Lawmakers concerned over Education Fund shortfall

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas has acknowledged that when he signed last year’s state budget, he was fully aware that the spending plan shortchanged the state’s Education Fund by millions of dollars.

Some lawmakers are concerned about the shortfall. They say property tax rates across the state could have been reduced by about 4% if the Education Fund had received the proper amount of money.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Throughout the recent gubernatorial campaign, Governor Jim Douglas often described “the oppressive burden” of the property tax as the most pressing issue facing the state.

So a number of lawmakers were very surprised to learn that the governor put his signature on last year’s state budget with the clear understanding that the budget shortchanged the state’s Education Fund – a move that forced the statewide property tax rate to be higher than it should have been.

Act 68 requires the General Fund’s contribution to the Education Fund to increase by the same growth rate as the overall state budget but a recent study revealed that this hasn’t happened for the past two years – a situation that shortchanged the Education Fund by $25 million.

Douglas told reporters at a Statehouse press conference that he signed the budget even though he was aware of the shortfall.

(Douglas) “I certainly knew what the appropriations was and that it was not at the same level of increase as the overall budget.”

(Kinzel) Why did Douglas sign the budget knowing it shortchanged the Education Fund?

(Douglas) “We’d still be here perhaps debating last year’s budget. A budget is a compromise among the legislative committees involved and the Administration and overall I think the last couple of budgets have been responsible.”

(Kinzel) Some lawmakers want the state to restore the $25 million to the Education Fund. Douglas says new budget pressures will make it very hard to do this.

(Douglas) “The problem is where find $25 million now in very very lean and difficult times and I’m not sure where that would come from.”

(Kinzel) Londonderry Republican Rick Hube is leading the effort to restore the $25 million to the Education Fund. After the governor’s press conference, Hube had this reaction.

(Hube) “I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the taxpayers the additional $26 million worth of relief that you know they so desperately need.”

(Kinzel) Hube says he understands that it will be difficult to find the additional $25 million for the Education Fund but he maintains it’s wrong to pay for General Fund programs using money that was supposed to go to education.

(Hube) “We have to make some tough decisions at times and someone’s idea of one decision might be very different from mine. But I say we have an obligation here. Let’s get the debate going and see where we end up.”

(Kinzel) If the House Appropriations committee fails to address this issue, Hube says he’ll try to add the $25 million to this year’s Budget Adjustment bill. That’s legislation that should be on the floor for debate in the next two weeks.

For Vermont Public Radio I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

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