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Budget Increasing State Aid to Schools Squeaks Through Vermont Legislature

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After weeks of acrimonious debate marked by late-night sessions and walkouts by disgruntled Republican representatives, the Vermont legislature last week narrowly approved a $624.5-million budget that includes an 8 percent increase in state funding for education.

The budget passed by a total of two votes, squeaking through the Senate by a vote of 14 to 13 and then winning House approval only after Speaker Ralph G. Wright voted to break a 66-to-66 tie.

A spokesman for Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin last week said she was "leaning hard in favor of signing" the measure.

Before approval of the budget package, a conference committee first had to resolve an impasse between House and Senate over $6.5 million in funding for state aid to education.

The House, which wanted to provide local districts with at least some property-tax relief, had followed the state board of education's recommendations by calling for spending $149.5 million on education--a 12 percent increase.

The Senate, which wanted to hold down state taxes, sought to increase aid by only 4 percent, to $143 million.

Said Senator Douglas J. Baker, a Republican from Addison County who sat on the conference committee: "Our main concern was that, while the rest of the working people in Vermont were getting 3 or 4 or 5 percent yearly salary increases, teachers were getting 8 or 9 or 10 percent increases. We felt it was time for them to take a hiatus and get more in line with the norm."

After the conference committee settled on a figure of $148.2 million, Republicans in the House walked out twice during debate over the total state budget--once because discussions had dragged on past 3:30 A.M., causing their ranks to dwindle, and a second time because they had given the Democratic Speaker a 5 P.M. Tuesday deadline for bringing up the vote on a Senate-passed budget, and Mr. Wright waited until 5:30.

The legislature's last-minute bickering over small changes represented a marked contrast to the opening of their session, when legislators called for sweeping revisions in the school-funding formula for the sake of property-tax relief.

They were also considering then separate tax-reform proposals offered by the Vermont affiliate of the National Education Association, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and the Vermont Superintendents Association and the Vermont School Boards Association.

All of the proposals died in legislative committees, however, as the souring economy of the Northeast left legislators hesitant to invest the money needed to change their system.

"All we did was put more money into the same formula," said George B. Spaulding, a Democrat from Washington County who chairs the Senate education committee.

To compensate for dwindling revenues, the bill raised the state rooms-and-meals tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, and increased the state income tax from 25 percent to 28 percent of the federal income levy.

The legislature also sent to the Governor a bill that would significantly revise the state's formula for funding special-education programs. It would take away some of the financial incentive for putting children in such programs, backers said, by distributing some special-education funds according to districts' total student enrollments, rather than their enrollments of special-education students.--ps

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