Education reform, which was high on the to-do list of many in the House and Senate, was much talked about throughout the session. For all the hue and cry about Vermont needing education reform, including how to pay for it, in the end nothing got done.
Considering the bills that were introduced into the legislature, in particular H.883, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Legislators in the House and Senate were so far apart in the approaches to school consolidation that they couldn't reach an agreement that worked for both sides.
So there was no consolidation bill, which is probably a relief to most local school board members, as many local districts would likely have been consolidated under the bill.
But the bigger issue remains, which is the growing realization that how Vermont manages and pays for education is unsustainable. Costs are increasing, enrollments are decreasing, and taxpayers are grumbling about how much education costs. It’s not just K-12 schools that are feeling the pinch. Vermont’s state colleges are also under a financial gun. The legislature has been level-funding the state college system for a few years now, which means additional burden on families already struggling to afford the ever-rising cost of a college education.
There needs to be long-term solutions that make education funding stable and predictable, and don’t bankrupt taxpayers and families along the way. That solution should be the top priority when the next legislature opens for business in January 2015.
To that end, there was legislation passed that calls for data analysis of how education dollars are spent. Wilmington Rep. Ann Manwaring has long been a supporter of that concept, and considers it a victory of her bottom-up approach to education reform (see story, page 1).
A couple of other bills that did pass also deserve some attention.
The Legislature passed the first-in-the-nation food labeling law to disclose the use of genetically modified organisms. Foods that are produced with ingredients that have been genetically modified have to disclose that. Chances are the corn flakes a reader may have eaten for breakfast this morning contains a corn that was genetically modified to grow faster, be more pest resistant, yield more ears of corn per acre, or a combination of those seemingly desirable traits. Now, General Mills and other food producers big and small will be required to include language on their labels telling consumers that GMOs were used in the production of those foods.
Although the science is different, the labeling is similar to the bovine growth hormone labeling controversy milk producers went through a decade or so ago. And similarly, the big food and agri-business companies are lining up to challenge the new law, claiming there will be significant costs for something they claim is perfectly safe. Time will tell.
Time will also tell how it all gets enforced. While the bill sounds simple on the surface, no one is really sure how that will work, as the actual rules and guidelines are still being written.
Another significant piece of legislation that will affect just about every business in the state, and many employees, is the hike in the minimum wage. Workers on the bottom end of the pay scale will be getting a raise, as new wage rules will require a phased in increase from the current minimum of $8.73 per hour to $10.10. Those increases will take place during the next three years. While the bill garnered opposition from some business groups, the bill was more palatable than some of the other alternatives offered, including an immediate increase to $15 per hour supported by some Legislators, including Wardsboro Rep. John Moran.
Of course there were numerous other bills passed by the Legislature and headed to the governor’s desk. When viewed from a distant future, some will be seen as significant, others ineffective and all but forgotten about.
For now, Vermonters will be given a break from the action of the Legislature, at least until the election season cranks up later this summer. We can hardly wait.