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War, healthcare, school funding tops first legislative breakfast of year

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February 8, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

BRISTOL — The 2007 session may be only a month old, but the familiar topics of school funding, the Iraq War and better maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges are topics already surfacing to the top of the Vermont Legislature’s agenda.

Local lawmakers discussed those and other issues at the season’s first legislative breakfast, held at American Legion Post 19 in Bristol on Monday. Area legislators — some of them recently appointed to committee leadership posts — gave the approximately 30 breakfast attendees an early glimpse at what has been going on under the Golden Dome.

They explained education-funding reform has already been making some headlines. Gov. James Douglas, along with Vermont House and Senate leaders, presented a unified front late last week in endorsing a property tax reform strategy that would emphasize cuts and new economies of scale, rather than tax increases.

Rep. Greg Clark, R-Vergennes, said the House Education Committee — on which he serves as vice chairman — hopes to have a public school “cost containment plan” drafted in time for people to discuss on Town Meeting Day.

He said Vermont Education Commissioner Richard Cate’s proposal to consolidate the number of school districts in the state from 250 to 58 will likely be a part of the cost containment plan.

The committee will spend the coming weeks soliciting Vermonters’ views on how the state can improve the quality of education while making expenses more reasonable. Department of Education officials are holding listening sessions at the Middlebury Union High School cafeteria on March 13 and at the Vergennes Union High School library and media facility on April 11. Both meetings will begin at 6 p.m.

“We’re asking people for a dialogue,” Clark said. “What should our education system look like in the 21st century? What is the best and fairest way to pay for it?”

Some of Monday’s breakfast participants pointed to special education as a potential source of school cuts. Some of the children in question require residential placements costing more than $100,000 per year, some participants noted.

“We are spending a tremendous amount of money,” said county resident Barbara Fitzgerald.

“They are not going to be president of the United States,” she added, arguing that more resources should instead be funneled to students “with potential.”

Another county resident, Ed Payne, agreed.

“I think we need to understand that there are some people that just do not have the capabilities, and to expend inordinate portions of our dollars on these people that obviously will never be able to achieve, while we’re letting some of the people that would be able to achieve slip through the cracks …  we have to be really careful,” Payne said.

Clark said the state could consider “sharing” special education costs for students. That could mean pooling special education costs and dividing those expenses (minus federal reimbursement) among all communities, rather than the current system of individual towns being responsible for expenses for their respective special needs students.

Legislators noted there are state and federal rules governing special education services, so altering those services would be difficult — if there is any desire to do so.

“Do we drop these children at the side of the road? That’s not going to happen,” said Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport.

Residents also pressed lawmakers on whether they will take a stand against the Iraq War.

Rep. Michael Fisher, D-Lincoln, said he has been working on a resolution calling for the “orderly” withdrawal of American troops to begin “immediately.”

Fisher said he has spent the last four years trying to get the Vermont Legislature to take a stand on the war in Iraq. He said his resolution is not intended to demoralize or disparage the military. He challenged those who might say that an Iraq War resolution is not germane to the conduct of the state’s business.

“This topic touches a nerve that is raw,” Fisher said. “If you have sat, like I have sat, in someone’s living room to discuss a son who had died in this war, you would have no doubt (the war) is a Vermont issue.”

Other legislators said the cost of the war also makes it a state issue. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, said the federal government has been reducing state aid as it shifts more resources to the war front.

Rep. Christopher Bray, D-New Haven, calculated the Iraq War had this far cost each American citizen roughly $4,000. New Haven’s share, he said, translates into $7.2 million, more than twice its annual budget last year.

An Iraq War resolution will be on the agenda at several area town meetings in March. The petitioned resolution requests an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Middlebury resident Anne Hoover is one of the people who organized the petition drive.

“We feel this is very much the business of everyone in Vermont,” Hoover said at the meeting.

Other topics discussed at Monday’s breakfast included:

• The appointment of judges in Vermont. Judges in Vermont must be reappointed every six years by the General Assembly. Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, will serve this session as a member of the state’s Judicial Retention Committee, which will interview the judges and then report to lawmakers prior to votes on reappointment.

• Health care. Rep. Steve Maier, D-Middlebury, will serve this session as chairman of the House Health Care Committee. He said the panel would focus on implementation of the health care reforms — including the Catamount Health plan — passed by the Legislature last year, and look toward future upgrades in services for the state’s uninsured and the under-insured.

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