In show of unusual bipartisan bonhomie, House unanimously approves property tax changes

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, photo by Josh Larkin.

It isn’t too often that the Dems and the GOP perfectly align. But political synchronicity occurred on Friday over an issue that the two parties typically clash over — property taxes.

Rep. Oliver Olsen, R-Jamaica, was irritated by a decision the Dems made last year to “rebase” the General Fund transfer to the Education Fund in a section of the budget bill.

The provision eliminated the inflationary increases in the transfer over a three year period. Instead of transferring $309 million from the General Fund to the Ed Fund this year, including inflationary increases, the transfer will be $282 million.

The upshot? $27.5 million, or about 3 cents per $100 of property value, has been shifted onto the local property tax rate.

Olsen, a member of the Ways and Means Committee, scored a victory on Friday when Dems unanimously supported his novel proposal to put 50 percent of any surplus (after the stabilization fund has been filled) toward the General Fund transfer to the Ed Fund, and more money into the per pupil funding formula. This mechanism would remain in place until the transfer and the formula have caught up with inflation. The Joint Fiscal Office would be required to issue a report on the plan every year.

Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilimington, who has worked closely with Olsen on post-Irene issues, stood with him before the Democratic caucus in support of the measure.
Manwaring, who serves on House Appropriations, said the legislature needs to reaffirm its support of the original structure of Act 68, the state’s education finance law. “We are committed to containing property taxes in the same way we are containing sales and income taxes,” Manwaring said.

The change doesn’t guarantee that the General Fund transfer or per pupil base will be substantially higher any time soon. As several lawmakers pointed out, it could be several years before the state’s economy recovers from the Great Recession.

The amendment passed 138 to 0.

New positions drive a wedge between lawmakers

The property tax deal, however, didn’t allay deep misgivings among GOP legislators over the biggest change in the Budget Adjustment Act — the inclusion of 49 new positions for four different departments.

The Shumlin administration asked for new social workers, temporary hires for the Agency of Transportation, and Medicaid analysts and chronic care initiative workers. The GOP opposed the new positions on the grounds that the Shumlin administration was growing state government.

Rep. Mark Higley, R-Lowell, argued that the administration should only hire the 21 transportation workers, who are needed to help manage projects related to Tropical Storm Irene. In an amendment, he proposed cutting the other positions in the Department of Vermont Health Access, the Department of Public Safety’s DUI datamaster program and the Department of Children and Families (9 social workers to provide case management services by children who are in state custody). Higley said the Shumlin administration could add those jobs to the Big Bill.

“A lot of us aren’t aware whether a lot of these positions are needed and the process should be through the 2013 budget,” Higley said.

Normally, the positions would have come from the “position pool,” according to Rep. Martha Heath, D-Westford, chair of House Appropriations. This repository for vacant jobs in state government, however, had been eliminated by the Douglas administration after the state workforce had been reduced by about 10 percent. Once vacancies of a year or more are added to the pool, the positions can be reclassified.

The Higley amendment failed.

Increase in state liability fund nixed

Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, floated an amendment to increase the state liability fund — a set aside for extraneous legal costs associated with the Vermont Attorney General’s recent defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court case on data mining. The budget adjustment act includes $3 million to cover legal fees associated with the case.

Hebert asked the House to consider adding $7 million to cover the cost of an appeal of U.S. District Court Judge Garvan Murtha’s ruling last week against the state. The decision allows Entergy Corp. to continue operating the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant in Vernon beyond the plant’s March 21 license expiration date. Attorney General William Sorrell has 30 days to decide whether to appeal.

The Budget Adjustment Act passed 101-37. The vote was split along party lines.

Follow Anne on Twitter @GallowayVTD

Anne GallowayAnne Galloway

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