BRATTLEBORO -- As part of what he calls "a very ambitious education agenda," Gov. Peter Shumlin wants to boost child-care subsidies for lower-income families.
But he is taking flak for his proposal to fund that idea: Shumlin wants to "redirect" $16.7 million in state money that's now spent on an earned-income tax credit for low-income residents.
During a visit to Brattleboro Tuesday, Shumlin took pains to defend his proposal and argued that it's not about "taking money from poor people and giving it to poor people."
Instead, he argued, it's about making a more effective investment with state tax revenues.
"We've got to take the limited resources that we have in our third year of budget deficits and spend our existing dollars in a smarter way," Shumlin said.
Shumlin's plan has drawn criticism from advocates for the poor and some legislators. That includes state Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat who spoke against the proposal this week.
Galbraith said the governor makes "a very compelling case" for bigger child-care subsidies. But he disagrees with cutting the tax credit to do so.
That would amount to "a broad-based income-tax increase on lower-income Vermonters," Galbraith said.
The second-term senator also fears that slashing the tax credit penalizes some stay-at-home parents who would lose a significant portion of their benefits and be forced to find work.
"I don't want to make it impossible for a parent to stay home with a child in order (for the state) to fund day care," Galbraith said.
But on Tuesday, Shumlin argued that the state's share of the federal earned-income tax credit has grown disproportionately in recent years.
"Twenty-seven states have no state match for the federal credit. The rest of us do," Shumlin said. "Vermont has the second-most-generous state match in the country."
He added that, in the past eight years, the state's federally indexed contribution to the tax credit "has gone up 49 percent . . . when other programs for the poor and those that need our help have been slashed."
He's not proposing that the earned-income tax credit be eliminated.
Rather, he argued, "let's take a percentage of that -- $16.7 million from $27 million that we expend in Vermont -- and choose our priorities by spending that money on the children of those who are living in poverty."
Shumlin said in his budget address that "the biggest barrier to work for most lower-income Vermonters is the cost of quality child care." So he wants to raise the child-care subsidy for everyone who is eligible.
In that Jan. 24 budget speech, Shumlin said a family earning $40,000 annually now gets "a minimal benefit that pays just 10 cents of every dollar for child care." For that same family, he proposes raising the benefit to 50 cents of every dollar.
He said this will allow parents to seek work without "losing money by going to work." And Shumlin said making additional investments in the welfare of young children is vital.
"We know that every dollar we invest in early childhood education saves seven bucks later on," Shumlin said in a visit to the Reformer on Tuesday. "We also know that, with all the good work we've done on equalizing education funding, we haven't moved the needle in terms of moving more poor kids beyond high school. Give them a strong start, they've got a much better chance."
The governor was accompanied by Vermont Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca. They outlined other educational priorities and programs including dual-enrollment opportunities for high school students to earn college credit.
Shumlin also discussed a "Vermont Strong Scholars Program" that would reimburse a portion of tuition for certain students who graduate from Vermont colleges and then work in their field within the state for five years.
The governor said he's heard from Vermont employers who have jobs available but lack applicants with appropriate skills. Echoing that concern, Vilaseca said many students don't have a proper math and science background when they graduate.
He said officials will be increasing math graduation requirements for high schools.
"We also are looking for a licensing program to require stronger math background for our elementary teachers," Vilaseca said.
While in Brattleboro, Shumlin and Vilaseca visited Academy School and noted the elementary's recent success on standardized tests.
"They're doing great on NECAPs and making great progress there," Shumlin said. "So we just wanted to swing by and give them a little love."
Vilaseca added: "It's like no other school in the state."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.