committee voted out H.867, an independent contractor bill on a bipartisan 11-0 vote. On March 31st, the bill was sent back to our committee for additional work without the bill ever hitting the House floor for discussion or vote. Three amendments, sponsored on behalf of labor organizations, were proposed. Additional amendments are being worked on, including by a group of legislators I am working with. We have been told by House leadership that the narrowest opportunity still exists for a bill to make it through the House and Senate and to the Governor’s desk. The issue at hand: Currently in Vermont, nearly every person who is working is potentially required to be treated as an employee of someone else for the purposes of workers comp insurance. Even if the individual is an entrepreneur, and in business for themselves. At the same time, the owner(s) of a business can waive the requirement to purchase workers comp insurance for themselves. This situation is creating instability in the labor market with businesses and general contractors afraid to hire independent contractors for fear they will be charged with paying the independent contractors workers comp premiums through a state audit, and independent contractors having to forgo the benefits of being in business for themselves as most are required to be someone’s employee. This unpredictable and dated model does not support the entrepreneurial business climate we need to promote in Vermont. I hope we will be able to introduce modern independent contractor reforms that protect workers in this session.
Telecommunications Bill: This week our committee’s telecommunications bill, H.870 will be voted on in the House. This bill provides new funding for internet upgrades or expansions for schools, adds funding for news services for the blind, modifies Act 248a for telecommunications tower siting, and increase the Universal Service Fund tax by .05 cent. Additionally, telephone providers who wish to access high cost funding from the USF, will need to comply with telecommunications mapping data requests from the Department of Public Service. This is an exceptionally important provision for rural Vermont, including much of our district.
Whitingham connectivity meeting: A community wide public meeting with the Vermont Department of Public Service, Telecom and Connectivity Division and interested Whitingham citizens has been scheduled for April 18th at 5:30 pm in the main hall of the Jacksonville Municipal Center. The purpose of the meeting is to share data about existing broadband availability and broadband and cell projects and upcoming deployments happening in the Whitingham area. This public meeting will help inform the next steps in determining how Whitingham may choose to participate in expanding cell and broadband services in the town. The Connectivity Initiative Program run by the Department of Public Service, seeks to provide funding for hard to serve areas. More information on the DPS and their various programs is available at: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/topics/connectivity. The meeting is open to the public.
I am continuing to work to understand what has transpired with the 5 1/2 year old VTel Wireless project, WOW and why folks that were to have been covered by this project remain uncovered. If you are currently a VTel customer in Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro or Whitingham, I would very much like to hear from you as our towns begin to consider developing a “Plan B” for connectivity.
Tax and Budget bills: The preliminary budget, tax and fee bills have passed the House and gone to the Senate. These bills are required to originate in the House every year. It is very likely what passed the House will be changed, added to or subtracted from in the Senate. The bills will then come back to the House where we will either agree with the Senate changes, or ask for a conference committee to negotiate the differences. At that point the House and Senate will both vote yes or no on the recommendations from the conference committee. These will almost certainly be the last bills voted on before we adjourn. I voted in favor of the preliminary House budget, but not in favor of the preliminary tax bill. My budget vote explanation below:
“Mr. Speaker: I campaigned and arrived for my first biennium deeply concerned about the relationship between Vermont’s revenues and Vermont’s budget. I am still concerned. However, I believe there are not an abundance of easy or inconsequential choices to cut in front of us.
I voted to support this budget process, the inclusivness extended to the public and all members of the House, the commitment to examining each aspect of the budget to assess if it was serving Vermonters and how well, and the request for all committees to examine the programs within their jurisdiction and prioritize them. I voted for this budget because of the process and progress I believe the committee is making. Clearly there is still work to do. And clearly a budget needs to be paid for.
My vote on the tax bill this afternoon reflects lingering specific concerns I have with some of the specific tax increases. I am hopeful with amendments those concerns may be alleviated.”
Completely related to the budget and tax bill is a recently passed independent audit of Vermont Health Connect: No single issue has contributed more to our current budget situation then our Healthcare reform efforts and the expansion of medicaid. We want more access for Vermonters then we have been willing/able to pay for. Additionally, many legislators for many years have been calling for an independent review of Vermont Health Connect, the healthcare exchange access point which continues to plague Vermonter’s with challenges. Last week the House approved a $400K independent audit of the exchange and assessment of whether or not it should be abandoned. This independent will come back next December, in time for a new Governor, new Lt. Governor, new Speaker and many new legislators to utilize in determining how best to move forward.