Campaign Countdown: Vermont's property tax and education quandary

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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) Property taxes and education continue to inspire the most acrimonious debates in the Vermont Statehouse. For republican Governor Phil Scott, it's about addressing the reduction of students and finding ways to address early and higher education needs. But Democratic challenger Christine Hallquist is proposing major changes to the funding system and free college tuition.

"We spend this much for early care and learning in this state. We spend this much for higher education and trades training and we spend this much for K through 12. And I'm saying there's a better way to do it," said Governor Scott.

That's the foundation of the governor's efforts to reform education. But his ideas in his first term have been rejected by democratic majorities in the legislature and led to end-of-session budget vetoes and a near government shutdown this summer. His opponent, Christine Hallquist, says his plans and his methods are wrong for the state.

"Our governor has been using the command and control model and that's a totally failed model of leadership. Barking orders from Montpelier, coming up with arbitrary metrics and then beating up the teachers and school boards, that isn't gonna get us there," Hallquist said.

Scott says he's trying to articulate the state's problem clearly and face it head on. The number of kids in Vermont schools has plummeted in recent decades, but Vermont's per-pupil costs are among the highest in the country, with property taxes rising every year. "That's a problem for us because it's our single largest expenditure in state government," he said. Scott is seeking what he calls a cradle-to-career approach. He wants to reallocate public school funds to early and higher education. He says that will serve the state best in the long run. "Take the $1.7 billion we're spending right now and reinvest that -- not cut -- but actually invest it in our youth, invest it in those early years."

Hallquist says she'll work collaboratively with communities to reform education without harming small communities. She says closing rural schools is uncivilized, and makes it harder for rural areas to thrive. "Because you close that school, it's the core of the community," she said. Hallquist believes the property tax system that funds public education is flawed, but she isn't talking about spending less on schools. "We need to migrate away from the property tax system."

For her, the answer is transitioning to an income-based funding system. She says she'll work with lawmakers on how to structure it. And it doesn't mean raising taxes, just changing where the revenue comes from. "Let's just start with the principle that the property tax system is an unfair and unjust and wrong way to pay. We need to move to an alternative, more income-based model and how we get there is the work of all of us," Hallquist said.

The democrat also wants to provide free college tuition for people living below the poverty line. To fund it, she says the state can reduce its prison population and reallocate those funds. She estimates that half the people in prison are not dangerous. "I'm not talking about releasing dangerous criminals in the streets. I'm talking about decriminalizing the victimless crimes and not putting people in prison for them," Hallquist said.

Scott disagrees with her assessment and says the state has been working to reduce its prison population, but those that remain behind bars are mostly serious criminals. He says the state doesn't currently have the capacity to provide a free tuition program. "Nothing's free, just don't forget that. There's nothing free. Somebody has to pay for it somewhere," Scott said.

One Scott administration official says the governor hasn't given up on his cradle-to-career idea and is preparing a new proposal for lawmakers to review in January.