It’s safe to say that Gov. Phil Scott caught lawmakers by surprise with his budget address on Tuesday. And for many of them, that surprise was not a pleasant one.
Scott wants the Legislature to force school boards across the state to impose a spending freeze on local education budgets. The Republican governor says the plan will bring needed fiscal restraint to the K-12 education system, and allow the state to make overdue public investments in child care and higher education without raising taxes.
Here are seven things to know about the plan:
How long has this plan been in the works?
An administration official Wednesday said the concept of a “freeze” in K-12 education spending had been in the governor’s mind throughout the campaign.
The official says that after Scott won the election, his transition team got to work on building a budget that would deliver on his campaign promises. Shortly before the inauguration, they arrived at this specific mechanism, which effectively asks the Legislature to impose a spending freeze on local school budgets.
Why does the governor feel this plan is a good idea?
Gov. Scott thinks that unleashing some of the $1.6 billion in the K-12 system is the only way to advance meaningful public policy programs, without raising taxes.
Scott has also included a provision that would allow districts to supplement their school budget, on a one-time basis, with an assessment on property owners in the district. It means boards could enact increases of up to 5 percent over the previous year’s budget, but many lawmakers question the legality of that provision.
How have lawmakers been reacting to this proposal?
There has been pushback from Democrats as well as a number of Republicans and blue-dog Democrats who aren’t opposed in concept to reducing funding for public education, but who do see major problems with Scott’s plan.
How would lawmakers enact the governor’s proposal?
The plan would require Town Meeting Day school budget votes to be postponed until May 23, which means lawmakers are going to have to let towns know in the next week or so whether or not they should postpone votes. That gives lawmakers only a matter of days to vet a proposal with potentially drastic impacts on local schools.
What other effects could this proposal have on schools?
The plan imposes a spending freeze for next year’s budgets and would also tie future school spending to student enrollment numbers. That means schools with declining populations — and that’s most of them — would begin to see a rapid deterioration of funding streams.
There are schools with per-pupil expenditures right now of $12,000 and schools with per-pupil costs of more than $20,000. This plan would lock those inequities in place for perpetuity, and a lot of lawmakers think that’s a bad idea.
What are people in the education community saying about this proposal?
Nicole Mace, head of the Vermont School Board’s Association, said board members are nonplussed.
“There’s been ample time since the election to at least signal that this type of a proposal would be coming,” Mace said. “That didn’t happen. So I think board members are feeling caught off guard.”
One key element of Phil Scott’s plan is to have the state reach into the collective bargaining process, and mandate that teachers pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums.
Mace said negotiations for those plans are already well underway, and that a lot of districts have found creative ways to restructure their health benefit plans in ways that will yield more savings than Scott’s plan delivers.
What will happen if lawmakers decided to not go along with Gov. Scott’s plan?
If lawmakers reject the spending freeze, and other overhauls proposed for the state education fund, then the governor’s budget suddenly has a $52 million hole in it. It’s likely in that scenario that the Scott Administration would ask lawmakers to draft their own plan that follows the governor’s guiding structure of no new taxes or fees. It could set the stage for a very adversarial budget process in Montpelier this year.