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Public Assets Institute, PO Box 942, Montpelier, Vermont 05601.


Update December 2007

In this issue:
-- Public Budgeting Project
-- Time for a More Timely Budget
-- Education Spending Growth Already Slowing
-- Choices for Vermont

Public Budgeting Project
Understanding how and why public funds are collected and spent is the first step to getting citizens involved. That's why the Public Assets Institute is working with the partners of One Vermont on a Public Budgeting Project, which will encourage more citizen participation in the state budget process and the development of state fiscal policy.

One goal of the Public Budgeting Project is education. Vermont has had a long tradition of openness in government, and lots of available information about state taxes and spending. But that information is often hard to find unless people know exactly where to look. And even when they find it, it's not always presented in a format or language familiar to people outside of state government. We want to help people find and understand this information.

Another of our aims in this project is to gather the available information in one spot — a website — and repackage it an easy-to-use format. We also will offer independent analysis of that information: the facts made comprehensible, without the spin.

Finally, changes in policies and procedures — in both the Legislature and the executive branch — can help make the budget process more understandable and accessible to the average citizen. We want to work with the Legislature and the administration to remove barriers to public participation in fiscal policy decisions.

We welcome your thoughts and ideas about the Public Budgeting Project. For more information, contact Jack Hoffman.

Time for a More Timely Budget
Come next May, it's a safe bet that editorial writers, the governor's spokesperson, and others will start complaining that the Legislature has been in session long enough, and urge them to go home. While we won't argue that the Legislature couldn't do things more quickly at times, we also recognize that these citizen legislators are asked to do a lot in a short time. Since the early 1980s, more and more governmental responsibility has been shifted from Washington to the states. But, at least in Vermont, the legislative session has not gotten proportionately longer.

One thing that could ease the pressure on lawmakers would be for them to ask the governor to deliver the budget sooner. By statute, the governor has until the third Tuesday of the session to present the budget. For a long time, governors put their budgets out early. In recent years, though, the budget addresses have gotten later — often running right up to the deadline. As a result, the public — along with the Legislature — hasn't gotten to look at the proposed spending plan until late January. In January 2007, legislators were in session three full weeks before they were able to start work on the budget.

The legislative session is the only time members of the public have a chance to take part formally in shaping the budget and setting the state's spending priorities. They deserve to see the budget in a more timely fashion.

Read our report, The Governor's Budget Release: Earlier is Better.

Education Spending Growth Already Slowing
The Legislature passed a law last session that is supposed to start reining in school spending during the 2010 fiscal year.* It turns out, however, that school budget growth has been slowing over the past four years. The growth rate of per-pupil spending, which is often a more critical number for local school districts, also has slowed.

According to data from the Vermont Department of Education, per-pupil spending rose 7.7 percent in fiscal year 2005. For the current fiscal year, 2008, the rate of increase was 5.8 percent. Meanwhile, the number of students in Vermont schools has dropped by more than 5 percent over these four years.

The law is intended to cap school budget increases at a little higher than inflation. (If the law were in place now, growth would be capped at about 4.3 percent.) But if budget growth continues on the current trend, it could be below the index by 2010.

The new law was passed, in part, as a response to critics who argue that Vermont's current education funding system leads to runaway spending. But the data paint a different picture.

Since the passage of Act 60, Vermonters' incomes have been growing at a faster rate than their school taxes. Consequently, school taxes as a percentage of income have dropped over the past 10 years, from 3.7 percent in 1996 to 3 percent in 2006.

* July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010

Read full issue brief.

Choices for Vermont
Shortly after we published the last update, in October, Voices for Vermont's Children and the Public Assets Institute held their second annual conference in Montpelier. This year's event, "Choices for Vermont: Creating a Better Future for Our Children," drew about 140 people. Overall, the daylong conference got great reviews from the roughly 40 percent of the attendees who returned evaluation forms.

Keynote speaker Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director of the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), based in Washington, started the conference by declaring that poverty is once again a political issue. For one thing, poor people themselves are in the media, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the number of poor people has grown, and polls show that more people are afraid of becoming poor. The widening gap between rich and poor also has focused renewed attention on poverty, she said.

Levin-Epstein also stressed the importance of setting specific goals to address poverty. For instance, last session the Vermont Legislature passed Act 68, whose goal is to halve child poverty in the state by 2017.

From participant evaluations, organizers got some good ideas for improving the conference next year and suggestions for new topics to address. We'll remind you again as we start planning that event, but please feel free to contact us any time with your thoughts about issues that deserve attention.

Public Assets Institute is funded by grants and donations. Please consider making a tax deductible contribution to support our work.

The Internal Revenue Service keeps track of how many people leave Vermont and how many move in each year. The IRS also tracks the income that moves with these taxpayers. These figures show that, while slightly fewer people moved in than moved out of Vermont in 2006, the income of those moving in was 15 percent higher than of those who left. More...

Public Structures Spotlight:

Consumer Protection Section, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, Division of Food Safety and Consumer Protection

For over 200 years, Vermonters have relied on the state's weights and measures program to protect them from fraud. In its early days the program checked retail farm products — such as fluid milk, meat, or wool — for fair measure. Now the Consumer Protection Section also regulates propane meters, gas pumps, heavy-duty scales, and laser scanners. But the mission has remained the same: to establish "equity between the buyer and seller in commercial transactions where the value of commodities or services [is] determined by weight or measure." The Consumer Protection Section works with businesses to ensure accuracy; it imposes penalties only as a last resort.

From July 2004 to June 2006, the Consumer Protection Section:
  • Checked 55,319 packages (food or beverages packaged by retailers) for accurate weight;
  • Tested 20,507 devices for accuracy — including scales, gas pumps, and oil and LP gas meters;
  • Examined approximately 300 retail electronic scanner systems.
Employees: Eight full time
FY2007 Actual Expenditures: $613,015 (90 percent labor and benefits, 10 percent operating expenses)
FY2007 Actual Revenues: $613,015 (40 percent general fund, 60 percent special funds)

Source: Henry Marckres, Consumer Protection Section Chief; Mary Morrison, Business Manager; Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets website.


Vermont Legislature reconvenes
January 8, 2008, 10:00 a.m.

Governor's State of the State Address
January 10, 2008, 2:00 p.m.
House Chamber

Governor's Budget Address
January 22, 2008, 2:00 p.m.
House Chamber

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Public Assets Institute, PO Box 942, Montpelier, Vermont 05601.