Rep. Anne Donahue
March 8, 2015
Having a week away from the legislature at about the halfway point of the session gives a window to look at issues not immediately in front of one’s own committee. We will soon begin to spend more time voting on bills on the House floor, and less time deeply submerged in our committee specialty areas.
The biggest task – always our most significant responsibility – is establishing the state’s budget, and it remains hard to predict how this year’s $112 million deficit will be addressed.
I do want to correct myself from my last update. I passed along misinformation stating that there was an added hole of $16 million due to increased Medicaid enrollment. That hole is, in fact, part of the $112 million. It was confusing because it is a hole that the Governor’s budget proposes to fill as part of a .7 percent payroll tax in a separate package that also adds new health care spending.
Beyond that, however, are dozens of other issues and challenges: the education fund and property taxes, addressing child protection services, gun control proposals, and the sugar-added beverage tax, to pick only a few.
Education. Just before the break, the House Education Committee put forward its reform bill. It does not propose radical change to our current combination property tax-income tax funding mechanism. It does put more pressure towards creating larger school districts, although the debate continues over whether this is important to either quality or cost containment or both.
The key language is the requirement that towns develop “integrated education systems” that include an average daily membership of at least 1,100 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade by 2019 unless granted a waiver by the State Board of Education.
To put those numbers in perspective for our area, the current Washington South Supervisory Union (Northfield and Roxbury) has about 650 students: too small. Washington Central (Berlin, East Montpelier, Worcester, Calais and Middlesex) has 1,490: just fine.
Who might Northfield be able to partner with? Montpelier is growing and expects to reach about 1,000 students by 2019. Williamstown currently has about 550 students.
This is not a proposal that would mean closing schools, but a single governance structure would be making those decisions. Are Northfield or Williamstown students best served by their current high schools that may be more limited in what they offer based on size? If these discussions move to real-life, there will be a lot to consider.
As far as budgets go, the state legislature likes to point to local town decisions, but your school boards – your neighbors – are the ones trying to keep those numbers as low as possible. There aren’t a lot of people willing to take on that tough job, as board vacancies attest. Changing the funding system to make voters “see the connection” between their vote and their taxes won’t necessarily reduce costs.
That’s partly because local taxes can get driven up because other town budgets increase. That is a part of the system that has to be built in in some way because of the need for equity in education: poorer towns can’t be left with inadequate budgets, so we must have a statewide component.
Yet unless budgets change, reducing property taxes only means increasing other taxes, and most Vermonters are already paying based upon income.
The House bill shows no real appetite for a radical revision to the current system. So that’s my not-very-optimistic, but trying-to-be-honest, appraisal of the prospects for any major changes in education funding this year.
Child Protection. There has been a great deal of legitimate concern over the deaths of two toddlers last year whose families already had involvement in our state child protection services. A special legislative committee took testimony last summer and fall, and came back armed with proposals to improve our laws.
I am always a bit fearful of “reactionary” bills: those we pass after something bad happens. They run the risk of over-responding to a narrow issue, and creating unanticipated new problems. We do not live in a perfect world, and sometimes bad things do happen that, when we try to fix them, we make worse.
A frequent comment last year was that Vermont had gotten “out of balance” in the challenge of weighing parent’s rights against what is in a child’s best interests. The data don’t necessarily bear that up: our rate of termination of parental rights of children ages 0-3 is in the top five states in the nation.
The Senate has now passed S. 9, and the House Judiciary and Human Services Committees will be taking it up. Most of the bill includes solid, practical steps to increase the sharing of information and the ability to intervene appropriately.
I do have concern with some changes in language, and hope the House will scrutinize it carefully. Physical injury has been redefined to mean “any impairment of physical condition by other than accidental means.” (Any? What does that mean?)
Risk of harm now includes “leaving a child without developmentally appropriate supervision.” (“Developmentally appropriate”? How is a parent supposed to interpret that?)
“Sexual abuse” has been clarified to be identified as behavior defined in our criminal laws, but includes behavior that “constitutes a potential violation” of those laws. (What is a “potential violation”?)
In our important desire to protect children, I fear that we sometimes forget that removing a child from his or her home can itself be extremely traumatic to a child. I am not weighing parents’ rights in looking at this balancing. I am weighing the right of a child to be protected from over-zealous interference from the state.
It also matters what we offer a child as the alternative. We know it is damaging to children to bounce them from one home to another. In Vermont, 24 percent of children are moved three or more times in the first 12 months of foster care, compared to an average of 14 percent among other New England states.
So this bill needs careful monitoring.
Gun Control Proposals. The very controversial universal background check provision that would have affected private sales has been declared dead in the Senate, but two other provisions in the bill remain under consideration.
One creates a parallel state crime to federal law for gun possession by a person with a violent felony record (federal law is for any felony). The other requires reporting the names of persons who are court-committed for mental health treatment (outpatient or inpatient) to the federal data base. (Under federal law, such persons may not possess or be sold guns.)
Both of these, on the surface, sound completely reasonable; both require digging deeper. Do we actually have a problem?
On average, among all deaths from gun violence in the state (about 50 per year), three percent are accidental, seven percent are homicide, and ninety percent are from suicide. The suicide data is not new to me. Counting all means of suicide, we lose almost 100 Vermonters every year. This far more than motor vehicle deaths and includes many young Vermonters, and yet with much less effort invested in prevention.
Providing names to the data base doesn’t address that; it addresses only the fear of a higher risk of violence to others, which is actually almost statistically nil. It also only addresses persons who have received treatment, rather than those who may be at higher risk because they have not.
Most solutions that appear simple, are not.
The Sugar-Added Beverage Tax. Not diet soda, but yes, sports drinks. (Remember the old days, when we were being warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners in diet beverages?)
What is the motivation here? It depends on who you ask: a “sin tax” (like alcohol) that raises revenue by taxing something that you don’t need and is bad for you; or public health initiative that aims to promote healthy behavior (like cigarette taxes) and raises money as a side benefit.
From a health perspective, there is little doubt that we take in far too much sugar and it is hurting our health, which hurts all of us by helping to drive up health care costs. Drinks are hardly the only source of sugar. It’s hard to find a loaf of bread to buy that doesn’t have added sugar. But they are the most visible and concentrated part of the sugar-added market.
This is a big tax: two cents per ounce is 64 cents for a 32 ounce bottle of soda. It really is intended to try to change behavior. And no one has to pay the tax if they don’t want to: just don’t buy the stuff. If there are going to be new taxes of some sort voted in as part of filling the budget gap, that may make this one less offensive than others.
Is this an appropriate role for government, to not just educate, but try to force us to be healthier? Is mandatory exercise next? (Except that I gave up my prime source of physical activity, downhill skiing, because I was running up health care system costs with my propensity for injuries.)
I’m actually somewhat split on this one, and would welcome constituent feedback.
Please always feel free to share your opinions on this or other topics before the legislature. You can leave a message at any time by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (485-6431) or at the state house (828-2228.) My updates can be found at www.representativeannedonahue.blogspot.com