School spending cap gets Senate endorsement

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(Host) The state Senate has narrowly endorsed Governor Jim Douglas’s plan to cap school spending.

The proposal is aimed at getting local school boards to hold budget increases to no more than 4%.

The issue divided the Democratic majority. And Republican Governor Brian Dubie cast the deciding vote in favor of the plan.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Senate President Peter Shumlin, a Windham Democrat, made it clear that the cap proposal wasn’t his idea, it’s Governor Jim Douglas’.

But Shumlin was the main proponent of the spending cap on the Senate floor. He said the governor thinks that capping school budgets will save about $22 million. He said Douglas has frequently criticized Democrats for not doing enough on school spending. So Shumlin said, it’s time to give the governor’s idea a try.

(Shumlin) “We need to bring the governor from outside of the tent, back into the tent, back into the discussion. I believe that by passing his language we will accomplish that goal today.”

(Dillon) The debate in the Senate pitted Democrats against Democrats.

The proposal says that if schools want to increase spending by more than 4%, then they would have to get approval of a supermajority – 60% of the people voting.

Windsor Senator John Campbell said the Douglas plan was a “frontal assault” on local control.

(Campbell) “The emperor has no clothes and the governor has no plan. And I believe that this plan will in fact will do more to destroy the educational opportunity that we have for our children today – children throughout Vermont – today.”

(Dillon) And Chittenden Senator Doug Racine called the spending cap punitive. He said it didn’t take into account the pressures schools face from rising health care and special education costs. Racine said some of the costs are shifted from the state onto schools.

(Racine) “It’s easier for us to stand here and say we’ve got our budgets under control. But by the way, you school districts, we’re going to shift these costs to you and then we’re going to fault you for doing what you must do.”

(Dillon) But Bennington Senator Dick Sears said the Democratic majority has the responsibility to address school spending.

He said he liked the cap more than a different proposal that would penalize schools for spending more.

(Sears) “Again, I’m given choices. And the governor’s plan here, while not perfect, and not one I would have proposed is a better choice than what I’m faced with in the spending penalties.”

(Dillon) The final vote was 15 to 15, so Lieutenant Govenor Brian Dubie broke the tie in favor of the proposal. The bill needs final approval in the Senate before it goes to the House, which has NOT supported a school spending cap.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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