Fierce debate over repeal of education spending law

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(Host) The House has voted to repeal an education cost containment law. The law, adopted last year, called for two budget votes in high spending towns. 

A strong majority of House members voted to replace the law with a different approach. 

The action by the House has set off a fierce debate at the Statehouse.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) In many respects the vote in the House rewinds the legislative clock to last spring and sets up another confrontation with the House, the Senate and the governor over this issue.

Democratic leaders who supported the two vote budget law last year argued on the House floor on Thursday that they’re worried that voter confusion over the new law could result in the defeat of many school budgets.

So they backed a new bill that replaces the two vote approach with a plan that applies penalties to towns that spend significantly above the statewide average on education.  The penalties currently kick in when a town spends 125 percent above the state average – this bill reduces the threshold to 123 percent next year and 120 percent in 2012.

House Education chairwoman Janet Ancel said the new approach has a lot of merit:

(Ancel) "What we’re proposing now is not a retreat from cost containment what we’re proposing is a more effective way to do it it’s a way to do it that respects local decision making that builds on a proven mechanism that allows school boards to plan."

Windham Rep. Carolyn Partridge says there’s no question that the current penalties have moderated school spending in recent years:

(Partridge) "As a school board chair myself who works very hard on a cost effective budget for my own town school I will tell you that the penalty threshold is the most effective way to rein in costs we are aware of that number from the beginning of the budget process."

House Minority leader Steve Adams wasn’t buying any of these arguments. He says lawmakers have betrayed the trust of voters by "flip flopping" on this important issue:

(Adams) "We’ve changed nothing absolutely nothing all we’ve done by lowering these thresholds is increase property taxes increase property taxes to Vermonters who told us their burdens are crushing them shame on us."

Even though the replacement plan passed the House by a vote of 99 to 38, it faces an uncertain future in the Senate.  Senate president Peter Shumlin didn’t like the penalty plan last year and he doesn’t like now:

(Shumlin) "It doesn’t make any logical sense what I thought was attractive about the two vote piece is that it was an educational tool that I still think could be helpful it doesn’t penalize communities it gives them a piece of information that they might not have had or heard as clearly.

Governor Jim Douglas also strongly criticized the House replacement bill and he made it clear that it’s likely that he’ll veto the legislation if it ever reaches his desk.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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