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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Vermont Tax Chief Declines to Detail Education Funding Proposal

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2018 at 12:13 PM

click to enlarge The House Ways and Means Committee looks to Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom for answers. - TAYLOR DOBBS
  • Taylor Dobbs
  • The House Ways and Means Committee looks to Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom for answers.
Vermont Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom refused to share the details of Gov. Phil Scott's yet-to-be-announced school funding plan during a hearing Thursday morning before the House committee that oversees tax policy.

House Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel (D-Calais) said the “clock is ticking” on the legislative session, which is expected to last two more weeks. Committee members voiced concern and frustration that the administration has hinted at a comprehensive proposal but provided few details.

“I’d like to know if there is going to be a proposal … to use one-time money,” Ancel told Samsom. “Where would it come from, and how would it be replaced? Those are all things that would affect tax rates.”

Samsom assured the committee that the administration is actively working on it — working so hard that he and Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin have been unable to attend some legislative hearings.

“And you don’t have that [information] now?” Ancel asked.

“I will not share that now,” Samsom replied.

Samsom criticized a House proposal to restructure the way education is funded by raising some money from income taxes in addition to the property taxes that already fund K-12 education. He said that simply “shrouds the problem” and does nothing to control school spending. That legislation, H.911, is currently before the Senate.

Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) said Act 46, a law passed in 2015 to get school districts to save administrative costs by consolidating, is getting results, as evidenced on Town Meeting Day, when voters approved school budgets with “historically low” spending growth.

“What we are doing seems to be actually working to control the costs,” Till said.

Scott’s demand that the state take additional measures to stem school spending has spurred frustration within the education system. The chair of the State Board of Education told Seven Days that factored into education secretary Rebecca Holcombe’s sudden resignation April 1.

Samsom refused to say exactly how the administration proposes to cover a shortfall in education next year that legislative analysts estimate to be $58 million.

“I just want to be clear about what you couldn’t share,” said Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington). He went on to ask whether Samsom was refusing to provide details about the source of one-time funds that the administration plans to use to cover the funding gap or about its proposal for tax penalties on districts with below-target student-to-staff ratios.

“I would say both,” Samsom said.

When Rep. Gabrielle Lucke (D-White River Junction) asked Samsom if the administration’s proposal would affect the state’s practice of transferring money from the general fund into the education fund, Samsom refused to answer.

“No comment,” he said.

Samsom argued that the administration’s idea to limit student-to-staff ratios wasn’t new. He said it was in a “menu” of options the administration presented in a January 18 memo to lawmakers.

In an interview with Seven Days, Ancel said she invited Samsom to testify with the hope of avoiding a repeat of last year’s stalemate over education funding, but she said that would require a proposal with details, not “ideas.” She said the January memo was not a proposal.

“[I]deas are just that,” she said, “just sort of throwing a whole bunch of things up against the wall and seeing what sticks. But the way this building works is, you’ve got to put some detail out there. You’ve got to actually make a proposal, and I don’t believe the administration made proposals.”

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