January 21, 2016

Frustrations are mounting in Montpelier, and throughout the state, over the real-life consequences of the ill-advised and poorly thought out education reform law passed last year (Act 46).  While the intention of the law was clearly to merge school districts and eliminate much of the little amount of local control we have left as communities, many other challenges are now rearing their heads.

Just seven months ago, Governor Shumlin and legislative leaders were patting themselves on the back for the excellent work they did on education reform.  Now, however, that tone has changed.  The challenges resulting from the spending threshold has seen the Governor call for a repeal and others for significant modifications to it, and the disingenuous assertion that school choice would be maintained under merged districts still have communities reeling.

Now, a new wrinkle has emerged. 

 

With just a few weeks before school budgets are supposed to be complete, it turns out that there was a miscommunication about how per pupil spending was being calculated.  While the Agency of Education calculated it one way, legislators on the committee did not understand that there might be an issue with that calculation.  So now, districts that prior to this revelation were not going to be subject to the cap and tax penalties, very well might be.

Simply put, Act 46 is a debacle, and must be modified.  For my part, I have introduced two pieces of legislation to do just that – one that would eliminate the requirement that a district have 900 pupils; and one that would allow for school choice to continue in those communities that currently enjoy it.  I will also support a repeal of the spending cap.  Regardless of whether or not legislators agree with the idea of a cap, the fact that there is such confusion over it just a few weeks before the school budgets are to be complete, requires this repeal.

On a more upbeat note, I am pleased to report on two positive developments resulting from the Economic Development bill of last year, on which I worked diligently.

First, it has become abundantly clear that we will not be able to grow our economy or address our demographic challenges in Vermont without ensuring that we have housing options that Vermonters can afford.  Toward that end, last year, we created the First-Time Homebuyer Down Payment Assistance Program to assist young professionals around the state into home ownership through the creation of a revolving loan fund.  And, as was expected, this program has been a great success.  Run through the Vermont Housing Finance Agency, the DPA Program has helped 60 first time homebuyers into their first homes, in ten of our fourteen counties.  And, this is just since the end of August!

Given its success, however, because we only authorized the DPA Program for three years, the goal of it becoming its own revolving loan fund will not be achieved.  In meeting with VHFA officials, it became clear to me that in order to ensure the small annual investment now pays for the long-term sustainability of the program in the future, we need to authorize the program for an additional 4 years.  I will be introducing a bill, with colleagues from both sides of the aisle, to do just that.  

The economic development branding and marketing initiative designed to complement and supplement our tourism marketing efforts is also making progress.  This was a priority of mine, and many of my colleagues, last year.  While Vermont has many challenges that we must address, we also have significant opportunities.  And, we have seen first-hand that our small state can be a place where entrepreneurs and innovators can start, grow, and succeed.  Let’s be sure to tell that story.