GOP plans to lobby locals during town meeting
By Neal P. Goswami
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | February 21,2014
MONTPELIER — House GOP officials are prepping the caucus ahead of Town Meeting Day on how they plan to lower the property tax rate recommended by Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin.
The Shumlin administration has recommended a 7 cent increase in the statewide property tax for the next fiscal year. Georgia Republican Carolyn Branagan, a member of the House Ways and Means committee, said lawmakers can take action and set a lower rate, however.
“It’s not a definite thing it’s going to cost that much. There are some things we can do to lower it,” she said.
Branagan briefed her Republican colleagues this week on several steps GOP leaders are supporting to lower Shumlin’s recommendation. The House Ways and Means Committee will work to set the rate after the annual town meeting break when local communities vote on school budgets.
Branagan said the state’s education fund, supported largely by the property tax to fund public education, contains more money than is needed to fund K-12 public schools. It also includes funding for a number of programs, including the Department of Corrections’ education program and adult basic education, that could be moved to the general fund, she said.
“I personally think that needs to be moved out of the ed fund and it would lower the ed fund cost and lower local property taxes. That all is paid with the property tax,” she said.
Branagan expects push back on shifting programs to the general fund, however.
The GOP will also look to have the Ways and Means Committee keep the base per-pupil spending amount the same at $9,151. Branagan said current statute allows it to be raised by $200 per student in the next fiscal year.
“With a declining student enrollment, I don’t really think that’s necessary and that’s a way that we could save nearly another penny,” she said.
Meanwhile, local school budgets may not be as high as first projected. The Shumlin administration made its 7 cent increase recommendation based on local school budgets rising, on average, by 3.8 percent, according to Branagan. Local budgets do not appear to be rising that much, though.
“We have about 200 school budgets collected so far out of about 250 or so. They’re averaging out about 3 percent,” she said. “If all those budgets pass at 3 percent that certainly will be a reduction,” she said.
Finally, the state has an $11 million surplus “sunk away in a fund” from the previous fiscal year, Branagan said. Using that money would lower the statewide property tax rate by about 1 penny, she said.
A combination of those efforts could lower Shumlin’s recommendation significantly, she said.
“I would like to keep it at level. It’s probably not reasonable to do that, so if we can get down to 4 cents I’ll be happy,” Branagan.
Other revenue sources that feed the education fund include the state’s sales tax and the purchase and use tax. Branagan said the party is not looking to raise those to offset property taxes.
“We’re not contemplating any increase in those at all,” she said. “The 7 cents is, right now, the only increase in revenue being considered. I’m not considering any other increases in revenue. Instead, I’m suggesting that we do some things to lower expenditures,” she said.
Branagan said she has compiled information on the state’s education financing system for lawmakers that includes the ideas to lower the recommended tax rate. That information can be distributed to constituents at town meetings across the state, she said.
House Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner of Milton said he is encouraging his caucus to talk to constituents about the GOP’s ideas.
“Those ideas are ideas that we’ve batted around in the past and they are good ideas,” he said.
The House GOP caucus is interested in a education financing system that “reconnects the voter to their tax bill,” Turner said.
“The message, in my opinion and what the caucus has been working toward and saying, is that we can’t continue to fund schools the way we are. We have to rework the system so it has balance and is fair to everyone,” he said. “The current system is broken and that’s why we’re seeing these big increases.”