It is an honor to serve the residents of Cabot, Danville and Peacham in the Vermont House of Representatives. As a local representative in Montpelier, it is my priority to listen to the thoughts and concerns of my constituents and to be responsive to those issues.

Over the past several months, I have stopped at over 1,500 homes and spoken with hundreds of residents to provide an update on Legislative activities and to have the opportunity to hear directly from individuals. Frustration and concern over the Presidential election, the impact of ACT 46 on small schools, increasing property taxes and the proposed “carbon” tax are the topics that have been most notably voiced.

My experience with the legislative process, my ability to work across party lines and my reputation of being fair and informed enables me to be a strong voice for our area. Last year I worked diligently to ensure modifications were made to ACT 46 that led to reducing penalties on towns and to shortening the period of time that these penalties were to be applied. I will continue to be a strong advocate for additional changes to this legislation that will provide more flexibility and options to our small, rural schools. The impact of declining school enrollment is particularly acute in the rural areas of Vermont which makes it even more important to recognize that a “one size fits all” approach does not make sense in all regions of the state. Declining enrollment is a trend that can be expected to continue; in 2015 the number of births statewide was 5,903, the lowest in over a century, compared to the 1970s when births averaged approximately 7,000 per year.

Property taxes, which provide the majority of funding for public education, continue to be a major concern for many Vermonters. These concerns persist in spite of Vermont being one of a few states that provides property tax relief to thousands of households with annual incomes below $137,500 by basing property tax payments on income rather the value of the homestead. ACT 46 was an effort to constrain the growth in school spending and to reduce pressure on the property tax. However, to date the evidence of cost containment is not convincing in the towns I represent.

The property tax is only one of several sources of revenue supporting our education system. Vermont schools also receive about 25% of all state revenues including all lottery profits, 35% of sales tax and 33.3% of the purchase and use tax. Unlike any other area of spending in the State Budget, school spending is the decision of local towns and not the Legislature. Local control over school budgets is very important to the majority of Vermonters. I often hear that property taxes should be lowered. To do this would either require substantially reducing existing school budgets or increasing other revenues paid for by Vermonters to support our schools – neither is particularly attractive to most voters. The challenge before us is to continue to thoughtfully adapt our education system to meet the demands of the 21st century while achieving excellent educational outcomes at a cost that is affordable.

I anticipate that a bill will be introduced in the upcoming legislative session to revise our tax base to replace some existing taxes with a carbon tax. Many proponents of this legislation acknowledge that for a single state to undertake such a tax would be extremely difficult to implement without significant economic impact. In our area of the state, it could move more business to New Hampshire and compound an already challenging economic environment. The tax impacts would be disproportionately felt by elderly and lower-income Vermonters. Global warming is a critical issue that must be addressed not only by Vermont but regionally and nationally in order to make a significant impact.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, comprised of both Democrats and Republicans, I am fully committed to continuing our committee’s work on sustainable budgeting and making decisions based on results. The budget bill is a “must pass bill” and encompasses all state spending. Vermont maintains a long history of passing a balanced budget and making the needed adjustments to keep the budget balanced without a Constitutional requirement to do so, unlike other states. The committee has been solid in its commitment to asking, “How much are we spending?” “Are Vermonters better off?” and “Is there a better way?” The Committee has also started the process of moving toward a 2-year budgeting cycle that would provide for better planning and would create savings in both time and money. The state budget is a thoughtful document balancing the needs of the state with available revenue. Many legislators protest that the budget does not provide enough investments, while others claim it provides too much. Creating a balance is difficult work and there will never be consensus on every line item which makes the budget a perpetual target for great criticism.

Legislators must be committed to working together, regardless of party, to get things done. A willingness to listen to others, to openly discuss ideas and concerns and to be prepared to compromise will create a faster and smoother path to solutions. I look forward to this work.

Rep. Kitty Toll, of Danville, is running for re-election in the Caledonia Washington Vermont House district. It is comprised of Cabot, Danville and Peacham.

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