Sticks and carrots in Montpelier

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Part of the reason Phil Scott won election to the governor's office as a Republican in a state where Democrats and progressives hold most of the power was that he came across as affable, moderate and a good listener willing to work with the other side to get things done.

But you can be a nice guy and still propose a budget that would result in K-12 education program cuts and teacher layoffs.

Scott's budget proposal, which he presented on Jan. 24, comes straight from the carrot-and-stick school. The carrots are many, and certainly appealing: Investment in early childhood care and higher education! No tax or fee increases! Workforce training! Scholarship dollars for state National Guard veterans!

But then there's the stick, and it's a big one: Increasing teachers' share of health insurance to 20 percent, and "Level funding" K-12 school budgets across the state in the next fiscal year to pay for investments in early childhood and higher education.

To make that happen, Scott proposes to delay the school portion of town meetings across the state to May 23.

We'll give Scott this: It's a creative, outside-the-box proposal which, at the very least, challenges Democrats and Progressives in Montpelier to come up with a viable alternative. It funds some important priorities while holding the line on taxes.

Furthermore, initial bargaining positions rarely stake out the middle ground, and Scott's proposal seems to anticipate budget negotiations to come.

But regardless of the intent behind it, and the earnestness with which it was presented, we think Scott's K-12 education proposal might be a bit too clever for its own good.

Here's the reality check: There's no easy way out of the state's financial squeeze, particularly when you refuse to raise taxes and fees to bridge the gap. This is not to advocate for higher taxes. But Vermont's fiscal problems require that lawmakers at least consider the full toolbox of potential solutions, regardless of their popularity or whether they contradict campaign pledges.

In public education, salaries and benefits are set through collective bargaining and pay typically increases by a small percentage year over year. And educators face the same price increases that the rest of us face every day.

"level funding" doesn't mean what it implies. It means program cuts and layoffs.

With that in mind, it's quite interesting that House minority leader Don Turner, R-Milton, in defense of Scott's budget, wrote "Asking school districts to level-fund their budgets for the 2018 fiscal year will swiftly facilitate critical reform."

So in Turner's mind, laying off teachers and cutting programs is what counts as "critical reform." Is that really what we want?

Maybe Scott's plan deserves more consideration than it's getting from lawmakers. Maybe it was a trial balloon from the start and all this is much ado about nothing. But either way, we're going to take a pass on using K-12 education cuts as a way to fund other priorities and balance the budget, if only on paper.

If cuts to K-12 education must come, they need to be proposed and debated in the open, frankly and honestly and on their own merits — not as part of a scheme that funds some priorities at the expense of others.


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