Manwaring spent her time at the podium fielding questions, ranging from concerns over education to the state’s priorities over cutting jobs. Manwaring said that while the governor’s office gives her committee a balanced budget, it comes with holes in it. Manwaring also said that the state’s general fund budget saw an increase of over 4% this year.
Doug Wheeler said he was recently sidestepped by Gov. Shumlin when he asked him why cuts had to be made to school districts, instead of government agencies like the Agency of Natural Resources. “Can they cut some positions and double up the work there?” asked Wheeler.
“We have 8,000 (state jobs) across the state and have 200 less than before the recession,” said Manwaring. “We are rigid when looking at any place where people create new positions. It takes legislation to create new jobs at the state level, and the ANR is only one component.”
Barker Willard III asked why the money he pays in education tax doesn’t follow his children. Manwaring said that a part of this is the choice towns make in letting students take their education money elsewhere. “Your ability as a citizen of Wilmington to send your children wherever you want is a big discussion. That is up to us here in town whether we want to make that change, and whether we want to support a school in town or not.”
School board chair Phil Taylor echoed Willard’s education question, asking where we are in challenging the “elephant in the room” of education costs, and how it reflects on small and large districts. “Why doesn’t the state hold larger school districts accountable for their economics scale?” asked Taylor. “Larger districts make up 60% of education spending, so why are they not held accountable for spending less? We pay as much per pupil as Brattleboro Union does, but the logic does not work there, and there’s not enough being done to challenge these larger districts to be more accountable.”
“There’s a cultural divide,” said Manwaring. “What we have in our education system is a bottom-up system. We need to change our way of thinking because we do not operate that way.”
Sen. Hartwell’s discussion with voters focused mostly on taxes, spending, and the heroin and illicit-opiate use that has swept across the state. Hartwell pointed out that there are a series of legislative pieces being worked on by the judiciary committee to combat the issue of illegal opiate drug use. He also said the Legislature is working to institute effective treatment, prevention, and enforcement to combat the problem.
Local physician Dr. Peter Park told Hartwell that current treatment programs are working well. “I’m on the front lines,” said Park, “These programs have allowed me to more effectively treat the patients that I deal with with this problem. I would encourage you not to interfere with those programs, and to continue to access additional information from professionals in the field.”
Arlene Palmiter, a local real estate company owner, said that the heroin epidemic has put the state in the national spotlight, and those looking to Vermont have begun to ask her if it is a safe place, a question she is not used to fielding.
“Look at what happened when they started Act 60,” said Palmiter. “They had no idea how they were going to fund it. Look at Green Mountain Health Care, they have no idea how to fund it, then we talk about funding energy. Well, we closed Entergy and so now let’s talk about how we’re going to fund the increased cost of energy, but we didn’t discuss it before closing the nuclear power plant. I’m just concerned that consistently in Montpelier, no one thinks about how funding is done until after you make a decision, and then it comes back on the taxpayers. We can’t solve the tax problem until we solve Montpelier’s problem.”
“We have to get the focus on this problem,” said Hartwell. “We’re a highly taxed state, and at some point we have to exercise discipline about spending in some areas and we’re not really great at that. There are a lot of interest groups there when it’s time to do the budget, and this year we have a 4% increase in spending.”