MONTPELIER >> The Vermont House advanced a $24 million round of fee increases and $13 million in higher taxes Wednesday as it prepared to debate a $1.54 billion general fund budget for fiscal year 2017.
Majority Democrats argued that the revenue and spending packages made significant progress in a yearslong battle to end an annual cycle in which lawmakers scramble to close budget gaps. That's often been done by dipping into "one-time" sources of money for ongoing budget needs.
"This budget uses no one-time funds for ongoing needs. This is a huge change in a positive direction from previous years," said Rep. Mitzi Johnson, a Democrat from Grand Isle County and chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. Spending of state funds would grow 2.7 percent over the current fiscal year, a rate of growth "well below the five-year average," Johnson said.
Minority Leader Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, was not impressed.
"It's very disappointing when people are saying they can't afford to live in Vermont and these people (majority Democrats) continue to spend and spend and spend and raise (taxes)," Turner said.
The tax bill's biggest hit was on employers that don't offer their workers health insurance, with the result that some end up getting Medicaid. The state's existing employer quarterly assessment of $151 per uninsured full-time-equivalent employee would not change for employers with up to 19 such employees. Larger employers would see that charge rise to $210 to $249, depending on their size.
Others said the spending plan did not do enough. Vermont Legal Aid and other groups representing disabled Vermonters brought dozens of people to the Statehouse on Wednesday to try to persuade lawmakers to restore a $1.6 million cut to the state's welfare-to-work program that was made last year, affecting households receiving help both from that program and from Social Security disability benefits.
"We fall behind on the electricity, phone bill, child care (bills)," said Kaiya Andrews, a 26-year-old Waterbury Center resident with fetal-alcohol syndrome who has lost nearly all of her eyesight and also has hearing loss. "Right now we're trying to figure out which bills to pay and which not to pay."
The general fund budget is slated to be a part of total state spending of $5.77 billion, which will include separate public education and transportation budgets and a pass-through of federal funds.
On the way to beginning debate on the budget, the House first passed its annual fee bill, raising $18 million of its $24 million by increasing the biennial fee on the registration of mutual fund investment products sold in the state from $600 to $1,500. That 150 percent increase didn't draw as much fire as another provision raising Vermont's marriage license fee from $45 to $60.
New Hampshire's remains at $45, which Rep. Joey Purvis, R-Colchester argued would turn the Granite State into "the new Las Vegas," as Vermont couples head east to get married.
He also questioned use of the additional money for a state program to combat domestic violence, saying that would signal the state expects marriages to be violent.