Let’s start with marijuana. H.200 calls for the decriminalization of possession or cultivation of one ounce or less of marijuana. It had a lot of sponsors from all political parties. It had a lot of amendments, most of which failed, yet it passed the House 92 to 49. I voted against the bill. One requirement of the bill treats people under 21 differently than those over 21, in that young people must be referred to court diversion programs, and those over 21 may choose court diversion. Court diversion has been in existence for a long time and has been used successfully by young people caught for any number of offenses. Rather than be branded for life with a criminal record, they enter court diversion, pay a fine, attend appropriate programs, and usually complete some community service. If successfully completed the criminal record for the infraction is expunged thereby avoiding the impact on future opportunities for scholarships, job opportunities and more.
My objection to decriminalization or legalization of marijuana is based on looking at the personal and societal cost in misery and dollars, both public and private, of the two legal addictive substances we already have, alcohol and nicotine. I see no need for a third. It is just the wrong message. Strengthening the requirement to refer to court diversion could have solved that problem for youthful offenders. The bill is now being debated in the Senate.
Two bills are moving through the Legislature that directly impact the education fund, bills which acting together, seem to cancel each other out and are therefore most troubling to me. One is H.538, which through several strategies seeks to contain spending on education thus also constrain increases in property taxes. It extends eligibility for partial property tax rebate for household incomes over $90,000 by increasing the house site value from $200,000 to $250,000; for renters it lowers the percentage of allowable gross rent that can be claimed for rebate from 21% to 19%; it lowers the maximum property tax adjustment for everyone from $8,000 to $6,000. It lowers the excess school spending penalty threshold from the current 125% of statewide average spending to 121% over two years, and more. The bill originally included elimination of small schools grants over four years, but there was so much push back that this element was reduced to a study. (Yes, Virginia, lobbying from the folks back home works!)
The intended purpose of this bill was to reduce education property taxes, and the net effect of the various elements is expected to reduce property tax revenue to the Education Fund by about a half a cent on the state-wide property tax rate in FY2015. The only way the Education Fund formula knows how to restrain property taxes is to reduce education spending or shift who pays within the fund. We are running our education system on the back of a formula, and other than the underlying assumption that it spends the same amount on every student, the formula doesn’t care at all how well a student is educated. This is nuts!
The other bill that is being debated in the House is H.270, which will mandate 10 hours per week of pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds in a school or qualified child care setting. There is substantial research that shows that early childhood education not only benefits the child him- or herself by showing better outcomes throughout subsequent school years, but also shows over the long run that education costs, especially special education costs, are lower. Previous legislation enabled schools to begin such programs either in their own schools or by contracting with a qualified child care provider, and several towns in our area saw the merits and did begin such programs, even though a new cost was added to education. In fact, voters in 84% of Vermont towns also agreed to the better outcomes for students, and were willing to spend more to achieve them.
Those costs are now baked into the overall state spending on education that H.538 seeks to contain.
What could be wrong with extending this opportunity to all children in Vermont? Until H.270, the goals of the state and of a very large percentage of towns were in alignment, demonstrating the best of how local control can work, how the partnership between state and local districts moves toward improving outcomes for kids. However, H.270 no longer enables, it mandates, and in the process adds about $1 million in education spending at the same time H.538 seeks to reduce education spending.
Another way that H.270 is troubling to me is that the control of where a child gets to spend these education tax dollars is in the hands of the parents through a voucher-like system. Why is that a problem? The underlying framework of Act 60/68 distributes money on a per-pupil basis. The other side of that coin is that schools, and in this case also private child care providers, receive revenue on a per-child basis and thus have a need for a certain number of students just to keep the doors open and the lights on. For pre-K programs already in existence, whether in a school or a private child care facility, the ability of the public dollars to be transported away from the programs already in place puts the sustainability of those programs in question.
We have about two weeks left of this legislative session and more controversial bills yet to consider. Thank you to all who have shared with me your views. Your comments do help me to see all sides of an issue.