Decision Time For Vermont Lawmakers

School Consolidation Likely To Be Voted on This Week

Montpelier — Debates over consolidating school districts and how fast to increase Vermont’s minimum wage are expected to headline a long list of issues that still need to be resolved as the Legislature enters the last two weeks of its 2014 session.

Among the first items to be tackled when House members return Tuesday is a bill designed to streamline the governance of Vermont’s schools by reducing the number of districts from 273 to 45 or 50.

Backers have been trying all session to lower expectations that the changes would bring significant, near-term relief to sharply rising property taxes. Instead, they talk about increasing course choices and other opportunities for students in small schools.

Rep. John Moran, D-Wardsboro, whose district includes a handful of mountain towns in southern Vermont, said he’s skeptical. Small schools in his district have won recent awards for educational quality, he said, adding that it would be tough to consolidate schools that are more than 20 miles and “a mountain and a half” apart.

Sen. Richard McCormack, D-Windsor and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the Senate isn’t expected to get the bill before Wednesday, so there probably won’t be enough time to review and pass anything like the current House bill. He also rejected a suggestion by Sen. Bill Doyle, R-Washington, that a panel of lawmakers should travel the state in the coming months to gauge public sentiments on school consolidation.

“We don’t need another study. It’s been studied to death,” McCormack said.

But others said the Senate likely would take some sort of action.

“I think we need to do something on the Senate side,” said Sen. David Zuckerman, a Progressive-Democrat from Burlington. “Because if we don’t show people across the state that we’re interested in finding administrative savings in our education system, then the public outcry around property taxes and schools is just going to get louder and louder.”

Other issues coming up in the last weeks of the session:

∎ Minimum wage. The House passed a bill to raise it to $10.10 per hour in January, with inflation adjustments annually thereafter. A proposal in the Senate would raise the wage from the current $8.73 to $10.50 by 2018.

∎ The general fund budget. The Senate today is expected to take up an Appropriations Committee proposal that makes several changes to the $1.44 billion spending plan passed by the House a month ago. Among them: boosting funding for providers serving Medicaid beneficiaries from the 0.75 percent offered by the House to 2 percent.

∎ Criminal justice bills, including an effort to crack down on drivers under the influence of drugs. One bill would warn defendants about — and, in some cases, seek to lessen — the “collateral consequences” of crime, including the inability to get certain state licenses and other benefits later on. Another addresses the state’s lack of a treatment system for people with traumatic brain injuries who engage in criminal behavior.

House Speaker Shap Smith told members last week that he expects to finish the Legislature’s work in about two weeks — by Saturday, May 10. Lawmakers normally are in Montpelier from Tuesday through Friday, but the last week often stretches into Saturday and sometimes into the early hours of Sunday.

Smith warned that with college graduations scheduled for the May 10 weekend, lawmakers might want to reserve a room Friday night. He joked that if anyone gets into a jam, he has cheap rooms for rent at his home in Morrisville.