Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

MONTPELIER — The Vermont General Assembly endorsed a compromise $7.3 billion budget for fiscal 2022 on Friday and adjourned its formal business for the year.

The Vermont Senate voted on the spending plan first, approving it by a 30-0 vote. The House followed, approving the budget 148-0.

Lawmakers also set a date for a veto session for June 23, in order to address Scott’s veto of S. 107, and again on Oct 19, if needed.

The 2022 session of the biennium is set to begin start Jan. 4.

Friday morning, Senate Appropriations chair and conference committee member Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, walked members thought the plan, explaining the significant compromise reached on other post-employment benefits (OPEB) for teachers.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on how the state will afford its unfunded pension liabilities, the state has yet to focus on how post-employment benefits for teachers — most notably, healthcare — will be funded in the future.

“We set aside $13.8 million in reserve, the same way we did $150 million on pension side, to be there for when this issue is addressed,” Kitchel told fellow senators.

While future post-employment benefits for teachers will be contained in the education fund, the compromise reached by the House and Senate conferees is designed so that the addition does not affect the education property tax. Current retirees’ health benefits are still being paid out of the general fund.

“In the end, we reserved $14 million in the Education Fund until we can get consensus as to how to address the future cost of these health care benefits for when current teachers retire,” Kitchel explained in an email. “Currently there is nothing being systematically set aside to invest and grow over time to pay these future costs that are viewed by rating agencies as unfunded liabilities. With the multiple strong revenues flowing into the Education Fund, there can still be a reduction in the property tax rate and accommodate these pre-payments.”

Pre-funding the teachers’ OPEB liability could reduce it by $800 million, Kitchel said. “We felt now was the time to take that action,” she said. “This was a totally unaddressed cost ... it is recognizing we created a benefit with an obligation.”

The $7.34 billion spending plan spends $1.84 billion in general fund dollars, $1.85 billion from the education fund, $311 million from the transportation fund and $2.3 billion in non-relief federal dollars.

The budget collects ARPA funds into their separate section, and includes the intent to engage Vermonters in how the state should invest the rest of its $1.3 billion share in ARPA money.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Washington 4, said those ARPA investments include $150 million in housing, $150 million in broadband, $54.5 million on climate action, $115 for water cleanup projects, $66 million in technology upgrades, and $88 million in funds for the Vermont State Colleges System, including its reinvention plan and increased support for scholarships and job training.

The budget also includes a 3 percent increase in funding for designated agencies addressing social services and mental health. But Rep. Anne B. Donahue, R-Washington 1, warned that the state faces a coming mental health crisis among children affected by the pandemic across several budget areas. She said there are 780 job vacancies in the state’s community and health agencies, a shortfall that leads to a lack of services.

“As a result children wait an average of six months to see a counselor to get access to care,” Donahue said, adding that some children and their families are practically living in emergency rooms in order to be seen and treated.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

The impact of those mental health difficulties will affect housing, schools, and community agencies if not addressed, she said.

“I think it’s very important for the full body to be aware of this continued downward spiral and how it’s impacting children and budget pressures over the long term,” Donahue added.

{div}Progressive Reps. Brian Cina and Tanya Vyhovsky said the budget made strides in addressing disparities and inequity, and said they would support it. But in doing so, they exhorted their colleagues to do more to address inequality in health care, housing and education next session.{/div}

{div} {/div}

{div}In legislative business earlier Friday, the House approved an amendment to a housing bill, S. 79, which requires the establishment of a rental unit registry and provides revolving loan funds to first-time homebuyers and landlords bringing unused units back online. But the bill was not conveyed to the Senate in time to be enacted into law.{/div}

{div} {/div}

{div}Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Chittenden 6-4, moved that the vote on suspending the rules and messaging S. 79 “forthwith” to the Senate be conducted by roll call. But a three-fourths majority of lawmakers present is required for a rules suspension, and the motion passed 99-49 — short of the 111 votes needed.{/div}

{div} {/div}

{div}Colburn did not return an email by press time regarding the motion. {/div}

{div} {/div}

{div}The House and Senate both approved a resolution establishing May 25, the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, as a “day of remembrance and action” addressing his death at the hands of a former Minneapolis police officer, and how it galvanized attention on racial inequity. {/div}

{div}“George Floyd was murdered. That is not an ideological statement. That is not a political statement. That is a fact,” state Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said. He said Floyd’s death “[cemented] in the mind of America the need to change, the need to improve what we do, and the need to make sure what happened to George Floyd does not happen again to any other American regardless of his or her race.”

While the vote was unanimous in the Senate, it was not in the House, where several members, including Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Rutand 2, and Rep Brian Smith, R-Orleans 1, could be seen and heard voting “no” on voice vote.

“George Floyd was a career criminal with a violent past; to honor him in any way is wrong,” Peterson said by email. “I would have gladly supported a reworded resolution that honors the day as one of remembrance of this tragic event.”{/div}

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.