Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin and Gov. Phil Scott
In his first public remarks about the school funding plan unveiled by his administration this week, Gov. Phil Scott on Thursday urged lawmakers to "take the time" to fully consider his plan, despite the fact that he waited until very near the end of the session — and talked of finding common ground with lawmakers, even as he stood firm on his goal of preventing any increase in property tax rates.
And he made what's sure to be an unpopular suggestion with lawmakers: that the legislature extend its session through the month of May and into June, if necessary, to finish work on his proposal. How unpopular might it be? During a Tuesday hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Kurt Wright (R-Burlington) suggested extending the session by a week or two. Before he could finish his sentence, he was drowned out by a chorus of groans from his colleagues.
"I think we should take the time needed to make sure we're comfortable with this," Scott said. "I've been here in this building at times into mid-June ... We have an issue in front of us that we need to address."
Failing that, Scott suggested sending most of the legislature home and keeping the key committees in the Statehouse to work through the plan. "It's just a question of managing the issues and the people, as well," he said.
Which is easy for the administration to say — they're all year-round employees. For part-time lawmakers, many of them holding full-time jobs, the uncertainty around adjournment is wearing. Just ask candidate Phil Scott, who argued that lengthy sessions make it harder for citizen lawmakers to serve.
Adjournment had been expected at the end of next week. If the session is extended, it would be the second year in a row that a last-minute proposal from the administration forced the House and Senate into overtime.
Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin noted that some aspects of Scott's plan are "in motion already," and offered that "We've done a great deal of work, and we're ready to join with others who would like to work with us."
Scott's plan calls for borrowing $58 million from other state government sources in order to keep the property tax rate from increasing. The money would be paid back over five years, thanks to savings from his school finance reform ideas, including: a gradual reduction in school staffing through attrition, lower thresholds for excess education spending (districts that spend more would have to pay a tax penalty) and a reduction in the homestead property tax benefit for homes purchased after July 1.
Even as he called for lawmakers to work with him, Scott stood firm on his demand for the full $58 million needed to level out the property tax rate. When asked how that constitutes compromise, he said, "We [would] budge on the [five-year savings] plan, but not on the $58 million," and then noted that lawmakers "weren't elected to raise taxes."
The governor's remarks will do little to soothe tensions around the Statehouse, and his limited definition of "compromise" will make it harder for the two sides to work together and find common ground.
"We'll get through this," Scott concluded.
Indeed, we will. At the very least, the two branches have to agree on taxes and spending before July 1. But it looks like a long, bumpy ride between now and then.