A pretty darn good day at the Statehouse

Wednesday was a big day for the legislature’s battle to get through a long and tough agenda. The House passed two huge bills, and the Senate approved a positive step in voter access.

Senate first. After Sen. Dustin Degree lost his repeated efforts to derail, slow down, or cripple the bill, the full Senate approved same-day voter registration on a voice vote.

Degree was pushing a mild form of the Republican “voter fraud” canard. The Bush Administration tried very hard for eight years to find and prosecute cases of vote fraud, and produced an average of less than one case per year. But there was Degree, acknowledging that “Fraud may be minuscule,” but insisting we ought to take steps to prevent this mythical plague upon our land.

If the bill passes the House, it wouldn’t take effect until 2017 because Vermont’s town clerks are creatures of habit who are loath to accept change or take on new responsibilities. They insisted on a two-year delay, and still want to fight for tougher rules. Our Public Servants, first and foremost guarding their own turf.

On to the House, which approved two bills that can be fairly described as “landmark.” Neither bill is perfect, but both represent substantial accomplishments.

The “water bill,” H.35, passed on a 126-10 vote, with only a handful of Republicans saying no. It establishes a Clean Water Fund and provides for $8 million a year in funding. This accomplishment is diminished by the fact that the state HAD to do something, or face the regulatory wrath of the feds. Because Vermont is, and has been for a long time, in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Still, getting almost 95% of lawmakers to support a bill that impinges on large segments of the economy and raises new revenue wasn’t a simple task. After a confirmatory vote Thursday, the bill moves to the Senate.

The education bill passed by a narrow margin, but still substantial: 88-59. This one was a tougher sell because education is near and dear to the hearts of every student, parent, grandparent, and community in the state. And near to the wallets of every taxpayer.

This was vividly on display in Wednesday’s Democratic caucus meeting. After an overview of the water bill drew only a couple of questions, the presentation of the ed bill had Dem lawmakers popping up all over the room. Many were specifically concerned about schools and districts in their own communities.

Any kind of education reform bill is a tough haul. This makes substantial reforms in funding and governance. Generally speaking, it’s a decent effort. I think we do have to do something significant to bend the cost curve, and some form of consolidation is almost inevitable. Student populations are declining, especially in rural areas; tiny schools are in no one’s best interest. Not students, not taxpayers, and not other government initiatives that might benefit if the public-school burden wasn’t so heavy.

Both bills will head for the Senate, which makes me cringe. Based on past experience, you never know what the hell they’re going to do. But maybe they’ll surprise me. There are some good folks in the Senate — definitely two more (Becca Balint, Brian Campion) than there were in years past. The atmosphere and legislative product will greatly benefit from the addition by subtraction of Peter Galbraith, whose voluntary retirement from the Senate was a blessing for us all. We should see a lot less capricious obstructionism, if nothing else.

Hard times still to come, many long days and debates — some dramatic, some tedious. But April First was a good day. No foollin’.

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3 thoughts on “A pretty darn good day at the Statehouse

  1. David Schoales

    If you want to “do something significant to bend the cost curve” this isn’t it. The numbers are speculative at best, and the real cost driver, poverty and the additional services (read “staff”) required by the growing numbers of children who come from impoverished backgrounds, is left unmentioned because it is too hard. Paper and ink outlines of structural changes are the easy work. Meeting the needs of kids and their families that make up our school population is the tough work. This bill does nothing, and that’s what will result. If we don’t focus on coordinating efforts to get families out of poverty there will be no meaningful savings.

    Reply
    1. John S. Walters Post author

      I do not mean to suggest that this is the ultimate ed-reform bill, just a decent measure in a tough year. There is significant evidence, such as the report released by the Education Agency earlier this week, to suggest that there will be cost savings from this bill. To flatly state that this bill “does nothing” is to ignore the evidence that’s inconvenient for your argument.

      You’re right that the ultimate answer is to do whatever we can to lift people out of poverty, which is why I’m against the proposed human services cuts in this year’s tentative budget. But the legislature was faced with a political and fiscal necessity to do something about school costs, and this is a step in that direction.

      Reply

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