Albright: Tough Skating In Montpelier

Jan 19, 2018

Clean water. Good schools. Two excellent reasons to live in Vermont. But it’s easy to take them for granted.

In a 2015 Castleton poll about the most important issues facing Vermonters, only 7 percent put education and schools at the top of their list, while six percent said energy and the environment were most important to them.

Typical of most public opinion pie charts - the economy gets the biggest wedge. But of course, the economy, education, and the environment are all linked. Public schools are in trouble because of declining enrollment, which is creating a heavier tax burden. And our waterways are being hurt by pollution - another expensive problem.

In his State of the State Address, the governor seemed to suggest reining in the costs of K-12 education – while at the same time investing more in early childhood learning, technical education, workforce readiness, and higher education, including free tuition for National Guard members - quite the budget balancing act!

About water quality, Scott was less specific, noting only that the state has committed $51 million to clean water projects. But more money is needed, and so far a funding plan has been elusive.

And all this puts the legislative majority in a bind. Liberals are generally pro-labor, but to lower the cost of providing K-12 education, they may need to swallow staffing cuts that would infuriate their usually faithful constituency, the teachers’ union.
 
On the environmental front, lawmakers are divided – and not necessarily along party lines - about whether to require every landowner to help, over time, pay for a billion-dollar water clean-up plan.

Meanwhile, advocates worry that the Scott administration is trying to weaken the state’s landmark water quality law. Plus there’s dismay in the State House that the Department of Agriculture has so far not determined, as lawmakers have requested, whether exempting farmers from some provisions of Act 250 is adding to rising phosphorus levels in Lake Champlain. And few elected officials want to get on the wrong side of farmers.

A good metaphor for lawmaking these days is the skating rink in front of the Statehouse that almost didn’t make it back for a second winter. It’s been saved by the Governor - probably the easiest victory he'll have this biennium. But he’s not likely to enjoy smooth skating himself – because there’s a tricky downhill slope to navigate.