Serving the public

Rutland Herald
Published: January 6, 2010

As legislators gather on Thursday to hear the eighth and final State of the State address from Gov. James Douglas, they ought to be alert to signs that Douglas plans to solve state budget problems by shifting them onto the shoulders of local property tax payers.

All signs point to the likelihood that Douglas plans to end his tenure as governor by carrying forward his ill-advised war on education. So far, he has not succeeded in gutting state support for education, but as the state’s budget situation worsens, the temptation will always be there.

The budget situation is bad indeed. Douglas and the Democratic legislative leadership agree that the state faces a budget shortfall of about $150 million. Legislators say they have been able to work cooperatively with members of the Douglas administration to find ways to streamline state programs or to pinpoint potential cuts.

The shock to state programs is likely to be extreme, and few areas are likely to be spared. And yet even a wide range of draconian cuts will not quickly reach $150 million. One example: A reorganization of the state judiciary is likely to generate significant controversy, and it would save only $1 million. That’s not nothing, but it is only a small step toward solving the budget problem.

Because balancing the state budget is hard without raising taxes, Douglas is likely to propose ways of siphoning money away from local school budgets, forcing school districts to increase property taxes. This is what he attempted last year, with partial success. He has also made a habit of decrying high property taxes at the same time as he is forcing them higher.

Certainly, school boards have a responsibility to taxpayers to keep a tight rein on school expenses. As former school superintendent William Mathis points out on the opposite page, school boards have done a good job of holding the line in recent years, keeping average increases to about 2 percent, which is below inflation, and below the level of increases of state government under Gov. Douglas.

So what is the state’s responsibility toward local education? One of its responsibilities is to collect education revenues so as to distribute them equitably from town to town. This was the great innovation under Acts 60 and 68. Students in poorer towns, such as Rutland, Barre, Springfield and Bennington, have a far better chance of getting a good education than they did before Act 60, and they are on a more equal footing than before with students in Woodstock, Stowe and other wealthy towns.

But the state also has a responsibility as a source of revenue. Before the advent of Act 60, the state sought to ease the property tax burden by handing out state aid to education, which was drawn from broad-based taxes, mainly sales and income taxes. Doing so spread the tax burden more broadly and restrained property tax increases.

When the state remade its education finance system, legislators realized that unless the state maintained its contribution to education from the General Fund, property tax payers would face a huge new burden. So each year the state contributes millions of dollars from the General Fund to the Education Fund.

How easy it would be to solve the state’s General Fund problem by cutting back the transfer to the Education Fund. And yet doing so would be a historic abdication of responsibility by the state.

Our schools are one segment of the public sector that is working well. Test scores show the achievement of Vermont students to be ranked high nationally. Thus, the state must not succumb to the siren call of cultivated mediocrity.

This is the call that entices taxpayers to degrade their public institutions to a level of demonstrated mediocrity so they are comforted by the notion that they are not spending too much money. Now is not the time to degrade our schools. At a time of profound economic challenges and broadening social need, Vermont must support its most crucial and most successful institutions.

As budget analyst Jack Hoffman of the Public Assets Institute has written, none of us is a taxpayer only. We are also, all of us, users of public services: schools, roads, police, environmental protection, health care. Legislators must remember that they are there not just to curb taxes but to ensure that the state meets its responsibilities to the people of Vermont.