A majority of lawmakers in the House Education Committee are recommending that the city of Winooski should allow noncitizens to vote — in some cases almost immediately upon arrival — in local elections, including those that affect the statewide Education Fund.
On Tuesday, committee members looked at H.227, an act relating to approval of amendments to the charter of the city of Winooski. All but three members from the 11-member committee approved the bill; the dissenting votes were Rep. Lawrence Cupoli, R-Rutland City, Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans Town, and Rep. Terri Williams, R-Granby.
Statements from supporters and critics alike acknowledge that these potential new voters can impact the statewide Education Fund if allowed to vote on school budgets, as this proposal would allow.
During the meeting, legislative attorney James DesMarais reviewed a letter from committee Chair Rep. Kathryn Webb intended for Speaker of the House Rep. Jill Krowinski. The letter details two key points of contention: whether permitting noncitizens to vote in Winooski Incorporated School District elections raises substantive legal issues under Brigham v. State, and the effect on the Education Fund.
DesMarais confirmed that “the way in which these citizens may vote” could impact how education resources are dispersed for the rest of the state.
“It’s the way in which these citizens may vote that could raise issues,” DesMarais said. “So if they vote either as a group to increase or decrease school district spending, it could affect resources for students.”
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, said he also thinks noncitizen voters will affect the statewide fund.
“I don’t think you can argue that Winooski’s decision doesn’t have much of an impact at all on the rest of the Education Fund when the rest of the Education Fund is responsible for far more than half of that decision,” he said.
Beck explained that every time expenditures or savings are incurred in Winooski’s education budget, more than half of those losses or gains are absorbed by the state’s other taxpayers.
“I think that what’s here, it kind of makes it seem like that there’s no impact on the education fund — there is an impact on the Education Fund,” he said.
Webb didn’t dispute Beck, but asked if the impact would be “to a significant degree.”
Beck said a vote by Winooski would be big, but spread out across the state.
“It’s a significant amount spread out among a whole bunch of taxpayers,” he said.
Beck said he would likely support the bill and “look the other way on this” concern because he ultimately agrees with the city’s effort to help the large immigrant population in the city.
DesMarais repeated his assertion that these new voters are only going to impact election outcomes if they vote in groups. And he suggested that the lawmakers’ intention to allow noncitizens to vote may counter-balance other legal infractions caused by this bill.
“Even if they did, a court would look at the balance and assess other factors that you intended in terms of why you want noncitizens to vote,” DesMarais said.
Rep. Kathleen James, D-Bennington, said she’s for the charter change.
“What’s germane to me is that we’re talking about a group of disenfranchised folks who are residents and who are taxpayers just like other Vermonters around the state,” she said.
Cupoli suggested if more communities follow Winooski’s lead, then the impact on the state’s Education Fund will become more significant.
“My concern is not about today, it’s about future incidents or future plans for other communities to ask for the same legislation,” he said.
Cupoli added that the bill should probably get looked at by the Ways and Means Committee because it impacts taxes and revenues.
Rep. John Arrison, D-Windsor, suggested that one community doing this alone might create problems for the rest of Vermont.
“I would feel a lot more comfortable if we were addressing this on a state-wide basis,” he said. ” … We’re going to be having this same conversation over and over and over as other towns come in.”
CORRECTION: Rep. Philip Hooper, D-Randolph, voted yes on H.227 and Rep. Casey Toof, R-St. Albans voted no.