Gov. Phil Scott is attempting a “top-down” approach to check education spending because past legislative efforts have failed, and new initiatives are unlikely to win the approval of the Democrat-controlled Legislature. Democrats that are now expressing a newfound concern for local control seem to have forgotten that they championed the anti-school choice Act 46. Fortunately, these crocodile tears aren’t fooling anyone.
In presenting a budget plan that confronts our serious state-spending problem, Gov. Scott showed a bold commitment to fiscal pragmatism that has evaded Montpelier for too long. His balanced budget for the 2018 fiscal year promises to raise no new taxes or fees, and matches the state’s base spending with base revenue. House Republicans applaud his proposal to conduct the business of the state within its means. The Governor’s fiscally responsible approach to public economics signals a welcome break from business-as-usual in Montpelier. It is an important step toward creating a more affordable and economically vibrant future for all Vermonters.
The fact remains that voters are taxed out, and lawmakers can no longer deny that the state’s education cost growth has become unsustainable. As the elected representatives of Vermonters, we need to be willing to find common ground and deliberate on forward-thinking solutions – no matter how “radical” or “jarring” they may appear at first blush. Asking school districts to level-fund their budgets for the 2018 fiscal year will swiftly facilitate critical reform. In addition, school board members should have sufficient time to make the necessary adjustments by May 23. The revision process may lead to frustration for some, but it is a reasonable request for compromise.
Studies show that Vermont’s K-12 student population fell by 3.6 percent between 1992 and 2009. During the same time period, however, the number of administrators and non-teaching staff increased by 53.9 percent, and the teaching workforce grew by 24.7 percent. The nexus between majority Democrats, the Vermont-NEA, and lobbying groups like the VSA maintains a bloated bureaucracy on the taxpayers’ dime. This is why the Vermont-NEA pushes the false narrative that reduced school funding will negatively affect education quality when in fact, statistical evidence shows little to no correlation between education spending levels and student proficiency.
This is also why majority Democrats removed Act 46’s two-year spending caps for school districts in 2016. The House Republican caucus had pushed for the caps to rein in education spending and provide property tax relief. Now, Democrats and special interest groups are questioning the logistics and legality of the budget to once again undermine reform measures. How long can we allow this cycle to perpetuate? If legislators are serious about turning Vermont’s poor economic outlook around, then we must be open to making difficult but necessary choices together.
That is why I find it regrettable that many lawmakers and pundits have pronounced the budget dead on arrival. Some critics oppose Gov. Scott’s budget on the basis that the state should increase services, not cut costs, in an economic downturn. The dramatic decline in our young and middle-aged populations tells a different story. The vast majority of citizens are not interested in the government seizing their earnings, through high taxation, to spend at its discretion – for example, to create programs that invariably lead to no measurable improvement in societal welfare.
At present, Vermont faces a $70 million budget gap, projected revenue downgrades in coming years, and a shrinking taxpayer pool. In light of these financial constraints, it is prudent to invest existing monies toward previously under-funded areas like childcare and higher education. The Governor’s stance against new taxes and fees reflects his campaign promise to make Vermont affordable for all. House Republicans are committed to bettering student outcomes while recognizing the urgency of tackling education cost growth. We will collaborate with all parties to craft legislation that accomplishes the Governor’s goals of structural reform, and strategic investment in key areas including education and training, economic development, and affordable housing.
If majority Democrats object, then the onus falls on them to create an alternative budget – one that respects the Governor’s pledge to Vermonters against tax increases.
Rep. Don Turner of Milton is the House Republican Leader.