Tag Archives: school funding

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 And if the limits are repealed, the Republicans will get something just about as juicy: the Democrats repealing a measure designed to provide some tax relief, and looking like idiots in the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.

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The second dumbest political statement of the year (so far)

Nice try, Governor Shumlin, but you didn’t quite manage to equal State Sen. Dick McCormack’s comparison of Norm McAllister to Jesus and Socrates. But it’s not for lack of effort.

Speaking about the Legislature’s whirlwind effort to lift or repeal spending limits for school districts, the Governor actually said this (according to the Free Press):

“We have no time,” Shumlin said last week. “We don’t have time to debate whether we can find the smartest way to do this for this year.”

Yeah, that’s the ticket. Stop thinking and pass something!

I’m reminded of a famous saying. Something about fast, cheap and good.

State of the State: Tough sledding

Governor Shumlin’s State of the State address wasn’t quite the nothing-burger you might expect from a lame duck. But if early returns are anything to go by, the actual impact of his address may be a lot closer to a nothing-burger.

There were a few notable initiatives and ideas, but most of them got slapped around almost as soon as he left the podium. And I’m not talking about the predictable Republican naysaying; I’m talking about Democratic criticism. In past years, Shumlin has had a very hard time rescuing high-profile initiatives that get off to a rocky start at the Statehouse, and that’s likely to be even more true in his lame-duck year.

Other ideas are sure to garner opposition on January 21, when the Governor delivers his final budget address. That’s when he’ll have to explain how he wants to pay for new or expanded programs that cost money. (As opposed to, say, paid sick leave, which won’t cost the government a dime.) In the past, the Legislature hasn’t reacted kindly to Shumlin’s budget-cutting suggestions (see: Earned Income Tax Credit, 2013), and he hasn’t reacted well to legislative alternatives.

We can break down the new stuff into two categories: items that will cost money, and those that won’t. At least they won’t cost the state any money.

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Shap the Triangulator

“It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” 

                      –Lyndon B. Johnson

ICYMI, House Speaker Shap Smith has done something a bit unusual on two key issues, education funding and economic development. He solicited public input, and created special brainstorming committees to evaluate ideas.

Let's… Make… a Deal!

Let’s… Make… a Deal!

The existence of these committees is interesting enough; it smacks of a legislative leader angling for the bigger stage. This process amounts to an informal, back-office policy shop, and gives Smith  a very central role in crafting policy instead of, say, waiting for Governor Shumlin to initiate. His work with the committees also can’t help but endear him to some pretty prominent people.

More evidence of ambition can be found the makeup of the two groups. The education panel included ten current and former lawmakers: Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Good for building nonpartisan street cred.

The economy group included many of The Great And Good of Vermont’s business community, including Betsy Bishop of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, Tom Torti of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and (Lord help us) Bruce Lisman of Campaign for Vermont Prosperity. The chair, Paul Ralston, is a former Democratic legislator who alienated many of his caucus mates during his single term*, and ended by partnering with Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann in Vision to Action Vermont, a PAC that’s just about as nonpartisan as Campaign for Vermont.

*I’ve heard him described as a junior-grade version of Peter Galbraith for his self-centered ways. Love his coffee, though.  

The group also includes a healthy share of relatively progressive businessfolks, like Andrew Savage of All Earth Renewables, Andrea Cohen of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, and Cairn Cross of FreshTracks Capital. But there was no one from the labor movement, and no one from any progressive or environmental organization.

It smacks of triangulation, the favored strategery of upwardly mobile Democrats and the bane of liberals. And it smacks of building networks of support among the deep-pocketed donor class. Which tends to lead to centrist policymaking, not to mention one of Gov. Shumlin’s favorite pastime, kicking the hippies.

I’m not ready to call Smith a sellout. A recent report on VPR lists some ideas emerging from the job-creation committee, and they actually sound pretty good: identifying ways to unlock capital for small businesses and startups, matching technical-school curricula with the needs of Vermont tech companies. Also, Cross is quoted as saying that Vermont’s business climate has more to do with quality of life and a clean environment than the old bromides of tax breaks and deregulation.

That sounds like a relatively progressive approach to economic development. And truth be told, there’s a need for a strategy that cuts through the standard liberal/business debate — that encourages job growth without abandoning liberal principles.

For instance, there is probably room for — and please don’t shoot me — some modest reform in the permitting process. The very phrase “permit reform” has been uttered by so many Republicans for so many years, it raises immediate hackles in the liberal community. Can we find a way to ease the process for the kinds of enterprise that create good jobs and contribute to our economic vitality without simply greasing the skids for strip malls and subdivisions? We probably can, and maybe — just maybe — Smith is trying to break the usual pattern and find a third way.

I’m willing to wait and see what emerges before passing judgment on the process and on Smith’s motivations.

As for the political question: Is Shap Smith running for governor? I don’t know. And at this point, he probably doesn’t either. But he’s certainly developing relationships and laying the groundwork for a future run, should he decide to do so.

Same song, different verse

Hey, who switched the teleprompter to Español?

Hey, who switched the teleprompter to Español?

Reactions to the Governor’s budget address…

First, I hope the Republicans are happy. Last week they complained about a lack of attention to some major issues. Today they got a whopping hour and fifteen minutes. Be careful what you wish for.

This speech followed Shumlin’s usual pattern. There’s a whole lot of incrementalism — small, inexpensive approaches to big challenges — and, to spice things up, a handful of bigger proposals almost certain to go nowhere. It strikes many observers as a deliberate tactic: offer an unpalatable solution, and force the legislature to find an alternative. Example from a previous year: his plan for a major cut to the Earned Income Tax Credit.

I’ll give him credit, he’s very good at incrementalism. He finds modest improvements that don’t cost much, if anything. In today’s speech, he was constantly talking of leveraging federal funds, private-sector participation, and partnerships with entities of all sorts. A classic example: his plan to offer “motivated high school seniors” a free two-year Associates’ Degree in engineering technology “with no additional cost to the Education Fund.”

The plan involves the state Agency of Education and participating employers identifying students, and leveraging existing programs plus employer contributions to get them free tuition and a summer internship if they stay and work in Vermont after graduation.

It’s classic Shumlin. It sounds good, it will actually help some people, it’s cheap, and it can be effective as far as it goes.

But it doesn’t touch on the underlying problems: high college costs and stagnant earnings for all but the very wealthy. Even if the incremental stuff works, it seems like small potatoes for those of us who vote Democratic.

How big is the budget gap? It's soooooo big.

How big is the budget gap? It’s soooooo big.

Then there’s the other thing we get: the “big idea” that probably won’t go anywhere. I could mention a few; the double ban on teacher strikes and contract impositions, giving power to the state school board to close schools that fail to meet spending or achievement targets, the payroll tax increase to fund better Medicaid reimbursement.

Indeed, his entire education package seems designed for rejection. For one thing, it seems to do nothing to immediately mitigate rising property taxes. That’ll be lawmakers’ top priority, after last year’s election.

Shumlin’s broader reforms are an odd mix of distant and scary. Neither the teachers’ unions nor the school boards are likely to accede quietly to a plan that will strip them of their ultimate bargaining chips. The idea of eliminating “contradictory incentives” like the small schools grant may be good ideas, but they’ll be tough to support for lawmakers with small school in their districts.

Finally, the idea of Agency of Education “evaluation teams” going into every school to measure achievement and spending performance — with those who fail to meet benchmarks in line for state funding cuts or even closure — is DOA. It’s mandatory consolidation and top-down control via carrot and stick, rather than direct mandate. Kinda the worst of both worlds; no immediate impact, and a whole lot of state interference (as it will be perceived) in local decision-making.

He calls it a “partnership,” but one partner has the ultimate power.

If you think I’m too gloomy on Shumlin’s prospects, just take a look at this reaction statement from House Speaker Shap Smith:

…the Governor acknowledged Vermonters’ concerns about the unsustainable cost of health care, burdensome property tax increases, and the need to clean up our waterways. …I look forward to working with the Administration to make Vermont the best possibly place to work and live, and one that provides opportunity for all Vermonters.

He applauds the Governor for addressing the big issues — but not a peep about the Governor’s proposals. I expect lawmakers to consider Shumlin’s ideas, but he won’t get priority over others’ ideas.

This is all part of the game, as it has been since Shumlin took office. It’ll be even more so after an election that was largely a personal rebuke of the Governor, not the Democrats.

His budget message was a starting point. From here on, it’s a matter of top lawmakers devising proposals of their own that they can convince Shumlin to support.

Multimedia note: if the photos seem a bit blurry, it’s because they’re screengrabs from the Vermont PBS livestream. Workin’ from home today. 

The Shumlin conundrum

(Say it five times fast.)

Governor Shumlin delivered brief remarks to the House and Senate Democratic caucuses on Saturday. His message, basically: we’ve got big problems to deal with and no money, so let’s dig in and get going!

I can imagine him in a past existence, being a life coach for Roman gladiators.

He appeared in his Airwolf jacket, fresh off a helicopter (or, as he put it, “chopper,” what a man) tour of storm-damaged Vermont. Which caused much speculation on Press Row about who paid for the overflight.

The Shumlin Tour. Not exactly as pictured.

The Shumlin Tour. Not exactly as pictured.

Said speculation didn’t make it to their reports, and the stunt had its desired effect: lots of coverage on the teevee news, with the governor looking both manly and concerned.

Naturally he didn’t have time to change out of his flight gear before the caucuses, hahaha. Really, anybody weighing less than four bills could change clothes in the back of that Yukon SUV he rides around in.

He did use his chopper tour to make a pitch for his renewable energy agenda — “we didn’t use to see storms like this,” but now we got global warming. And then he turned to a series of talking points we can expect to hear again and again in the new year, all designed to diminish expectations and/or dash hopes.

He didn’t use Phil Scott’s phrase “affordability agenda,” but the substance seemed awfully similar. Vermonters are frustrated that their purchasing power is stagnant while costs (and property taxes) are rising.  State spending has to be reined in.

When he took office, he said, economists were forecasting a post-Recession return to 5% annual growth in the Northeast. Turns out, it’s more like 3%, and is likely to stay there for quite some time. But state spending was built on that 5% projection, and that’s led us to our current fiscal mess.

Stringfellow Hawke explains it all. (As the hand of VPR's Peter Hirschfeld gamely tries to keep a microphone within range.)

Stringfellow Hawke explains it all. (As the hand of VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld gamely tries to keep a microphone within range.)

The $100 million shortfall in next year’s budget, he said, is real. We’ve used up the federal recovery money and the one-time funds to balance past budgets. Now, “we’ve got to make tough choices.” We’ve got to bring down growth in state spending to match that seemingly endless 3% growth rate. Thus, he said, “anyone asking for more money had better think twice.”

He made a progressive plaint about the growing income gap between the very rich and the rest of us. He did not, however, connect the dots between that phenomenon and Vermont’s underperforming income tax revenues.

And he certainly did not connect the dots to a quirk in our current tax system that has an official top tax rate of 8.95%, which seems quite high — but the rate that top earners actually pay is not 8.95%, but 5.2%. Furthermore, if you add up all state and local taxes, it turns out that the top 20% pay a lower share of their income than the other 80%, and the top 1% pay the lowest share of them all. (Figures from the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.)

When I connect those dots, I think we ought to resurrect a bill that almost passed the House two years ago. It would have shifted more of the tax burden upward, and given modest tax cuts to middle and lower-tier working Vermonters. That bill died a sudden death because of Shumlin’s steadfast opposition.

So when he starts talking about income inequality, he needs to talk about our tax policy as well. Because these days, that’s where the money is. And our top earners are doing extremely well, thank you very much. They can pay their share.

Shumlin also rolled out his school funding argument: Our schools would perform better for less money if there was some kind of consolidation. Because studies show that very small class sizes are just as harmful to achievement as very large class sizes. So we’ve got to embiggen our schools, not to save money (although we would), but for the sake of the children.

Awww.

Surprisingly, there was no mention of single payer health care — or the slightly watered-down “universal health care” — except for a brief mention, in his Cavalcade of Calamities, of unacceptably fast-rising health care costs.

Okay, some realities of my own. I accept the notion that slow growth means an extremely tight state budget, and that we cannot tax our way out of it. We should tweak the tax system to make it more equitable, but that’s not going to bring in much money. We’ll need to make government more efficient if we want to preserve the level of services we’ve come to expect.

I believe that the number-one thing Governor Shumlin needs to do to restore his standing with voters is to re-establish his reputation for good governance. The policies, and I say this as a devout liberal with strong policy positions, are kind of secondary.

Shumlin gained a strong managerial reputation during the Irene recovery. He pretty much blew it in his second term, with the continuing difficulties of Vermont Health Connect, the problems in the Agency of Human Services, and all the budget shortfalls. If he can make state government work effectively, he’ll win back a lot of voters.

And this will be his biggest administrative challenge, not Irene. Authentic crises are difficult, but they get the adrenalin flowing, and everybody puts aside their differences and pitches in. Maintaining the day-to-day operation of a big bureaucracy is harder. It’s an unending slog. It challenges established procedures, and if there’s one thing we Vermonters love, it’s doing things the way we’ve always done them.

As a liberal, I expect to be disappointed repeatedly by Shumlin in the next two years. Clearly, between the realities of the fiscal situation and his own political instincts, there’s going to be a lot of governing from the center. Or even center-right. But if he can govern effectively… if he can actually create new efficiencies, saving money while maintaining services… he will restore his political reputation.

Is he up to that challenge? Two years ago I would have said a resounding “Yes.” Now, I’m not so sure. Flight jacket notwithstanding.

Neale Lunderville, the shiniest bauble on the public policy tree

Oh, those darn Democrats. They just can’t seem to resist the dubious charms of former Douglas Administration functionary (and campaign hatchet-man, lest we forget, and I bet Doug Racine hasn’t) Neale Lunderville.

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Mmmm, what should I take over next?

Back in 2011-12, Lunderville started his run as the Dems’ unlikely go-to guy when he served as Governor Shumlin’s Irene Recovery Czar. This summer, he added another layer of plausible nonpartisanship as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger’s choice to be interim head of the Burlington Electric Department, tasked with undertaking a “strategic review” of the organization.

Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone outside of the State House inner circle, Lunderville had already scored a public-policy bingo with his appointment to a not-quite-secret committee tasked with nothing less than crafting an overhaul of Vermont’s public education system. VPR’s Peter Hirschfeld got the goods:

The group isn’t a legislative committee per se – not too many people even know it exists. But members of Smith’s education reform group have been getting together since after the close of the 2014 legislative session. And by year’s end, Smith says he hopes they’ll deliver the policy recommendations that will serve as the basis for an overhaul of the state’s education system.

… He says the advance work being done by the group will give lawmakers the early start they need to get a meaningful bill across the finish line.

The committee is dominated by current and former state lawmakers, most of them Democrats, but also including a couple of Republicans, one former Republican turned independent (Oliver Olsen), one Progressive, and Our Man Neale.

Which makes me again raise the question, Can’t the Democrats find anybody else to take on tough policy challenges? Why do they have to depend on a guy who cut his teeth running the dark side of Jim Douglas’ political operation?

And, especially, why in the Blue Hell do they insist on burnishing the credentials of a guy who might very well be the Republican candidate for Governor in 2016 or 2018?

Ulp. Pardon me for a moment…

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 9.10.59 AM

Whew. That’s better. Now, where was i?

Oh yes. Aside from Lunderville’s presence, the committee’s almost total secrecy has to be a concern.

The group’s meetings aren’t warned or open to the public, and minutes aren’t recorded. Smith says the off-the-books arrangement is needed to help members of the group feel more “free” to brainstorm different approaches.

So I guess the fact that this isn’t an official committee exempts it from open-meetings and public-records laws — kinda like Dick Cheney’s infamous energy policy committee. But if the group manages to complete its task, it might well be the most powerful committee in the legislature (even if it no longer exists when the legislature comes back to work). It’ll effectively set the school-reform agenda for the lawmakers who actually have to do their business, inconveniently enough, under the public eye.

Three other things you should know:

— According to one member, the committee is focusing on student-to-teacher ratio. Which might mean mandatory minimum class sizes, or even forced school consolidation.

— Lunderville seems to favor centralizing budgetary authority, which he advocates under the guise of allowing local officials to “devote attention where it belongs: student learning.” Their ability to do anything about student learning without the power of the purse would be sharply constrained, of course. Lunderville would like to “go to more of a model like the state has, where there’s one agency, one department on a regional or state level handling those.” Which would be kind of a radical move.

— Finally, as Hirschfeld reports at the top of his story, “public education – not single-payer health care – will be top of mind for House lawmakers.” Not good news for Governor Shumlin, who continues to insist that single-payer is Job One in the new biennium.