MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Democratic-controlled House on Friday held a midnight session and passed education spending cap changes that few lawmakers had time to review or understand.
After a day of dueling procedural moves, representatives at about 1 a.m. Saturday voted 92-32 to radically alter spending thresholds passed last year to restrict education spending to 2 percent growth annually.
The vote capped off a week of dizzying revisions to S.233, a bill that began in the Senate as a full repeal and ended with a compromise that provides little relief for taxpayers.
Chaos reigned for most of Friday’s session. Throughout the day, Republicans battled for the right to know what they were voting on and how it would impact towns. They were joined by enough Independent and Democrat stragglers to keep the bill off the floor all day.
The session’s day-long conflict began with a single question: “Shall the House suspend its rules to take up S.233 for immediate action?”
The question was put to lawmakers because revisions approved by the Senate on Thursday came so late that the bill didn’t have time to be scheduled for action on the House floor, and needed approval to come off the notice calendar.
That’s when sparks began to fly.
Republican lawmakers, joined by some Independents and Democrats, wanted to know what they were voting on. Instead of getting rolled by the Democratic leadership, the group banded together and voted 96-48 to stop the bill from coming to the floor.
The verbal sparring that ensued centered not on particulars of the bill, but on the principle that legislators ought to know what they’re voting for before they vote.
“Legislating on the fly does a disservice to the process and to the voters who sent me here,” state Rep. Paul Dame, a Republican from Essex Junction, said on the House floor. “My vote supports thoughtful considerate deliberations after speaking to the people who they will affect.”
He added, “Many of us have not had an opportunity to understand the change or to talk to the people who it will affect.”
But state Rep. Sandy Haas, a Democrat from Rochester, favored passing something fast to provide certainty for school districts.
“It’s a sad day when we cannot move forward to give our local school boards the certainty they need to plan and budget for the next year,” she said. “Delaying consideration of this bill until next week is very unlikely to change the ultimate outcome of a vote on the Senate proposal.”
After a recess for party caucus meetings, House Speaker Shap Smith tried a second time to get the bill to the floor. The outcome was the same: the motion failed by a 94-48 vote.
This time state Rep. Anne B. Donahue, a Republican from Northfield, stood up to rebuke colleagues.
“I have stood on this floor many times in the past in support of the right of our constituents to informed votes by their legislators,” she said. “This vote would have us violate our normal process for legislation over the objection of legislators who want more than a mere few hours of rushed consideration of new language on a complex financing mechanism. That is wrong.”
State Rep. David Sharpe, a Democrat from Bristol, and the chair of the House Education Committee, expressed frustration over the delay and urged fast passage.
“School boards need clarity, and they need it now because Sunday is the day that warnings must be posted. We had a significant compromise with the Senate that I was willing to explain on the floor, (that) I was willing to explain in caucuses,” he said.
When Sharpe proceeded to explain the bill that was not on the floor for debate, Minority Leader Don Turner, a Republican from Milton, moved for a point of order to stop him. “It seems the member is debating a bill that is not on the floor for action,” Turner objected.
When House Speaker Smith overruled Turner, Sharpe said the House must pass the bill “for Vermont’s children.”
“I find it extraordinarily frustrating that our House Education Committee met from the moment we walked on this floor … trying to do what’s best for Vermont’s children — they’re our precious future in this state,” he said. “We need to do whatever we can to make sure that their education is equitable, has quality and is at an expense that taxpayers can afford.”
After additional procedural maneuvers failed to get the bill to the floor, leadership resorted to a nuclear option: they scheduled the bill for 12:01 a.m. About 90 minutes after midnight, the majority party rammed the legislation through.
How lawmakers tweaked the cap during the week
The frustration on all sides largely was due to the complexities of Act 46 and its allowable growth percentage — the so-called spending cap.
The Legislature created and passed the AGP last year to limit statewide education spending growth to 2 percent. But after an unforeseen 7.9 percent increase in health care costs pushed many districts to exceed their spending thresholds, the House Education Committee began working on a plan to adjust the caps.
That plan, finalized in committee last week and approved by the full House on Wednesday, raises every district’s allowable growth percentage by 0.9 percent. In addition, it reduced the penalty for exceeding spending limits from a dollar-per-dollar to 25 cents per dollar. It also remedies a spending threshold error by allowing districts to use whichever calculation results in a lower homestead tax rate.
Those tweaks grew even more confusing on Thursday when the Senate amended the bill further, striking a compromise between the House’s version and a full repeal. Senators eliminated the penalty for districts spending less than the 2016 statewide average per pupil cost ($14,095), and they raised the penalty for above-average-spending districts from 25 cents to 40 cents on every dollar spent above per pupil thresholds. They also voted to return to the old excess spending thresholds of Act 68 in fiscal year 2018.
The combined result is bad news for taxpayers. According to a Joint Fiscal Office estimate released Wednesday, the House changes passed on Wednesday would increase Vermont’s homestead property tax rate 2 cents, from $1.52 to $1.54 per $100 of assessed property value. While no estimate was released for the Senate-amended version as of Thursday, the House Committee on Ways and Means voted narrowly to support it. The vote was 5-4-2 in favor of the Senate changes.
“The concern was that people wanted it to affect all the towns,” state Rep. Patricia Komline, a Republican from Dorset, told Vermont Watchdog. “We discussed an amendment where the below-average spenders would also pay a rate but the penalty would be a less percentage than the above-average spenders. There was a lot of interest in that, but at this point this thing has been played out.”
Komline, a member of the Ways and Means Committee who voted no, said other cap problems surfaced in committee.
“It was hard to justify that a town like Weybridge is allowed to be spending $20,200 with no penalty, and the town of Franklin, which spent over $11,800, they’re going to get a penalty.”
She said Act 46 has become too complex for lawmakers to understand.
“Act 46 was placed on top of the crumbling foundation of Act 60 and Act 68, and this is the result. People do not understand what we’re doing, and they don’t understand the results of what we’re doing. Every step we take is so convoluted, and it’s got all these consequences that we can no longer foresee in this building.”
State Rep. Christopher Pearson, a Progressive from Burlington, said the midnight vote was both right and necessary.
“Town clerks need to warn their town meetings by Sunday — it’s the law, so that’s the hurry,” he said. “The Republican Caucus a week ago expressed a lot of urgency on this, and two days ago expressed a lot of urgency — enough to suspend the rules to move the bill quickly. And now they have changed their mind.”
Pearson, who voted yes, said he wanted full repeal but was happy with a compromise because the caps were working.
“I’ve opposed the idea of these thresholds, but they have effectively kept increases at bay. So, it has worked, if that was the goal. I believe you’ll see school spending not grow by much for 2017 budgets.”
According to Pearson, cost containment belongs in the hands of local voters and school boards who have the ability to vote down budgets on Town Meeting Day.
Komline agreed. “It’s a local control issue. When you’re trying to treat all these schools under the same restrictions, you can’t, and that’s the funding formula. We need to be focused on changing the funding and going back more to local control.”
Dame, who also voted no, said school budgets are already finalized, and so voting at midnight was unnecessary and expensive.
“The cost of having an extra day in the Legislature is somewhere around $25,000. Our per diems are $74 per day, so every single member is going to get that, plus mileage or folks having to spend the night — that’s $100 per night.”
State Rep. Vicki Strong, a Republican representing Albany, said the rush to pass something comes with a price. “The Democrats wanted us to believe it’s a crisis that we have to get this done, and meanwhile we’re like, ‘Well, how can we vote on something we don’t understand completely or even know how it will affect each of our districts?'”
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]