There is also a new speaker of the house, Rep. Mitzi Johnson, and a new Senate president pro tempore, Sen. Tim Ashe. So many folks in new places means that Montpelier will be anything but business as usual this year. How well they do in their new jobs remains to be seen.
Aside from how people perform in their new roles, there will be a number of things that will bear watching during the upcoming legislative session.
Of course there will be school-related issues, including the continued implementation of Act 46 district consolidation plans. As we wrote here last week, voters in a number of local towns will be asked to decide whether or not to consolidate their school districts with neighboring communities. These plans are a big deal, and if approved, will dramatically change how many local schools are governed. Instead of one town, one local school district, and one school board, as most are now, there will be multiple schools in multiple towns run by a district school board. Voters in local towns owe it to themselves and to local students and families to get involved and informed. As for the Legislature, there may be some tweaks to the law, but don’t expect any wholesale changes to Act 46.
Independent schools and how money is made available to them promises to be a hot topic. A planned rule change by the Vermont State Board of Education flew under many people’s radar for much of 2016, but that is not the case now. The change could significantly impact a number of school choice options for local families, especially in local towns like Searsburg, Stratton, Dover, Readsboro, and Halifax, where there is a long tradition of school choice and tuition money following the student. Already a number of politicians, including representatives Laura Sibilia and Oliver Olsen, have called into question the SBE’s actions and raised concerns over the broad impact the seemingly innocuous rule change could have. This will be a hot topic for many as the legislative session unfolds.
Property taxes are always a concern, especially when it comes to school funding. One of the goals of Act 46 was to slow the growth of education spending, which in turn should slow the growth of property tax rates in the state. That has yet to bear fruit, and many think that will never be the case. Now there are some who want to create tax districts that would mirror the new education districts forming under Act 46. The jury is out as to whether those will be good or bad for local communities. If this idea gains traction, it will jump to the front of the line in terms of controversial legislation.
Taxes in general will generate plenty of discussion. Taxes always do, whether they’re going up or down. Businesses should pay attention to plans for legislation to add a payroll tax to pay for long-term parental or medical leave. Scott says any bill that raises taxes is a non-starter for him, but many other legislators will push hard to include a business levy on any long-term leave bill.
Speaking of Scott, one of the pillars of his campaign was the call to make Vermont a more affordable place to live. How that plays out, and how true to his word he will be, is something that should be watched very closely. Taxes and fees are constant targets for increase by legislators as a way to fund new initiatives. How closely Scott works with legislators, and how much he uses the threat of a veto, will go a long way in determining how much sincerity was behind Scott’s pledge of a more affordable state.
Of course, it seems that every year there are one or two unexpected items that end up dominating much of the discussion at the Statehouse and with media who report on it. Obviously, we don’t know yet just what those things are, but no doubt there will be something.
In all, 2017 may prove to be a fascinating year for those who like to watch how the legislative sausage is made at the Statehouse. While many of the players may be new, or at least sitting in new seats, there is no doubt that many of the same old things will continue to rise to the top of the golden dome.