An ending, an acknowledgement and a promise

Vermont’s 2021 Legislative Session has just ended. The session was historic in many ways, including that it was conducted almost exclusively over Zoom. I will send out additional information about what has been accomplished and addressed in the coming days and weeks. For now, I want to share two pieces of legislation that passed this week that are especially important to the Deerfield Valley and rural Vermont in general.

Education Finance

This week the House and Senate passed S.13 An act relating to Pupil Weighting Factors Report. If you aren’t familiar with the Pupil Weighting Report, here is a link to a post I wrote when the report was released. Correcting the pupil weights will have a dramatic impact on our school districts and the school districts of our neighbors. It will also finally ensure that when statewide cuts or investments are mandated at the state level, they aren’t coming at the expense of just Vermont’s neediest students and their taxpayers.

If you are new to the Valley, you may have missed an epic two decades long battle that many of our school districts, school boards, selectboards, and taxpayers have been fighting with the State of Vermont on behalf of our kids and our taxpayers. The fight has been about the fairness of the education finance structures put in place more then 20 years ago in Acts 60 and 68. We have withheld funds, sued more then once, raised money for lobbyists and lawyers and economists, written letters and editorials, driven to the statehouse to testify, publicly grilled governors, senators and representatives and this year, joined others across the state in another epic battle to demand justice and reform.

The legislation in S.13 is not especially remarkable – it puts in place a legislative task force to make recommendations on how to implement the corrected pupil weights. In many ways it was not really necessary. The report itself is clear. Implementation will not be technically difficult to put in place. But some wealthy larger school districts will need to reduce spending or increase taxes so that poor and rural districts finally have access to equitable funding and tax rates that will allow them to make investments in programs and plant that have been given up on after 20 years. It’s not so much an implementation task force that was needed as a political problem solving task force. When the legislature reconvenes in 2022 implementing the weights will be a major political issue to resolve.

Despite the rather unremarkable nature of the legislation, the shift in the legislative leadership has been remarkable including, especially, Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski and Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint.

In the 20 year battle for fairness, we kept coming up short in one very important way – those who had the power to fix the education finance system did not see and refused to acknowledge that the system was broken. That is no longer the case.

Key quotes from the House and Senate debates are below. Listening to these comments literally brought tears to my eyes as the harm done to our students and taxpayers was finally acknowledged.

The promise of equal educational opportunity that Act 60 and 68 were intended to achieve is still out of reach in many parts of the state.

Ways & Means Chair Rep. Janet Ancel speaking during House debate of S.13

Let’s not lose sight of why we are doing this, we have been significantly under funding some of Vermont’s neediest students… and we found something much more dramatic and that is that we have never accounted for the extra spending that it takes a rural district to educate their students, districts out in the country with very few people, it costs them a lot more. Every year that goes by without accounting for our rural districts is an injustice done to those districts and it is an injustice being done knowingly.

Senator Philip Baruth – speaking during Senate debate of S.13

We have not fixed the education finance system yet. The Governor also has not yet signed this year’s legislation, and he has expressed concerns about the two year lifting of an overspending penalty – a moratorium necessary to prevent poor and rural districts from being penalized while we work to correct the weights. But, the acknowledgement that the system is not fair and must be fixed has finally happened. And I am hopeful the governor will not veto.

This week I have been thinking about the 100s of Valley residents and legislators who have tried to fix this injustice over the years. Thank you for all that you did (and are still doing) – I know it has taken far too long, but you were right.


Broadband

A virtual handshake with the senate when we resolved the broadband bill at 8:30 Tuesday night

Much has been written about Vermont’s broadband efforts and especially our amazing Communications Union Districts comprised of our wicked smart, talented and dedicated neighbors. These folks have been working hard with the Vermont Department of Public Service and our private internet providers and telephone companies since we passed Act 79 in 2019, surveying neighbors, bringing neighboring towns on board and establishing plans to build fiber to every wired address in the member towns.

We could never have imagined in 2019 the size of the investment which Vermont policymakers have now agreed to make in building out those plans in H.360 An Act related to accelerating community broadband deployment – $150 million dollars this year and the intention to invest another $100 million dollars in the next two years. If you are not following DVFiber and Southern Vermont Fiber – you should. This is a game changer for our citizens, students, businesses and a key part of revitalizing our rural Vermont towns.

Here are some excerpts from my comments on the floor when asking the House to concur with an agreement made with the Senate:

Madame Speaker, when this body passed H.360 in March, we spoke about the need for a paradigm shift. The Report of the Committee of Conference delivers that shift, with a new community broadband model to connect all Vermonters by providing coordination, requiring accountability and focusing on universal service.

Members can find the conference committee report for H.360 on the House Energy and Technology Committee page under today’s date.

It is important to note that the two versions were more similar than they were different. Both bodies supported universal fiber build out, both acknowledged the need to add capacity and funding to coordinated broadband build out efforts, both established pre-construction and construction funds, both sought to include the opportunity for all of Vermont’s ISPs and CUDS to participate in the building of this historic infrastructure project.The Senate added a number of clarifying definitions.

This body had supported the establishment of a Community Broadband Authority outside of state government and governed by a board of 7 while the Senate had preferred an autonomous entity set up within the Department of Public Service and governed by a three person board. The Conference Report accepts the Senate’s governance structure but increases the Community Broadband Board to five members and allows the governor to appoint the initial Executive Director with subsequent Executive Directors hired by the board.

The Conference Committee also opened the door wider to private small VT telecommunications carriers applying for grant funding when they present a universal service plan which provides coverage to all unserved and underserved addresses which can be approved by the Community Broadband Board.

The House proposal of $150 million in funding for construction, pre construction and operations has been agreed to in the budget with an intention for an additional $100 million dollars in funding through 2024.

Rep. Laura Sibilia floor report Committee of Conference Report H.360

I’ll send more on the budget and other legislative endeavors soon!

As always, if you have suggestions, concerns or critiques please be in touch so we can schedule time to discuss them.

Please do not hesitate to contact me with questions, or if you need assistance navigating government services at (802) 384-0233 or lsibilia@leg.state.vt.us. Follow my regular posts online at http://www.laurasibiliavt.com

Kind regards, 

Rep. Laura Sibilia 
Dover, Readsboro, Searsburg, Somerset, Stamford, Wardsboro, Whitingham

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