The unintended consequences of law

Conceptual rendering of the Act 46 debate. Dave Sharpe's in there somewhere.

Conceptual rendering of the Act 46 debate. Dave Sharpe’s in there somewhere.

This Act 46 thing is turning into a giant-sized tangle of no-win, isn’t it?

The House and Senate are at odds, with the Senate voting to repeal limits on school budgets and the House considering a range of tweaks. The Senate is also throwing the House under the bus, disavowing any responsibility for the spending limits. The Governor is hounding the Legislature to repeal without thinking about it too much. On top of all that, we discover that the Agency of Education misinterpreted a key passage of Act 46 in a way that changes the actual limits for many a district.

Meanwhile, the Republicans can just sit in the balcony, laughing and throwing Jujubes. As VTDigger’s Anne Galloway notes, unless the House gets buffaloed into changing course, the Republicans will get exactly what they want: the limits will remain in place and the Democrats will look like disorganized idiots who don’t care about rising property taxes. And if the limits are repealed, the Republicans will get something just about as juicy: the Democrats repealing a measure designed to provide some tax relief, and looking like idiots in the process.

Meanwhile, school districts are closing in on Town Meeting time with no idea how to plan their budgets.

Yeah, nice. This lame-duck session is off to a rip-roaring start.

As has been reported by the fine folks at VTDigger, the Agency of Education misinterpreted Act 46’s method for calculating spending limits. And in testimony before a House committee in November, AOE finance manager Brad James broke into a bewildering display of Newspeak that left lawmakers unaware of the misunderstanding until just now.

Put yourself in the place of an Education Committee member for a moment, and see if you can understand this clusterfrak of a sentence from James:

“What is happening in the FY17 budget, the way it is currently structured right now, the way the language was written, was all of the calculations for what the growth is for FY17 come from FY16 data, so any new exclusions you have for FY17 don’t show up because all FY16 information is what we are making the calculation based on.”

Uhh… okay. Yeah. Fine. Whatever. Please stop talking.

What’s more, members of the Committee asked James for clarification more than once, and got more Newspeak in response. The result: a scramble to produce accurate information for school districts, and a Committee caught in a quandary. Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck:

Plans for a speedy fix to last year’s education law came to an awkward halt in the legislature Tuesday.

… “It’s a mess,” said Rep. David Sharpe (D-Bristol), who chairs the education committee. He pulled a bill off the House floor Tuesday morning and reassembled his committee to consider the discovery that school districts had been sent incorrect information about spending caps.

The “mess” could force the House to repeal, because that would moot the AOE’s blunder. Any tweaks to the limits would force AOE to quickly recalculate the limits for affected districts.

“A mess,” yup.

The whole schemozzle is an oddly apt outcome for an issue that inspires wildly conflicted feelings in the electorate. Many Vermonters are upset over rising property taxes. Many Vermonters are concerned with preserving local control and school quality. If you turned those two sentences into a Venn diagram, I bet there’d be a ton of overlap.

It’s kind of like when voters express anti-incumbent sentiment but keep on re-electing their own incumbents. But it leaves policymakers and politicos pulled simultaneously in opposite directions: how to address the tax-and-cost problem without, um, changing anything?

Republicans are banking on the anti-tax sentiment outweighing the pro-school feeling. I think that’s arguable at best. Obviously, people in and around the VTGOP tend to be anti-tax. But is that true across the board? I’m not so sure. At best, I think a lot of voters hold both opinions simultaneously: revamp the system, but don’t touch my local schools!

How does that play out in the next election? I’ll be damned if I know. Honestly, I wonder if the people of Vermont really know what they want.

6 thoughts on “The unintended consequences of law

  1. walter moses

    Tell you what I don’t want. A cob job of a school consolidation bill that rewards few and costs many. An education committee that does’t understand that health insurance goes up every year. An AOE finance officer that talks pidgeon, and a legislature and governor who will pass any bill that looks like they are doing something. Now, they just look stupid.

  2. NanuqFC

    The unaddressed strand in the Act 46 “mess” is that the budget caps penalize low-spending towns, and by creating differing accesses to the pool of state money depending on where students live and/or attend school (although school choice is about to disappear), the provision violates the Brigham decision of the Vermont Supreme Court, and is therefore unconstitutional. Allen Gilbert, the director of the Vermont ACLU has been quoted in the media as declaring that the ACLU will go to court to defend the Brigham decision’s principle of equal access for all Vermont students.

  3. Bud Haas

    Repeating the mantra that “Many Vermonters are upset over rising property taxes” perpetuates this myth that “average” Vermonters want lower taxes. The Vermonters who “are upset” are those higher income types who realize no benefit from “income sensitivity”, and who continue to push the idea that we are all overtaxed.
    Caring Vermonters continue to support town schools.

  4. Walter Carpenter

    “An education committee that does’t understand that health insurance goes up every year.”

    This is something that so many Vermonters do not understand when they complain about property taxes for schools. This is not only for schools, but for municipal employees as well. I had a guy at where I work in the summer complain to me about his property taxes going up and up…I said yes, but so does the health insurance bill. A friend of mine on the school board of his town said that the two biggest cost risers are “health insurance and poverty.” No matter what the legislature does to Act 46, it will not change these two denominators.


    Well just wait until the Legislature discovers a criminal complaint has been filed with the U.S. Department of Justice. You see Act 46 sections 13, 10, and 16 are a violation of 18 U.S. Code 594 “Intimidation of Voters” and all those found supporting the Act could possibly be facing charges. In this case Diplomatic Immunity will not apply.


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