When the grass grows and the legislature goes
May 11, 2017 | 4325 views | 0 0 comments | 336 336 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It’s the middle of May, a time of year when Vermont recovers from the long, cold winter.

Grass is starting to green up, finally. Early blooming flowers are popping out, trees are budding, days are longer, and the air is (somewhat) warmer. Perhaps the most important thing that happens every year around this time is the Vermont Legislature adjourns.

Why is that important? Adjournment means that whatever laws and changes being worked on in the Statehouse are done for the rest of the year.

Some see the end of the legislative session as a good thing, sort of a “do no more harm” situation. Depending on one’s perspective, that can be true. Others, particularly those hoping for a certain outcome from a failed bill that didn’t pass muster, probably would like to see legislators continue their work for a while longer.

What’s interesting about this 2017 session is much of the heavy lifting was done fairly early in the session. The state budget was approved without much rancor, and no major bills that required last-minute compromise. Think back to civil unions, gay marriage, school funding, and a host of other bills that would bring a sea change to the state. Nothing of the sort this year, and that’s a good thing.

So why is the Legislature still meeting? It’s basically due to one thing, having to do with teachers’ insurance contracts for the state’s public schools.

On the facing page, Sen. Jeanette White spells out the nuts and bolts of the dispute. From our perspective, it’s a bit of much ado about nothing. We understand Gov. Phil Scott’s approach, which is to concentrate the negotiations into one deal. Scott’s argument is this will produce the most savings for taxpayers and the state, as much as $26 million, while reducing stress on local school boards, who won’t have to deal with the negotiations.

White counters that the legislative plan is a better way to go, that the savings will still occur, local school boards will be able to negotiate deals that work best for their communities, and teachers will not be robbed of collective bargaining. The legislative plan calls for whatever savings found in renegotiated insurance contracts to be offset by reduced payments from the state for education expenses. So how that becomes “savings” for individual taxpayers is anyone’s guess.

By the way, on Wednesday the House passed a bill legalizing marijuana for personal use. We wonder if there had been some toking going on while the legislative insurance bill was being written.

It seems that neither plan will really save local taxpayers much, if anything. That’s because any anticipated saving would be used at the state level, not the local level. There might be some property tax savings, but we’re not convinced much will trickle down. After all, Scott wants to spend most of those savings on other programs. If there is tax relief, much of that will be eaten up by other areas of state funding formulas that calculate yields, assess per-pupil spending, and levy penalties on districts that cross arbitrary thresholds.

If we had to choose, we’d say the Scott plan appears on the surface to make more sense. The legislative alternative really offers no savings to local school districts, at least from what we’ve seen. But neither of them seem particularly well thought out or especially beneficial to Vermonters in general.

This fracas over how to renegotiate the insurance contracts has created a governmental spat rarely seen in Montpelier. But, as often is the case in politics, it all comes down to the money.

So in other words, there are about 26 million reasons for continuing this debate and the legislative session, even if the average Joe on a Vermont dirt road will see little, if any, savings in his or her tax bill.
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