Douglas predicts tough meeting day for school budgets

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(Host) At next week’s town meeting, dozens of school budgets come before voters. And Governor Jim Douglas says he worried that voter frustration over rising property tax rates could lead to budget defeats. He says pressure on local taxpayers makes the task of reforming the state’s education finance system even more important.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) At his weekly news conference, the governor listed four principles he says must be included in any change to Vermont’s education funding law: Douglas says school financing must be sustainable over time; he wants any proposal from the Legislature to be fully funded; he believes lawmakers must also include ways to control the rising cost of education; and, the governor insists the plan must provide immediate property tax relief.

(Douglas) “We need to take this very, very seriously or I’m concerned about a taxpayer revolt. Vermonters are paying more and more in property taxes.”

(Dillon) The Republican-controlled House and the Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats, are very far apart on changes to the Act 60 school funding law. Douglas says both plans are flawed.

A bill passed by the Senate aims to provide property tax relief by increasing the block grant to towns. The Senate bill would send $24 million more in state aid to education back to the towns. That money is already in the education fund, but it’s now spent on non-school programs. Douglas says the legislation leaves a major hole in the budget.

(Douglas) “That means the General Assembly would have to cut that amount out of other areas in the budget. So it certainly doesn’t meet that standard, and I look forward to conversations with the senators on ways to achieve it.”

(Dillon) Douglas also criticized a plan now being drafted in the House Ways and Means Committee. That committee’s proposal would remove Act 60’s reliance on the property tax. State education funds instead would come from an expanded sales tax. Douglas doesn’t like the idea.

(Douglas) “I’m very concerned about raising broad-based taxes. We have a very high cumulative tax burden in our state. The total of state and local taxes is quite high, according to one analysis the highest per capita in the country. So I’m concerned about the message that it sends to business owners who might be looking to invest in Vermont if we increase the broad based taxes.”

(Dillon) But Douglas also says he’s pleased the debate is under way early in the Legislative session. He says he wants to take elements of both proposals and put together a compromise.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Burlington.

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