BENNINGTON >> The Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce and the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union hosted a well-attended joint legislative breakfast on Monday, where legislators discussed topics ranging from Act 46 to economic development.
Chamber executive director Matthew Harrington and legislative committee chairman Art Whitman welcomed everyone to the event. The legislators present were Senators Dick Sears and Brian Campion, both Democrats out of Bennington, and representatives Alice Miller (D-Shaftsbury), Kiah Morris (D-Bennington), Bill Botzow (D-Pownal), and Tim Corcoran (D-Bennington). The meeting, which lasted just over an hour, was the first such joint meeting, according to Whitman.
SVSU Board and Bennington School Board chairman Ken Swierad asked the legislators about the status of Act 46, the 2015 education bill that was recently "tweaked" by the legislature. Campion, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said that the House and Senate had been able to come to a compromise regarding the controversial spending growth limits, which some were calling unconstitutional.
"The speaker of the House had heard from hundreds of Vermonters that we've got to do something about property taxes," said Miller, who serves on the House Education Committee that drafted the original bill, "They're just unaffordable. So we put together an education committee to take a really hard look at how we're doing things, and this is what I've learned: We've lost over 20,000 students since 1997, from about 105,000 to 86,000. We have a ratio of 4.67 students to teachers, which is very low. If you up that to five to one, we've saved $70 million." In terms of the recent changes to the bill, Miller said that the two branches of the legislature had worked until after midnight on Saturday morning to pass the bill, which lowered the penalties for exceeding the thresholds this year, and removed them for next year, so that towns could have the information before the deadline for finalizing budgets, 30 days before town meeting day.
Jim Sullivan, executive director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, and Botzow, who serves on the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, discussed the Southern Vermont Economic Zone report, and the efforts that are being made to improve the regional economy. "What's happening is that Vermont has a flat birth rate and death rate," said Botzow, "So there's no growth in the population. We know that growths comes from talent, through being able to compete for talent. A lot of the time we talk about things, but we've really got to concentrate on being an attractive place for people."
Bennington Economic and Community Development Director Michael Harrington (Matthew's brother) asked the legislators to look into the idea that the state's system for providing public assistance might be encouraging people not to work, after a survey of Bennington's Pleasant Street showed that many residents could work, but were choosing not to so as to keep their benefits. Campion said that more data was needed, rather than anecdotal evidence. Morris agreed that the system was flawed, saying that her husband, who had been trying to get a degree at the time, lost his benefits when he took a part-time job, which could not pay the bills on its own.
The entirety of the video is available on Catamount Access Television, and can be viewed on demand on their YouTube page.