MONTPELIER, Vt. — After weeks of exchanging barbs over the state budget plan, leaders in the Vermont House are moving toward a decisive vote that could bring years of legislative overspending to a halt.
Republican Gov. Phil Scott and House Democrats have been locking horns for weeks over taxes, fees or whether to plunge into the state’s $1.6 billion education fund for savings.
House Democrats have been asking Scott for an elusive “Plan B” to help fix the $18 million budget deficit (down from $72 million earlier in the session), but the governor wants to force legislators to make Vermont “more affordable” by embracing his level-funded budget approach that refuses new taxes and fees.
Katherine Levasseur, a spokesperson for House Speaker Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, told Vermont Watchdog that by state law the budget process is coming to its deadline climax, like it or not.
“The deadline is that the bill has to be introduced on Tuesday,” Lavasseur said. “The House Appropriations Committee (members) will be wrapping up their work by Friday afternoon, and generally use Monday (March 27) for proofreading and a vote.”
As of last week, Scott and House leaders involved with crafting the budget plan were at loggerheads. It is difficult to see how certain House members will move to uphold Scott’s directive when it comes to the $18 million gap, especially considering the history of the Democrats’ super-majority rule under Scott’s predecessor, Gov. Peter Shumlin. According to Ballotpedia. com, “Between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, total government spending in Vermont increased by approximately $0.2 billion — from $5.1 billion in fiscal year 2014 to an estimated $5.3 billion in 2015.” The jump represents an increase of 3.3 percent.
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At a news conference Thursday, Scott rejected a new plan and urged members of the House Appropriations Committee members “to think outside the box.”
During a March 15 news conference, Johnson didn’t mince words about the governor’s approach to the budget process.
“He tried to steal local control of budgets and local bargaining from communities. … He proposed raising local property taxes by $50 million,” Johnson said.
In a statement released last week by House Majority Leader Rep. Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, and Ways and Means Committee Chair Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the lawmakers argued that Town Meeting Day voters appeared to reject Scott’s priorities by approving 90 percent of budgets across Vermont, many of which contained spending increases.
Earlier in the session, Johnson said she was troubled by the governor’s desire to level-fund the budget via reprioritizing the education fund.
“We need to think about how to provide the best education in a more holistic way; however, the governor’s proposal has serious budget implications and liabilities for Vermont property taxpayers,” Johnson said.
Last week, Scott said that he didn’t understand why House leaders were pushing back on his idea to go into the state’s $1.6 billion education fund to find savings. “I haven’t seen one idea that’s come out of House Appropriations at this point in time that even would venture into that area,” Scott said.
“Everything is going to work out”
Even as the March 27 vote nears, leaders appear guardedly hopeful of reaching a budget agreement with the governor.
“In every budget cycle, governors stick with their original proposals for a period, but after the soundbites fade, they get down to work with the legislature to develop a plan that works for Vermonters. We’re now at that point, and Vermonters expect all of us to come to the table and work together,” Johnson said in a statement.
House Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Jim Condon, D-Colchester, says he is optimistic about resolving the budget impasse, but he is more concerned about how the federal budget will negatively impact the state. Vermont relies heavily on federal funds to supplement its budget.
“We will come up with a balanced budget,” Condon told Vermont Watchdog. “On Ways and Means, we’re looking for as much as $5 million to help erase the remaining $18 million budget gap. We’re trying to do that without new taxes or fees. I also expect to see a rare revenue upgrade before adjournment, so I think everything’s going to work out OK. The bigger question has to do with possible federal (Trump) budget cuts. A special session in November is not out of the question.”
Scott on Friday extended an olive branch to House members.
“I am encouraged to see many in the legislature who agree with the goals put forward in my budget, which reflect the calls for relief I heard from Vermonters throughout the campaign,” he said in a statement. “But we cannot relent or be resistant to change. Vermonters need us to spend these next eight weeks finalizing a budget and putting forward legislation that helps grow the economy, and allows Vermonters to keep more of what they earn.”
Louis Varricchio is Vermont bureau chief at Vermont watchdog.org. You can contact him at [email protected]