GOP: Vermont's budget growth is unsustainable

MONTPELIER -- Republicans balked at increases in the state's budget and what they deemed an over-reliance on one-time money in a heated debate Thursday night in the House Chamber.

Rep. Don Turner, R-Milton, minority leader of the House, told his colleagues that this year's budget growth is not sustainable because half of the money used to balance the budget and cover a $70 million gap between state revenues and state spending is from one-time monies. Turner said the fiscal year 2016 budget gap will be as large or larger than this year's.

"Although this is less than the budget others proposed, this budget is still much more than the state can afford," Turner said.

The budget passed on second reading, 91-46.

Gov. Peter Shumlin's recommended budget increased spending by 5.1 percent; the House Appropriations budget increases state expenditures by 3.8 percent above fiscal year 2014 total spending. Both used $35 million in one-time monies to balance the budget.

Total projected General Fund spending under the House bill is $1.438 billion for fiscal year 2015. Last year's budget was $1.362 billion before the budget adjustment act, which added another $24 million to spending for fiscal year 2014. The percentage increase year over year, before budget adjustment, is 5.5 percent.

"The governor this year was saying school districts should not support growth of more than 3 percent," Turner said. "We'll see that in most of those school districts. Yet here tonight we're going to vote on a budget that's well over 4 percent."

Turner told lawmakers that if they supported the budget they would be "putting this state in peril."

Budget-writers struggled to close the gap again this year, Rep. Martha Heath, chair of House Appropriations told her colleagues. Since the Great Recession began in 2008, the state has had budget gaps as large as $150 million. It's difficult to face these gaps year after year, she said.

"But we're not going to turn that around if we don't make investments," Heath said.

She said the state must provide housing, attempt to lift people out of poverty and increase spending on higher education in order to bolster the economy.

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington, voted against the budget because he said the process for evaluating expenditures was not transparent.

Committees spend days at a time, he said, nibbling around the edges of policy decisions and don't have an opportunity to really understand the budgets of their agencies of jurisdiction and evaluate the work being funded.

"The only way I can express the depth of my frustration is with a no vote," Pearson. "It comes with the hope we can have a deeper dive and understanding of the dollars we are spending."

Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-Grand Isle, said she would welcome more participation from committees that want to learn more about agency budgets.

Anne Galloway contributed to this report.


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