School budget success could influence property tax reform

03/07/07 12:00AM By Bob Kinzel
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(Host) Vermonters in many communities across the state voted to support their local school budgets on Town Meeting Day.

According to a survey released by the Vermont Superintendent's Association, only 17 budgets out of 247 were rejected this year.

Key lawmakers say the success of many budgets could influence how the Legislature deals with property tax reform in the coming months.

VPR's Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) Political leaders were keeping a close watch on the fate of local school budgets to help them gauge whether or not Vermont is facing a property taxpayer revolt.

In 2003, 51 school budgets were defeated. Lawmakers and the governor responded by passing Act 68.

Last year, 17 budgets were rejected on the first try and there was speculation that the number this year would be quite a bit larger. But in the end the same number of budgets were defeated.

Jeff Francis is the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association:

(Francis) "I certainly don't read into this result any tremendous urgency to act hastily when we have a system where by all accounts schools are providing a good education to students and taxpayers have an opportunity to go in and vote on how much schools are spending to do that."

(Kinzel) Last week, the chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, Rockingham Rep. Michael Obuchowski, said his panel might propose a major change to Act 68 if a lot of school budgets were defeated. Obuchowski says that's less likely now based on these results.

(Obuchowski) "There is with these results certainly less wind in the sails of reform as there is less wind in what the governor has been talking about. Because it appears that the locals have been able to do it without state help."

(Kinzel) Obuchowski also says there's very little support in district for any new state mandates to reduce local education costs:

(Obuchowski) "Local school boards told us that they're capable of doing it - that they want to do it for us to avoid mandates to the extent that we could and to give them the freedom to make their own decisions. And they don't want to managed from above is the message that I got which is going to bring me back to Montpelier with a new set of eyes."

(Kinzel) Tax Commissioner Tom Pelham has been the point person for the Douglas Administration on the issue of property tax reform.

Pelham says the budget results do not in any way reduce the need to cap local school spending:

(Pelham) "I think people are torn in the sense that they want to support their school. They also know that the system that we have disconnects them from the tax bills that they pay."

(Kinzel) Pelham is convinced that property tax burdens will re-emerge as a key issue this summer:

(Pelham) "My sense is that next June next July when property tax bills go out and folks are looking at 7 and 8 % increases that the concern about property taxes will remain a front and center issue for the public in Vermont."

(Kinzel) The House Ways and Means committee plans to hold a public hearing on property tax reform next Wednesday night at the Statehouse.

For Vermont Public Radio I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier
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