A cheeky move by House Republicans appeared to bring an end the impasse over school spending limits on Friday. Dissension over the Act 46 provision has gripped lawmakers since Tuesday when consensus on a House tweak to allowable growth thresholds fell apart and a repeal bill sailed through the Senate.
By lunch time Friday, the repeal bill S.233 was amended by both the House Committee on Education and House Ways and Means. The amendment was a feat that seemed nearly impossible the night before.
But the Speaker’s office disagrees that the Republican’s tactic was what solidified consensus saying that the Education Committee chair worked with lawmakers individually to bring them on board before the House went to the Floor Friday morning. The plan, which will go to the House floor next week, modifies the allowable growth provision for fiscal year 2017 and gives schools more leeway.
House Republicans, in a special caucus on Friday, decided to use a procedural move to get an up or down vote on an amendment offered by Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex Junction.
Dame’s measure would direct the Agency of Education to use whichever per pupil spending threshold – with or without exclusions – most benefits a school district when calculating per pupil spending. It was one of the few amendments to the Senate’s repeal bill that all members of the House Ed panel agreed to.
“Last week the rules suddenly changed for every school district in the state. Last week week we had a bill on the floor that was pulled back into committee,” Dame said. “On this one simple issue, we would move forward with unity,” he said.
The House Education Committee had approved Dame’s amendment and referred to it as “the fix” because it fixes the inaccurate Agency of Education calculations for allowable growth spending thresholds, which included special education and principal and interest for construction costs. Now, each district will be able to use a per pupil spending number that excludes special education costs and construction principal and interest.
A compromise proposal between House Democrats and Republicans now allows growth in health care costs, reduces the fines for any districts exceed spending limits and instructs the Agency of Education to use the school spending calculation that best serves school districts.
Lawmakers hope to provide school boards with greater clarity as they are finalizing FY17 budgets. The proposal would buy more time for both chambers to continue to figure out how to deal with allowable growth percentage and allow those who want to keep the spending threshold in place to vote against the House Ed Committee’s amendment.
“I, for one, want to apologize to the people of Vermont,” said Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe.”I’m going to do that with my vote to ensure that our school boards know they will be held harmless by this. We can work through other modifications later.”
The stealth move by some GOP members forced a 30-minute recess during which time the House Committee on Education met and finally agreed 8-2-1 on an amendment to S.233 that would get rid of the repeal and replace it with the Dame proposal and impose a 0.9 percent increase in the allowable growth percentage for each district backed by Democrats. For schools that spend over the threshold, the tax penalty would be reduced from a dollar-for-dollar penalty to 25 cents on the dollar.
“It keeps the threshold in place. It keeps cost containment in place, that was important for the House Committee on Education and for the House as we go forward,” explained Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, chair of the house ed panel.
When the speaker reconvened the House, Sharpe told members that the committee had an amendment to the Senate’s repeal bill and asked members not to bring forward the Dame amendment for a separate vote, “we would appreciate a no vote.” And he got it – 85 voted to keep the bill moving through committee and 57 – including some members of the House ed panel – voted to pull it and put it to a vote.
After the floor vote, the House Ways and Means Committee voted 9-2-0 in favor of the House Ed Panel’s amendment to the Senate repeal bill. It will now move to the House floor for a vote when lawmakers reconvene on Tuesday.
Rep. Adam Greshin, I-Warren, didn’t vote for the measure because he said the whole process was making a mockery of the work lawmakers invested in Act 46. “I was willing to do everything but the penalty reduction,” Greshin said. “Many school boards made challenging decisions to remain at or below the thresholds and subsequently we’ve reduced the penalty to the point where I think we make the hard work they have done less satisfying.”
Last evening, the House Ed Panel worked through the dinner hour trying to wade through a proposal made to them by a subcommittee pulled together by House Speaker Shap Smith with three members from House Ed and three members from Ways and Means that met privately Wednesday night and most of Thursday. The idea was to put anything and everything on the table, old and new ideas, have frank discussions and try to come to consensus. But it didn’t sit well with several members of both committees.
Most members of the House panel had come to the Statehouse Thursday morning expecting to vote on the amendment to S.233 that they had carefully crafted the previous afternoon and evening. Some members were notably upset by the secretive process that ensued.
“This really turns me off,” said Rep. Kirk Wright, R-Burlington, who is on the ed committee. “I’ve been trying to work with the other side, to the point of upsetting party leadership – and then this?”
On the House Ways and Means panel, Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, was equally frustrated, “Anytime there is a lack of transparency like this it makes you feel like you aren’t listened to.”
Sharpe apologized to his committee Thursday night before pitching the proposal developed by the special subcommittee. “This was not my favorite way of moving forward. The speaker asked for three people from this committee and three from Ways and Means that are from across the spectrum in terms of philosophy and party affiliation to see if we could come to an agreement to bring this committee and the committee next door to an understanding that didn’t lead to a train wreck,” he said.
Since both committees want to look at ways to modify the spending threshold for FY18, several members thought repealing it for a year would make it more difficult to get it back into Act 46.
“If what we do here is not found favorable next door or not found favorable on the floor the next vote is to repeal the thresholds period,” said Sharpe. “While this may seem too soft, it is still too hard for some people who want repeal. No matter what we will never get those votes so in considering votes on the floor, the elimination of low spending towns not only has a foundation in logic -that they are doing what we are asking them to do to keep their spending down – it also has ramifications for votes.”
It isn’t clear how the Senate will view amendments to the repeal bill. Sen. David Zuckerman, P-Chittenden, who introduced S.233 says last minute changes are counterproductive.
“Last year we came up with something at the last minute that had all kinds of unintended consequences. Without hard data and numbers, I’m concerned that any other proposal is going to have unintended consequences,” Zuckerman said.