We’ve done worse.
Legislative sessions are captives of seemingly random interventions. What is thought will happen often does not. What we can’t imagine happening often does. In the final moments, with everything hanging in the balance, all things become fluid, and what emerges as the last bartered position is most often what is least offensive. Snatched from the jaws of victory, so to speak.The state’s budget, for example, was no work of art. There is nothing pretty about a process that begins $113 million in the red. And pulling ourselves out, cutting costs and raising taxes, pleases no one. Let’s also remember that the budget was not cut. As “tough” as the sledding was, the governor will sign into law a budget that spends almost four percent more than was spent last year. There were two signature pieces of legislation that did pass – thanks to the constant intervention of forces unwilling to countenance failure – the first is legislation that will begin the hard work toward reforming Vermont’s educational system, the second is the clean water bill. From a local perspective, it’s the clean water bill that resonates the deepest. Last session it wasn’t on the legislative radar in a manner that was given serious attention. That was before the blue-green algae blooms that infested both Lake Carmi and Lake Champlain. That was before the public’s attention had been drawn to the effect of polluted waters on Vermont’s brand. That was before the chorus of Vermont voices – particularly from Franklin County – made it clear that the time for studies had long passed. It was time to commit the resources necessary to clean our water. The governor made that commitment in his state of the state address. The administration backed his pledge through the persistence of Environmental Conservation Commissioner David Mears and Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz. But what served as the backstop for the administration’s and the legislature’s efforts was a dogged campaign by local citizens who broadened the issue’s appeal to legislators beyond the Franklin/Chittenden/ Addison county axis. People like Denise Smith, of Friends of Northern Lake Champlain. People like the collection of supporters who show up each year at the Tyler Place to talk about the lake and what needs to happen. People like those who make up the Lake Carmi Association. People who make their homes on the shores of Lake Champlain. Many of these folks spent countless hours of their personal time this session focused on not allowing action to be postponed. Credit must also extend to representatives like David Deen, chair of the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources. His was the committee that held court on much of the back and forth testimony, and it was his committee that kept the legislation moving. Credit goes as well to Georgia Rep. Carolyn Branagan and the House Ways and Means Committee. It was Ms. Branagan who came up with the idea of funding the program through the property transfer tax; the means by which the final bill depends. [No small feat.] It’s a beginning. No one expects the blooms to disappear with a single appropriation. No one expects the new personnel in the ag department to rein in all detrimental behavior. But in this struggle, it helps immensely to have broken through the inertia that has kept us from doing anything. We’ll take that. Much the same sentiment applies to the education reform bill. Our schools are the one thing every Vermont community holds in common. Because each community is different and because each school has its own set of needs, trying to change how they are operated is next to politically impossible. As with the clean water bill, the session’s victory was simply breaking the inertia that has held our governance policies in place for more than a century. The legislation does two key things; the first – from the public’s point of view – is putting in place a means by which school spending can be controlled; the second, and more important, is the means by which communities can begin the conversations regarding what constitutes a school large enough to offer its students a quality education. The legislation also begins to change the small school grants and the “phantom” student funding mechanism that has subsidized the operation of our smallest schools. As the legislation becomes more understood, and as school districts begin to respond to the property tax incentives being offered, Vermont may very well mark this legislation as the beginning of an essential transition toward a school system that matches our demographic trends with our pocketbooks, and one that improves the state’s educational outcomes. Cleaner water and better, more affordable schools. We’ve done worse. by Emerson Lynn