Education cost reduction legislation delayed

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(Host) There’s been a stunning development at the Statehouse concerning legislation designed to reduce education costs.

Moments before the bill was set to be debated on the House floor, Democratic leaders delayed consideration of the measure because they didn’t have the votes to pass it.

House Speaker Gaye Symington put the blame squarely at the feet of Governor Jim Douglas. The Governor says the Speaker’s comments are — in his words — “ridiculous.”

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) It was a development that caught many people by surprise and it reflected the difficulty of passing legislation that could potentially affect school districts throughout the state.

The legislation included new penalties for towns that spend significantly above the state average and it called for the state to work closely with communities with high special education costs. It also reduced the maximum rebate for homeowners under Act 68 from ten thousand to six thousand dollars.

After conducting a vote count, Democratic leaders found roughly 25 members of their own caucus opposed the bill, only 7 members of the Republican caucus were prepared to vote for it and most of the 6 Progressives members were set to vote against it.

House Speaker Gaye Symington says she’s very disappointed that Governor Jim Douglas didn’t work hard enough to persuade Republicans to support the bill:

(Symington) “Governor Douglas needs to spend time in this building working with the Legislature if we want to make progress on property taxes instead he’s running around the state throwing barbs at the Legislature in his public gatherings he needs to decide if she’s going to spend the next few days continuing that pattern or working with even members of his own party.”

(Kinzel) Douglas says he didn’t support the legislation because he thinks it will do very little to reduce property taxes and he found the Speaker’s analysis to be troubling:

(Douglas) “That’s ridiculous we stood here in this office shoulder to shoulder at the end of January and agreed that the problem with education funding in Vermont is the cost. We have to get spending under control. This bill takes baby steps but it’s not significant in terms of real relief for the people of Vermont.”

(Kinzel) Douglas urged lawmakers to consider his plan, which includes a cap on local school spending.

(Douglas) “The old adage is that the executive proposes and the legislature disposes. I’ve done my job. It’s up to the Legislature to do something meaningful for the people of our state.”

(Kinzel) But Speaker Symington says there’s no support in the House the governor’s cap – a conclusion that was supported by Republican leaders.

(Symington) “There isn’t support on any of the three sides of the aisle in this building for the proposal that he’s put forward to cap the growth of school budgets. And this bill represents what we felt was a reasonable first step.”

(Kinzel) Symington says she plans to bring the bill back on the floor for a vote next Tuesday. If she concludes that she doesn’t have the votes to pass the legislation she says she’ll ask the Ways and Means committee to make some dramatic changes to the plan – changes that won’t seek to reach a compromise with the governor.

For VPR News I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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