Twelve years ago next week, the Vermont Supreme Court handed down the Brigham decision, marking a major shift in the way that Vermont pays for public schools. This week Vermont Edition looks at the state’s education funding law, Act 60: a method of ensuring that school opportunities are equal across the state, regardless of a town’s wealth.
Numerous attempts at a fair funding system that were tried in Vermont before Act 60, with varying degrees of satisfaction. We’ll look at that history with Bill Mathis, superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.(Listen)
Then we examine the pivotal Brigham Supreme Court decision, and describe how people in different towns felt about Act 60, the new law that came out of that
decision. Our guests are Steve Jeffrey of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and lawyer Bob Gensburg, who argued the Brigham case and helped lawmakers interpret the ruling.(Listen)
Fred in Weybridge:
I am a strong supporter of Act 60. The town I live in, Weybridge, has almost no tax base aside from residential and agricultural properties. Our property taxes have always been among the highest in Addison County. Since Act 60, we have had income sensitivity, meaning that for property owners, their home and two acres are taxed based on the homeowner’s income. Now, 80 percent of the residents of my town qualify for the income sensitivity provision. I am proud to pay my property taxes because I know they support our excellent schools which
are educating the future citizens of our community. When my children were in school, the community as a whole helped to educate them. Now, it’s my turn to help educate other people’s children. I regard it as a privilege.
Personally, I feel I benefit from Act 60. I am single, live on my own and get a nice deduction on my property taxes because of my household income. I don’t know how it affects others, but I have no problem with it.
Marc in Newark:
The education funding program doesn’t pass the laugh test for being fair. How is it that a town like Newark is considered a "gold town", a town with a few hundred people and nothing but trees pays money to St. Johnsbury, a large town with industry and many businesses?
Bill in Manchester:
I’ve heard two urban myths about Act 60, and I’d like to know whether your panelists think there is any truth to these:
1. Former Speaker Ralph Wright engineered a long-term reduction in funding for the foundation formula, in an effort to force a supreme court decision on equity.
2. One of the supreme court justices used to be Madeline Kunin’s Secretary of Administration, where he had tried to implement something like Act 60 – the Brigham decision was worded to steer the Legislature towards the system he had already developed.
One final question – does anyone know what Amanda Brigham is doing today?
Greg in Brattleboro:
My family and I moved to Vermont in 2006, with an estimated property tax of $9,000/year. My taxes are currently $12,000/year. If they continue to go up, we will have to consider moving, because with the contraction in the economy, $1,000/month is increasingly a sizable chunk of money.
It was the level funding of the formula that allowed the inequity to occur. When the state aid to education formula was appropriately adjusted year to year the inequity was not an issue, it was only after 6 or 7 years of not adjusting the formula that property tax reform was instituted. I believe Act 60 is not a equal education bill but a property tax reform
bill which was successful for property tax return but not for equalized education.
Tom in Barnard:
I believe that Act 60 is one of the most onerous and irresponsible acts of legislation ever put into Vermont law, and the subsequent effort to "fix" it with Act 68 only made matters worse. It is complicated beyond belief and inherently unfair in that it targets a specific group, the property owner, that is now caught up in an ever growing disparity between property values and household income. It is just because of this disparity that even the "income sensitivity" clause is becoming almost irrelevant in many cases. Although few people would argue with the underlying principle of Act 60, fairness in education, the funding mechanism put in place in 1997 was born out of laziness and an utter lack of leadership by both the Democratically led legislative and executive branches. (For the record, I am a Democrat). The legislature simply went for the most readily accessible source of funding and implemented the
nightmare of Act 60.
Sadly, over the years since it was enacted, Act 60 has deteriorated into the debacle that many voters foresaw. Our leaders, Republican and Democrats alike, have shown very little willingness to address the education funding issue and come up with a better solution. Even now, in the face of a worsening economy, the Act 60 surplus is being eyed as a source of funding for other state programs by Governor Douglas and some members of the legislature, rather than return it to the taxpayer.
If education is a priority, and it most certainly should be, then there has to be a better way to fund it. I would rather see dedicated broad based consumption taxes, (e.g., gas, even toll booths!), that would at least lessen the property tax burden. These could be revenue neutral. Any argument that this sort of tax is regressive is completely without merit and is undermined by the ongoing and ever increasing taxes on utilities, cigarettes and alcohol, and the increases in state "fees" recently proposed by the Governor, (to name just a few examples). All of these hit the working Vermonter and generally target only those who are residents of the state. At the very least, a gas tax pulls everyone into the equation, resident and visitor alike. A sidenote; it always dismayed me that the income from the tobacco companies did not go directly to the state education coffers.
Depressingly, the time for truly fixing this mess may be past, or at least postponed. As the recession deepens, funding for any program becomes problematic, and reality dictates that, rightly or wrongly, all sources of tax revenue become fair game.