“We’re going to have to face up to the issue,” he said. “Property taxes are rising, and student population is dropping. Despite the declining enrollment, there are more school employees working now than when Act 60 was passed.”
Hartwell says the House bill had merit, and it may be back again. “I thought the House did the right thing, by scaring everyone else into paying attention – which they did. The Senate got soft in the end. It was as if the House brought out a hammer that no one had ever seen before. But I still think that may be the framework moving forward.”
Hartwell suggests there will be continued pressure to eliminate the state’s small school grant in the next biennium. He says it’s part of the effort to encourage, some say force, schools to consolidate. “Larger schools like Burlington spend more money (per pupil) than small schools do,” Hartwell notes, “but some small schools are shrinking so much that elimination of the small schools grant might force them to close. I recall hearing about two schools in northern Vermont that are eight miles apart and have half the number of kids they did 15 years ago. And they don’t even talk to each other.”
If the Legislature moves to force consolidation, Hartwell says he’d prefer to see it done in a way that acknowledges geographic challenges that might prevent some small schools from consolidating.
But also during the recently concluded session, the Legislature passed a universal pre-K bill, mandating that districts provide 10 hours of programming per week for 3- and 4-year-olds. Hartwell supported the bill, and acknowledges that may seem contradictory for legislators to express concern about the cost of education while mandating new programs that will require new employees. But he points out that 80% of schools in Vermont already offer pre-K programs. “Only 38 schools don’t already have a pre-K program, so it’s really not that much of a hit,” he says. “And it will pay off down the road, with a reduction in the number of students that need individualized help later.”
As legislators confront rising education property taxes, a number of alternative education financing systems have been proposed. Hartwell says there has been discussion about financing education through a combination of taxes, including the property tax and the income tax. But looming over those discussions of education finance reform is the prospect of financing the state’s single-payer health care system, slated to begin in 2017.
Hartwell says legislators have been expecting Gov. Shumlin’s administration to offer a health care funding proposal. “Business entities are worried about whether there’s going to be a business or payroll tax. At this point, I don’t think anyone would want to bring a business to the state. When you combine that with education financing that exceeds $1.7 billion, a lot of people are nervous.”
If the state were to finance single-payer with a payroll tax, Hartwell says, it’s estimated that the tax would have to be as high as 18%. If single-payer were to be financed through a sales tax, Vermonters would pay a sales tax of 20%. “The other way is for people to pay it through a premium,” Hartwell says. “I think it has to be a combination.”
Health care financing will be a top priority for the next session, Hartwell predicts, and the administration may be in the hot seat. “If there’s any more procrastination, it’s going to meet with displeasure,” he says. “Whether (legislators) react to the failure to provide a financing plan by repealing the health care law, I don’t know. But it’s not going to be allowed to go on much longer without some kind of plan brokered between the Legislature and the governor.”
And the state may be facing a revenue shortfall next year. Last year, Hartwell notes, a $50 million hole in the budget was discovered as legislators were leaving town, but improving economic trends meant an increase in revenue to “paper over” the shortfall. “I can almost guarantee there’s going to be another $50 million shortfall this year,” Hartwell said, “and unless the economy gets rip-roaring, we won’t be able to cover it (with tax revenue).”
This session the Legislature passed a ban on the use of “handheld communications devices” while driving. Hartwell supported the law along with 23 other senators and 129 representatives, but notes there was opposition. “The administration wasn’t enthusiastic about it, and the Senate Judiciary Committee didn’t like it. But the two or three times I’ve tried to use a cell phone while driving, I know it would be a catastrophe if I tried to text. I decided doing neither would be best.”
The law, which will go into effect on October 1, carries a $100 fine for the first offense. In a compromise that helped win over some of the opposition to the bill, violations of the law won’t result in points on violators’ licenses. The use of hands-free devices will be allowed.
Hartwell, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, says one of the major challenges the committee will face next year will be cleaning up Lake Champlain in accordance with agreements the state has made with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “That means cleaning up all the rivers,” Hartwell says.
The chief source of Vermont’s contribution to Lake Champlain’s pollution is runoff from land along tributaries. In the lake, the runoff feeds algae blooms. One of the problems is phosphorus that was used as fertilizer beginning as long ago as the 1940s. “After the war, the feds thought it would be great to use phosphorus on the fields,” Hartwell says. “It’s still running off the land and causes algae blooms. We have to get best-management practices in place.”
Hartwell says farmers have done their part, allowing buffer areas to grow along waterways. New York and Quebec have also stepped up to the plate with programs. “Vermont is the problem,” he says. “The EPA is working on a set of priorities, five major steps for us to work on.”