The op-ed penned by Tim Jerman, the vice chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, entitled “Let the Spin Begin” accused the “Republican negativity machine” of spinning the results of the legislative session, especially in regards to education. I took issue with the particularly partisan and inflammatory claim that the critiques are based – not on policy shortcomings – but the fact that it came from a Democratic Legislature.
It’s an unfortunate mischaracterization that alienates people who do work together. The insinuation that Republicans are offering critiques based solely on politics – not policy — is in itself spin. Republicans have openly supported many other bills that came out of this Democratic Legislature. I was proud to support the Child Protection Bill, the Economic Development Bill (which eliminated the cloud tax, an issue I campaigned on) and others. Republicans happily supported bills that we believed made Vermont a better place, even if it means Democrats got the credit.
But on some issues — especially those regarding taxing and spending – we have different opinions about what is best for Vermont. Now I’m one of the Republicans that voted for the final education bill, because I thought it made improvements to the current system (and the previous version of the bill, which I opposed) as far as it concerns my district in Essex Junction. House Minority Leader Don Turner reminds Republicans constantly that we are here to serve our constituents first. So some Republicans, from districts that may look different than mine, had different perspectives. Having differences is what gives our democracy the opportunity to create the best legislation by valuing valid criticisms from our opponents. It’s the age-old process of Thesis → Antithesis → Synthesis that allows us to consider the minority’s concerns – not dismiss and belittling them — and still move forward. Accusing every criticism of being “spin” is not the way to engage in a healthy debate to benefit of all Vermonters.
Vermonters sent a clear message they wanted to reduce or level property taxes. Did this education bill do that? No. Property taxes WILL increase next year. That is not spin – that is a fact. The change may help us with long-term costs, but it’s hard to know for sure, until they materialize. This is a valid criticism of the bill I myself supported. If the goal was simply to “do something” about Education – well, I guess we did it. But if the goal was to provide tax relief, the Legislature didn’t get the job done. The only way to guarantee immediate property tax relief to Vermonters, in my opinion, is to increase the general fund’s contribution to the education fund. The problem is we had an eight-figure budget deficit before the year started. And structural budget shortfalls will continue to push the burden back onto property tax owners (as we have done from 2005 to 2011 to the tune of $200 million-plus) until the Legislature decides that properly funding our education system is more important than some of the millions we spend elsewhere. But even that is a temporary fix while we deal with spending that keeps going up as the number of students goes down.
We must focus our conversation on the real problems facing our state. Entertaining partisan name-calling on what are honest identifications of the problems in our current approach will not better prepare our education system for the 21st century. While I supported the education bill, it’s clear to me that it doesn’t go as far as tax payers want us to go. And by dismissing voices that remind us of its deficiencies, we are in danger of spiking the ball on the 2 yard line, while Vermonters stew over rising property taxes and feel a widening disconnect between their will and the will of the current Legislature.
Paul Dame is State Representative from Essex Junction.