Commentary: Legislative Preview for 2024

The 2024 Vermont legislature will convene a month from now and its members will have to laser focus on the shocking increase projected for education spending.

On November 30 Commissioner of Taxes Craig Bolio delivered the projected education tax rates for FY2025. Despite the use of unallocated funds from previous years ($215 million) , he projects that next year’s spending will cause an average increase of 18.5% in education tax liabilities.

That projection is an unprecedented 12. 01% rate of spending over this year’s. Average per pupil spending is projected to increase by 12.8% (to $22,953) - while the number of pupils will keep sliding down, from 84,009 to 83,433.

Commissioner Bolio explains why this is happening. Many districts committed the fiscal sin of funding new services and personnel with one-time Federal money. With those funds disappearing, those districts are now looking to their taxpayers to support the expansion.

In addition, dollar depreciation caused by Federal government deficit spending explains a 16% increase in dollars needed to cover health benefit costs, and corresponding increases in everything school districts buy – electricity, buses, equipment, and supplies. Concludes the Commissioner: “The current trend of increasingly large spending growth while revenues cool is not sustainable.”

Gov. Scott strongly agrees: “Vermont’s tax burden is already, unfortunately, among the highest in the country, and families are bearing an incredible burden with increased costs of living across the board, including new and higher taxes and fees imposed by the Legislature. Put simply, a nearly 20% property tax increase would hurt Vermonters and our economy, and we cannot let it happen.”

And how, exactly, can it be prevented from happening? Barring more inflation-driving largesse from Washington, the stark choices are for the legislature to shift revenues from other programs, or to force districts to curb spending, or for the state or the districts to raise taxes.

Last year the Democratic super-majority was eager to enact a Child Care Financial Assistance Program and a generous Family Leave program. House Ways and Means Chair Emilie Kornheiser boldly declared that “We can’t afford not to do both of them.” However, the former bill was enacted with 0.44% payroll tax funding and a FY2025 price tag of $82 million, rising every year. The latter bill was passed but set aside in the Senate, from which it may yet emerge.

In 2020, over Gov. Scott’s veto, the legislature amended the Global Warming Solutions Act to set in stone the levels of carbon dioxide Vermonters will be allowed to emit from now to 2050. The government is charged with driving those emissions down from approximately 8 million metric tonnesCO2 emitted today to 1.73 in 2050.

            The first big thrust by the Vermont Climate Council to comply with the GWSA was enactment of the so-called Affordable Heat Act (S.5), also over a Scott veto, When finalized in 2025, the act will in effect levy a tax on heating oil, natural gas, propane and kerosene to make those fuels less affordable, and use the money collected to subsidize electric heat pumps, “advanced wood heat”, and other activities favored by the climate warriors.

With the Clean Heat Standard under construction at the PUC, the Climate Council is now seeking money to pay somebody to design a similar scheme to drive up the price of gasoline and on-road diesel fuels, to get people out of their cars and trucks. Rep. Mollie Burke wants to put a “gas guzzler” surtax on low miles per gallon SUVs and pickups. Sen. Tom Chittenden wants a surcharge on private car registrations to make them more expensive, and to subsidize public bus service.

These mandated sacrifices on the Climate Council’s agenda won’t have any detectable effect on Earth’s climate, but will have a serious negative effect on Vermont’s affordability. These climate warriors need to reread Speaker Jill Krowinski’s August letter to the Climate Council, saying in effect that unpopular schemes to drive down carbon emissions are less important now than promoting “adaptation and resilience” to mitigate weather calamities. (Her statement at the December 1 legislative briefing suggests pushback from the climate warriors to elevate the importance of their yearned-for carbon taxes to reduce emissions).

Another important issue is protecting – or exterminating – tuition town parents’ choice to send their kids to independent schools, with the competition-fearing public school establishment lobbying for extermination. Other high level issues are expanding the housing supply, facing up to the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness, and reversing Vermont’s alarming descent into street crime, burglary, drug violence, and retail theft, that ominously presages social disintegration.

The governor is certainly serious about dealing with these serious problems. The legislature needs to work with him to do things that are sensible, effective and affordable, instead of pushing for more government programs, higher burdens on taxpayers, and worthless feel-good virtue signaling.

John McClaughry writes for the Ethan Allen Institute.


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