2021 is a singularly difficult year to be a first-term lawmaker. You can’t get a feel of the place. You can’t have the casual conversations that make life easier. You can’t grab a colleague for a brief word of explanation about something that’s hard to understand.
That said, I have to note a couple of troubling passages in the maiden voyage of Sen. Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden. On two separate occasions last month, he acted less like a senator than like a state representative from a specific community. In hearings on Burlington-area transportation improvements and school funding, he spoke entirely on behalf of his hometown, South Burlington.
On February 19, the Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing (video available here) on potential improvements to I-89 in the Burlington area. Nothing’s happening imminently; the committee and VTrans are looking a few decades into the future, assessing options for handling traffic flows that will almost certainly increase from the already heavy volumes of today.
The committee and a VTrans official discussed options for making the Burlington area interchanges work better. One of the options is a new exit on I-89 at US-116/Hinesburg Road. This hypothetical Exit 12-B would provide a direct pipeline into South Burlington.
Well, Chittenden gave a strong (and rather parochial) endorsement to the 12-B idea.
Hey folks, it’s time for another round of every lawmaker’s least favorite game: Reforming the state’s public school funding system!
This time, lawmakers are considering a 2019 UVM report on “pupil weighting.” Some students tend to cost more to educate, including special needs kids, New Americans and people living in poverty. Vermont weights the pupil count so school funding better reflects the needs of a district’s students. But the 2019 report concluded that Vermont’s current pupil weighting system is so off-kilter that it’s vulnerable to a legal challenge a la the Brigham decision.
(For those just joining us, in 1997 the Vermont Supreme Court ruled that the state is responsible for providing substantially equal educational opportunity to all students. In response, the Legislature adopted Act 60, which established funding and pupil-weighting systems designed to comply with the ruling. That weighting system is still with us today.)
And if there’s anything lawmakers like less than making a tough decision, it’s letting the courts make that decision.
And for his part, Education Secretary Dan French is trying to keep himself and his agency out of the process as much as possible.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate Education and Finance Committees held a joint hearing to take testimony on S.13 — a bill that would require the Education Agency to devise a plan for implementing the report’s recommendations. There was universal agreement that the state needs to do something to make pupil weighting more equitable. And that’s where the universal agreement ended.