Gov. Phil Scott used his State of State Address Thursday to telegraph a potentially dramatic proposal for education funding in Vermont, saying he stands ready to block a 7-cent jump in next year’s statewide property tax rates.
How Scott plans to go about averting the projected increase in education funding remains unclear as of now, since the first-term Republican governor offered up no specific policy reforms in Thursday’s address.
But he said his administration, along with the Democratically controlled Legislature, need to address economic trends that have “diminished our ability to sustain what we have.”
“Here is the blunt reality: We must first restore our economic and fiscal foundation to ensure we have the funding needed to ensure our aspirations for Vermont,” Scott said.
And restoring that foundation, according to Scott, means setting strict guidelines on state spending.
“And I, along with my administration and members of the Legislature, stand ready to prevent taxes and fees from increasing again this year,” Scott said. “And just so I’m clear, that includes statewide property tax rates.”
The line drew loud applause from Scott’s Republican allies in the House and Senate. Most Democrats sat motionless however. That’s because adhering to Scott’s pledge will require relatively drastic intervention from Montpelier, since statewide property tax rates set to rise by 7 cents next year, if elected officials do nothing.
WATCH: Gov. Phil Scott's 2018 State of the State Address
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said after the speech that it’s difficult to assess a proposal that, as of now, is so “light on detail.”
“The challenges structurally are that we have a long history of respecting local voters, but then not liking to see the property tax increases, and that’s something that governors have struggled with, legislatures have struggled with,” Ashe said.
During his budget address last year, Scott proposed a historic break from the tradition of local control over school spending decisions. Instead of letting towns decide how much to invest in their schools, he called for a hard cap on spending, imposed from Montpelier.
Scott didn’t say how he plans to keep property tax rates from rising on Thursday. Aides say lawmakers will have to wait for his budget address later this month for that.
But with Scott talking so much recently about low staff-to-student ratios in Vermont schools, House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski says Democrats are bracing from another heavy-handed spending mandate from Scott, this time related to reductions in school staffing.
“I mean that could potentially create the biggest layoff in Vermont that we’ve seen, if that’s the road he’s going down. And that has severe consequences across the board,” Krowinski said.
Scott, however, says Vermonters are already suffering the severe consequences of a K-12 system that seen costs rise, despite student enrollment dropping by nearly 30 percent over the past two decades.
Vermont spends $1.6 billion annually now to educate 76,000 students.
“If I came to you with a check every year for $1.6 billion, and asked you to educate the same number of students, I dare say that our system would look much different than it does today,” Scott said.
In his budget address later this month, Vermonters, and the Legislature will find out just how different Scott thinks that system should look.