Act 46 'tweak' passes House after GOP delays vote on spending cap - VTDigger

Act 46 ‘tweak’ passes House after GOP delays vote on spending cap

House Chamber, Vermont Statehouse

House Chamber, Vermont Statehouse. Photo by Roger Crowley/VTDigger

After weeks of wrangling and a bout of midnight madness, the House passed a bill that softens a cap on school spending. They voted 92-32 to approve a measure that gives districts more leeway this year and, as proposed by the Senate, removes the cost containment provision altogether in fiscal year 2018.

House Republicans wanted to keep the caps in place for 2018, while Democrats said they would press for a new piece of legislation to extend the threshold into next year. The Democratic majority feared that if they didn’t move ahead with the Senate version of the bill they wouldn’t pass legislation in time for towns to warn school budgets before Town Meeting Day.

The House ultimately concurred with the Senate compromise, which bumps up every district’s allowable growth by 0.9 percent. Districts that spend $14,095 or less are exempted from the spending thresholds altogether and the Agency of Education will use whichever calculation helps a district stay within spending limits. Penalties will go up from 25 percent of every dollar spent over to 40 percent.

The GOP used the one tool in their tool box on Friday — a monkey wrench — to stave off a vote on the Senate’s modifications to Act 46’s spending thresholds.

Twice Speaker Shap Smith tried to bring the legislation to the floor for immediate consideration Friday, and twice he was defeated because he could not garner the 107 votes needed.

Most of the Republicans were unhappy that the Senate did away with the spending caps in FY18 and many had hoped they could stall the vote until Tuesday so they could speak with their constituents first.

“An accelerated path is ill-advised and side steps deliberation. Today we move to suspend the rules on legislation that happened last night in the Senate after we went home many of us haven’t had time to understand the changes nor talk to the people it would effect,” said Paul Dame, R-Essex.

Paul Dame

Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex. File photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

The rules that guide the legislature require a day to pass between a bill passing in one chamber and being voted on in the other. Enough Republicans voted against suspending the rules that lawmakers had to come back at a minute past midnight to cast their vote.

“The people of Vermont deserve better than this,” said Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, during one of the Democratic caucuses today. When the applause died down he finished, “This is a bunch of procedural nonsense. If we’re going to get the business of the state done we should get the business of the state done.”

Sarah Buxton D-Tunbridge was aghast. “After the full committee consideration, after intensive negotiations resulting in compromise with the other body, we are not ready?”

January 31 is the unofficial deadline for a resolution because that is the last day that most school boards can change their budgets — many of which will be voted on Town Meeting Day.

“Many Vermonters, including school board members, have asked us to revisit this issue and act quickly,” said Sandy Haas, P-Rochester.

Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, chimed in. “Are we really happy to see our communities suffer and squirm while we delay for another weekend?”

Only a few House Republicans felt there was an urgency to vote on Friday.

“School boards have voted on this. The train has left the station — this is not an emergency,” Patricia McCoy R-Pultney said to the Republican caucus.

Last week, some House GOP members used procedure to try and strip a piece out of the House Committee on Education’s spending cap amendment that would allow the Agency of Education to use whichever spending calculation best served a community because they believed there was an urgent need for clarity.

“We owe it to the hard working school boards who did what we asked – who played by the rules – to hold them harmless,” Rep. Paul Dame, R-Essex, said last week. On Friday, the same members of the GOP blocked voting on the Senate’s compromise on S. 233 that contains the very language to do just that.

“Suddenly many who wanted immediate action in order to give timely information to our school districts are now willing to keep them in the dark,” said David Sharpe D-Bristol.

Thursday night, the Senate compromised with the House and backed off a full repeal of the allowable growth percentage and penalties put into Act 46.

“The Senate came an awful long way from 28 to 1 to repeal everything in FY17 and 18. They came and awful long way toward the House proposal,” Sharpe told the House.

The Senate also repealed the AGP for FY18.

Rep. Carolyn Branagan, R-Georgia, planned to introduce an amendment that would put AGP back in for FY18 because she said it would give lawmakers something to work with when rebuilding a cost containment measure.

The amendment failed 37 to 87.

Many Republicans worry that they won’t be able to get it back into the law if they relent.

“We still have to deal with the Senate and it took us till the last day of the last session in conference committee for this proposal- this imperfect proposal to come out,” said Kurt Wright R-Burlington who supports the amendment. “Most of the ‘17 budgets are done so the year in question is the next one and now we are repealing that,” said Wright.

The Ways and Means Committee voted against the amendment.

CORRECTION: The quote “Are we really happy to see our communities suffer and squirm while we delay for another weekend?” was wrongly attributed to Rep. Sandy Haas in the original version of this story. Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, made the statement.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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