Act 60 Reform

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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that the Act 60 reform bill that recently passed in the House benefits the few at the expense of the many.

(Gilbert) Forget for a moment about old or new textbooks, decrepit or state-of-the-art school buildings, opportunities for some kids but not for others. Focus for a moment on cold, hard cash.

The late night vote two weeks ago in the House on the Act 60 “reform” bill showed how the few can snooker the many. House Republican leaders convinced a majority of legislators to vote against the financial interests of most of their constituents.

Let me state up front that I strongly support the education equity principles of the Brigham decision. I support Act 60 as the best legislative attempt so far to put those principles to work for kids.

But the House’s Act 60 “reform” bill isn’t about education. It’s about taxes. And it’s a textbook example of the skill of the wealthy in keeping what they’ve got, and making sure that others don’t get more.

Here’s how the House Republican leaders did it. They told their members that there would shortly be mountains of extra cash in the state’s Education Fund. That money, plus an infusion of cash from a gambling game that doesn’t yet exist in Vermont, was a veritable gusher in Vermont’s backyard! It was begging to be tapped.

Well, God may have put oil in the ground, but property taxpayers are the ones who put money into the state’s Education Fund. That extra cash that Republicans want to tap will come from higher and higher property taxes that you, me, and our neighbors will pay as our home values increase in the years to come. Heard about the Common Level of Appraisal? Without legislators’ having to do a single additional thing, school taxes in most towns will, under the House plan, almost certainly rise in the coming years – simply because your house will be worth more. How much might taxes rise? The House Republican leaders project increases of 5% to 7% a year – and that’s without any increases from higher school budgets. Higher budgets will mean even bigger tax increases.

You might wonder: Didn’t the Republicans agree to retain the income-sensitivity system? Won’t that help protect middle- and lower-income taxpayers from these increases? Hardly. This system will face tremendous financial pressures as tax bills rise. Prebates will need to get bigger and bigger. Legislators will be unlikely to appropriate sufficient money, year after year, to fund the system fully.

While Republicans told middle- and lower-income Vermonters not to worry about the future, they know that for wealthy Vermonters the future is bright. Legislators from property-rich towns argued that their residents would see tax rate increases. But the reality is that their final tax bills won’t change much the first year of the law. In subsequent years, however, taxes in Stowe, Manchester, Dorset, and other towns from which the Republican leadership hails – in all these towns, taxes will rise at a fraction of the rate compared to other towns.

Let’s hope that the Senate agrees with Gov. Dean, and decides that the House Act 60 “reform” plan isn’t a serious bill. It should be rejected.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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