The budget conference committee made progress toward a budget deal on Monday, resolving a House-Senate difference on the amount of federal dollars allocated to expanding high-speed broadband and agreeing to an additional $500,000 to expand library internet access.
The two sides are aiming at agreeing to a compromise budget by the end of Tuesday so that both the House and Senate can vote the $7 billion spending plan up or down, allowing for adjournment at the end of the week. Members of Gov. Phil Scott’s cabinet have been participants in talks as well, as Scott has taken issue with the amount of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) relief dollars allocated by both bodies.
Talks were continuing at press time Monday.
The six-legislator committee, with three lawmakers each from the state House and Senate, began its second week of negotiations Monday by addressing the funding set aside for broadband.
The House version of H 360, the broadband expansion bill, had provided $150 million in federal relief dollars for plans to expand universal high-speed service to every household in Vermont. The Senate took the money out of the bill and put it into the budget. But in doing so, it reduced the amount to $100 million, based on the belief that it might be difficult to spend that much money in a fiscal year, and committed to restoring the additional $50 million if needed.
Monday, House Appropriations chairperson Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Washington 2, said the House side — including Reps. Peter Fagan, R-Rutland 5-1, and Kimberly Jessup, D-Washington 5 — hoped the compromise budget would appropriate the entire $150 million sum.
“We would very much like to signal this is necessary,” Hooper said. “We are deeply hopeful there will be additional federal funds for infrastructure and broadband could be addressed there.”
Hooper’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, reiterated that the Senate set its $100 million figure based on what it believed could be reasonably spent in a year. That said, Kitchel and her Senate colleagues, Sens. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, agreed with the House request
“If this gives us greater certainty and support for planning, I see this as very consistent,” Kitchel said.
The House and Senate conferees also agreed on a $500,000 request for updating Vermont libraries’ internet connections — and further agreed it should not come out of the broadband expansion dollars.
That request had come from the Scott administration after both the House and Senate had completed their budget proposals.
“I’m sure everyone heard from their librarian about that money,” Kitchel said. “We never took it out of the broadband bill) because it was never in there.”
Another change agreed to by House and Senate negotiators will provide $15 million in relief money for the state’s private colleges. The two sides agreed to not only provide the funds to members of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges, but increased the amount from an original $10 million request.
“These are important institutions in our communities. They are important employers and they attract and retain young people in our state,” Hooper said. “They are an important economic development tool. We need to make sure to the best of our ability they are viable.”