MONTPELIER — Legislative leaders were pleased to hear Gov. Phil Scott address the need for investment in broadband, housing, child care and weatherization in his budget address on Tuesday.
But leaders including House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President pro tempore Becca Balint are withholding judgement until they see more policy details in Scott’s $6.8 billion spending proposal, delivered in an address to a virtual joint session of the General Assembly.
And there are areas where Balint and Krowinski would have like to seen more investment in climate change initiatives and in mental health services. Balint said she would like to see weatherization as a yearly rather than one-time program, and Krowinski said “there’s much more to be done.”
Balint in particular was pleased to hear Scott address issues that have had multiregional and bipartisan support. She was also glad to hear Scott refer to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and the need for unity.
“We’re singing from the same hymn book but might be on different pages,” Balint said. “We have to get into the details.”
Krowinski and Balint, in separate interviews, said they noted the absence of investment in mental health treatment and support in Scott’s budget proposals.
“We’ve got a system that was already stretched and stressed before this emergency hit,” said Balint, D-Windham. “Given that we’re in an emergency, I was hoping to see more stated desire to make investments there.”
Krowinski, D-Burlington, said she’s “deeply concerned” about the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health. “I think as well we should be looking at proposals and the idea that we need to help Vermonters no matter what their ZIP code,” she said, adding that a proposal may be forthcoming from the House.
Krowinski and Balint both said they appreciated Scott’s desire to be targeted and efficient with the $210 million he has proposed for one-time spending initiatives. In that sense, they were in agreement with state Rep. Pattie McCoy, R-Poultney, the House minority leader.
McCoy said the plan was wise in matching one-time needs with one-time funds, and “makes critical investments in our physical and technological infrastructure, as well as economic development.”
“Further, Governor Scott’s commitment to not raising taxes on Vermonters during an economic downturn is a position widely shared by House Republicans,” McCoy said.
Both Balint and Krowinski were pleased to learn that Scott’s budget would allocate additional resources to Director of Racial Equity Xusanna Davis, given her office’s expanding responsibilities.
In the budget proposal, Scott allocated $20 million in a second, final bridge funding round for the Vermont State Colleges System. While that was less than half of the $45 million VSCS sought in bridge funding for fiscal 2021, Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said she was grateful for the state’s continued support of efforts to stabilize and reinvent the system, calling it “another stepping stone on the system modernization path.”
Lt. Gov Molly Gray said while Democrats and Scott don’t fully agree on priorities or the path ahead, “we do agree on this: Vermont is in better economic shape because of the sacrifices and hard work of Vermonters throughout this pandemic. “
“We also agree on the fundamental truth and harsh reality that Vermont’s workforce and tax base continue to decline posing a growing threat to our current and future economic stability,” Gray said.
Gray said the state is well-positioned to work with the state’s Congressional delegation in making strategic investments, namely, broadband, workforce development and the state colleges system.
The Public Assets Institute, a Montpelier-based think tank, said Scott’s budget proposal should do more to help Vermonters.
“Instead of cautioning that this is one-time money that shouldn’t set the standard for budgets to come, the governor and Legislature should chart a course to continue to meet not only Vermonters’ basic needs, such as food, but also those needs that it took a global pandemic to reveal and address,” institute spokesperson Sarah Lyons said.
“The goal cannot be to return to business as usual, or to the systemic inequities that harm many Vermonters,” Lyons said.