Montpelier Watching For A Larger Message In Town Meeting School Budget Votes

Mar 6, 2017

Back in January, Republican Gov. Phil Scott shocked just about everyone in Montpelier with his plan to impose a spending freeze on local school budgets. Democrats in the Legislature rejected the proposal almost immediately.

And many of them say the success or failure of school-budget votes on Tuesday will show how the general public feels about Scott’s plan.

The governor’s proposal would have lowered education spending across Vermont by about $40 million. And it would have allowed lawmakers to move forward with a host of new of government programs without raising taxes or fees.

The proposal landed with a thud in Montpelier, where lawmakers said it would impose potentially catastrophic cuts, with some small schools bearing the brunt.

Since then, both the Republican governor and the Democratically controlled Legislature have insisted that public sentiment is squarely on its side. And some lawmakers say that Town Meeting Day school-budget votes will be a useful gauge to determine who’s right.

"I would say that if the overwhelming number of school budgets pass, it suggests that voters do not want Montpelier telling them that they have to cut every budget in the state," says Senate President Tim Ashe.

Ashe says there’s no doubt that constituents would like their property taxes lowered. And he says it’s true that many people wish it cost less to educate Vermont’s children.

"That said, we have a system which for many, many taxpayers, in terms of how they pay for education, results in a pretty darn good deal compare to many northeastern states," he says.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson has been another prominent critic of the governor’s proposed spending freeze. And she says lawmakers will be following the results of school budgets closely.

"I think that will be a really good pulse-check about where Vermonters are," she says.

But Gov. Scott is urging lawmakers, and the general public, not to use those budget votes as a benchmark to measure support for his spending freeze.

"I’m not sure that everyone really understands how connected their school budgets are to property taxes," he says.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, a Republican, agrees with Scott.

"Personally, I cannot use that for the barometer for whether or not people are frustrated," he says.

Benning, who sits on the Senate Education Committee, says that Vermonters tend to prioritize the quality of their children’s education over almost everything else.

Just because a person votes "yes" on Town Meeting Day, Benning says, doesn’t mean they also oppose a more interventionist approach from Montpelier when it comes to education spending.

Benning says he hears a familiar line while talking to the people he represents.

"'Come on Benning, you’ve got to get these property taxes under control.' But at the same time, they go into the voting booth and they hear and see a budget that has been explained to them, and makes sense, and they vote accordingly," he says.

But even among those who agree that Tuesday’s votes aren’t a useful marker of public sentiment, there are stark public-policy differences over the merits of Scott’s proposed spending freeze.

Benning says the governor’s original proposal would exacerbate financial inequities between schools districts. And he says that if lawmakers want to control education spending, their best bet is to move forward with the implementation of the school district consolidation bill they passed in 2015.