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Sales Tax Proposed in Vermont To Shift School Financing From Property Tax

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The Vermont legislature will vote on a plan in early January that would nearly double the state's share of public-school financing by shifting the burden away from local property taxpayers.

The plan would increase the state sales tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and distribute state aid totaling $80 million to school districts based on a community's income and property wealth.

It was proposed by Representatives Gretchen Morse and Peter Guiliani, respective chairmen of the education and ways and means committees of the state's House of Representatives.

Currently, annual state aid to schools totals $42 million, which accounts for only 27.9 percent of public-school financing in Vermont. The state ranks 46th in the nation in levels of state spending for schools. (In nearby New Hampshire, a suit will soon be filed to contest that state's heavy reliance on property taxes to finance education. See story on page 4.)

Local property taxes in Vermont, according to a report from the Citizen's Public Expenditure Survey of New York, cover 64.8 percent of the state's bill for public education; the national average is about 44 percent.

The survey placed Vermont 35th nationally and last among its New England neighbors in per-pupil spending. The remaining 7.3 percent in financing for elementary and secondary schools comes from federal sources.

The new Vermont plan is the latest to emerge since the current formula, which is supposed to guarantee state aid of at least 40 percent, took effect in 1969; it has been under fire continuously.

Governor Richard Snelling, however, has already said that he will veto the Morse-Guiliani plan in favor of his own, which would funnel income derived from taxes on all nonresidential property into the state treasury.

"The governor is set in cement," said Mr. Guiliani. The plan he has proposed, the legislator added, is not likely to gain any support because it would deprive local communities of their tax authority on all commercial properties, such as those maintained by Vermont's booming ski industry.

The existing formula, said Representative Morse, has not lived up to its promise. Amended with "gadgets to appease everyone," it never took into account a community's aggregate income. Land values skyrocketed in communities close to ski resorts, she said, giving the illusion that these were wealthy towns, when actually they are among the state's poorest.

Proponents of the new plan are also considering an amendment to the bill requiring a reduction in local property taxes. There is an understandable fear said Ms. Morse, that some communities would increase spending without lowering property taxes.

During the 1979-80 academic year, Vermont spent $1,771 for each pupil enrolled in public schools, while the national average was pegged at $2,062.

Advocates of the plan say educational spending will increase as the state's income grows and "nobody would lose money," according to Ms. Morse. A cap on state spending would fluctuate with state revenues.

The current formula, explained Ms. Morse, discriminates in favor of richer communities. "The more money you spend, the more money you get," she said, "because educational expenditures are 100 percent refundable under the formula."

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