Saturday January 14, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- During Vermont's earliest budget address in a decade, Gov. Peter Shumlin outlined his ambitious fiscal plans to rebuild the state following Tropical Storm Irene and continue expanding the jobs market.

In a Thursday speech before the Legislature, the first-term Democrat presented a balanced budget "that makes the necessary choices to match our spending with Vermonters' ability to pay" while protecting the most vulnerable. He also called for new dollars strategically invested to improve Vermont's higher education and build future employment opportunities.

"Last year, we made tough choices to close a $176 million gap.

Today, I present a budget that closes a $51 million shortfall without raising broad-based taxes on hardworking Vermonters who continue to struggle to make ends meet," Shumlin said. "This budget also preserves programs for Vermont's most vulnerable: Our seniors, Vermonters with disabilities, our children, and those who live in poverty."

In facing the challenges of rebuilding following Irene's devastation on Aug. 28, 2011, and bringing new jobs to Vermont, the governor asked to increase entrepreneurship support for the state's economic development authority by $30 million. For municipalities still facing post-Irene cleanup, Shumlin calls for increases the state match for town highways on the federal aid system.

And towns whose storm damage completely overwhelms their ability to pay, Shumlin said the state will pay the entire share of the federal match.

"My message to towns is clear: We stand with you all the way as we rebuild together," the governor said.

Jamaica Republican Oliver Olsen, whose district was among the hardest hit in the state, said his major issue with the budget is the jump in property taxes caused by underfunding the state's contribution to the education fund.

"That was my No. 1 concern with his budget address," he said.

But Olsen supported the increase to the stabilization reserve fund and the money going to Irene victims.

Through the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the state will provide a minimum of $2 million in matching funds for residents who seek buyouts for destroyed homes and towns who seek flood mitigation.

Olsen and Vernon Republican Michael Hebert have called for such a proposal prior to the governor's speech.

"That's an issue that several of us have been pushing for several months," Olsen said. "A lot of us were happy to see the governor has taken up some of our suggestions."

The budget proposes Vermont's largest transportation program in history by adding $45 million to desperately needed paving and bridge projects. It also increases town highway aid by $1.5 million, the first such increase in six years.

State Rep. Mollie Burke, a Progressive/Democrat from Brattleboro and member of the House Transportation Committee, said the increase in highway aid means more cash coming into town.

"It's an increase of 6 percent over fiscal year 2012," she said. "And there's increase for the town highway emergency program and that's an increase of $4 million over FY 2012. And the reason for that is to provide the state matching assistance to towns for the federal highway emergency relief project. It's to get the towns their match they need."

Furthermore, Shumlin said building the country's best education system will create jobs in the long-term.

"In my travels to businesses across the state, I hear consistently a similar story: Businesses are hiring, but they can't find enough Vermonters with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," he said.

The administration's budget proposes an $8 million innovation investment in the University of Vermont and the Vermont State Colleges as a one-time investment from the Higher Education Trust Fund.

The University of Vermont would use its $4 million investment of $4 million to expand the college's successful university-industry partnerships to give graduating seniors the opportunity to get hands-on job experience with businesses and nonprofits. It also develops a program to aid in bringing critical science and engineering professionals back into the workforce.

Meanwhile, the Vermont State Colleges will use its $4 million share for the creation of an applied educational institute supporting the renaissance in the agricultural and food production sectors and a plan to allow high school students time to enroll in college to get a head start on completing a degree.

But Shumlin also calls for improved access to the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College by consolidating space in Brattleboro

"Both CCV and VTC School of Nursing now operate in antiquated leased space; this investment will be an economic shot in the arm for downtown Brattleboro, which has been hit hard by fires and floods," Shumlin said.

Brattleboro Democrat Valerie Stuart, who sits on the House Education Committee, said consolidating schools in a downtown location provides a great opportunity in town.

"And it dovetails beautifully with the excellent work the [regional economic study group] has done over the past several years. I will do everything I can to help make this plan become a reality," Stuart said. "It also was great to hear that many of the governor's education priorities are in-sync with the priorities of the House Education Committee as we strive to build the education state."

Working land bill introduced

-- Vermont lawmakers and advocates announced Wednesday the introduction of the Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Investment bill in the House to present a unified setting in which the state's cultural landscape is nurtured and preserved.

A similar version was introduced in the Senate last session. Lawmakers will join advocates on Wednesday, Jan. 18, at 6:30 p.m. in the Statehouse to host a public hearing.

Presidential candidates
file in Vermont

-- Secretary of State Jim Condos announced this week seven candidates filed their petitions for the ballot in Vermont's presidential primary before the Thursday deadline.

Six candidates filed petitions for the Republican ballot in hopes of replacing Democratic President Barack Obama: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Virginia, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Texas Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Santorum of Virginia.

Obama, of Illinois, is the lone Democrat filing for the March 6 primary.

Vermont law requires any candidate seeking to have their name printed on the ballot of a major party presidential primary must file petitions signed by no fewer than 1,000 Vermont voters, along with a $2,000 filing fee.

Chris Garofolo is the political reporter for the Reformer. He can be reached at cgarofolo@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 275.