MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday signed the $7.3 billion fiscal 2022 budget passed by the Legislature last month, as well as the universal broadband access bill and a bill establishing a task force to address the state’s unfunded pension liability.
The budget, which spends nearly half a billion dollars in federal American Rescue Plan (ARPA) dollars, was passed on the last day of the 2021 legislative session.
The broadband bill, H.360, also relies upon $150 million in federal dollars, and achieves a policy goal that eluded past governors and legislatures for years due to its cost: Extending high-speed broadband service to the “last mile” of Vermont homes and businesses, as well as areas where private providers did not build out networks for business reasons.
There was wide agreement on broadband after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how essential high-speed access had become. It relies largely upon locally-elected and staffed communications union districts (CUDs) and provides tax incentives for companies working with CUDs to provide universal access.
On the budget, Scott had voiced doubts about the manner and amount of ARPA spending late in the legislative process. But the administration and legislative leaders reached compromises during the House-Senate conference committee process, and Scott’s signature was expected.
“This is a truly transformational budget that will allow us to recover from the pandemic and address some longstanding challenges, including our workforce shortage and economic inequity that exists from county to county,” Scott said.
“With smart state investments and a very strategic approach for using federal funds, this budget puts us on a new path to a more prosperous and equitable future for all of Vermont.”
The spending plan provides small business pandemic relief and invests in community revitalization projects, tourism marketing, and high school and adult technical education programs. It includes nearly $90 million for the Vermont State Colleges System and its reinvention plan, and sets aside millions for housing, home weatherization, mental health services and climate change mitigation.
Scott thanked the Legislature for its collaboration in reaching the budget agreement.
“By having clear priorities, working together and keeping an open mind, we found consensus on most issues, compromised where we needed to, and remained respectful when we disagreed. We showed that good, balanced bipartisan government can truly make a difference for the people and state we serve,” Scott said.
The pension bill, H. 449, changes the name and makeup of the Vermont Pension Investment Commission to make it more politically independent. It also establishes a summer task force of lawmakers and stakeholders to investigate ways the state can shrink its combined $5.6 billion in unfunded pension and post-employment health benefit liabilities, as well as its annual contribution to those funds.
The fiscal 2022 budget allocated more than $300 million to the pension liability, and lawmakers are concerned that without action the pension system may not remain solvent.
The community schools bill, H. 106, provides funding for hiring coordinators for up to 10 demonstration projects showing how schools can be leveraged as community centers providing medical and nutritional services to families.
Also signed by Scott was H. 183, a bill which updates the state’s sexual assault statute to clarify consent, particularly in the presence of alcohol or other drugs; and H. 436, which establishes a pair of studies pointed at a possible resumption of the state’s school building assistance program.