Greg Sukiennik: Look ahead, Vermont | State college funding now a priority

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If you listened in on any committee hearing dealing with spending in the Vermont Legislature, then you've probably heard at least one lawmaker remind his or her colleagues that money needs to be set aside for as much as $30 million in "bridge funding" to help the Vermont State College System survive its current financial crisis.

How things have changed. A year ago, a proposal for $25 million in additional base funding over five years to make the schools more affordable went nowhere. When the system asked for a mere $3 million extra dollars to stabilize tuition, the state Senate pared that request back to $2.5 million.

It meant the end of his tenure, but one could argue that when he proposed closing three campuses this spring, former VSC Chancellor Jeb Spaulding delivered a needed the shock to the system that awakened the Legislature to the need for action.

|It was risky and ill-advised, but it worked: The Legislature is ready to load its funding trebuchet with $30 million for VSC, and it's a question of how, not if.

Also helping make a case for VSC is its new Chancellor, Sophie Zdatny, who seems to have made a positive first impression. Under her watch the system has already prioritized efforts to focus on students' needs and the system's benefit to Vermont. And Zdatny told the Education Committee that the system will be budgeting as a system going forward, rather than as separate institutions.

The other side of this, of course, is that money has to come from somewhere. And that's the $30 million question the Legislature will have to answer in the days ahead as it reviews the spending plan.

If you're looking for places where that funding might be found, watch the House Appropriations Committee this week. That panel has penciled out most of its agenda for the week for "mark-up and committee discussion."

While we're on the topic of VSC, state Rep. Kathleen James, D-Manchester, has been named to the Select Committee on Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont — the task force asked to chart a new future for the system's five schools and six campuses.

James, who sits on the House Education Committee and is a legislative delegate to the New England Board of Higher Education, is hoping to provide perspectives from the New England board, as well from Advance Vermont, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing post-secondary attainment in the state.

"One of the things Advance Vermont thinks about, and one of the most interesting reports I have from NEBHE, is how we can bring adults back to school and help Vermont adults ... get the additional education they need to get high paying jobs," James said. "I think that's an important perspective to bring to this conversation."

While James' current focus is the budget — and finding that bridge funding — she does see opportunity in a tough situation.

"I do think that every great crisis brings with it the possibility of something new and exciting. The early indications I've seen are that the Vermont State Colleges are taking that challenge seriously, and are going to be willing to innovate," she said.

MEANWHILE, IN THE SENATE ...

This past week the state Senate Rules Committee, which includes Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint, D-Windham, agreed on a slate of bills ready to advance to the floor for votes once the budget and COVID relief funding are addressed. They include H.880, which would add Abenaki place names to official state signage; H.962, which amends the state's abuse order law to make ex parte restraining orders binding until dismissed or denied at a final hearing; H.663, which seeks to expand access to contraception and makes condoms available at secondary schools; H.611, the Older Vermonters Act, which focuses on providing services to aging residents at the local and state level; and H.607 which attempts to address the state's nursing shortage. Ever been curious about how to look up a bill? It's not as hard as it may seem. Go to http://legislature.vermont.gov and type a bill name or keywords into the search window.

There are several ways to get at the bill you're curious about, even if you don't know the number. You can type in key words for a topic search; look up your lawmaker, whose page will include the bills he or she has sponsored; or type in a committee name, which will give you files including their agendas, materials they reviewed and testimony they took from witnesses. Or, click on "bills in/out of committee" and you'll get the title, the bill number and the lawmaker(s) who sponsored the bill.

THREE CHEERS FOR EDNA

There was some drama this past week over the Democratic flavor of an "Elect Vermont Women Rally" on the Statehouse lawn hosted by Molly Gray, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor. While it wasn't advertised as a Democrats-only event, it hailed "women leaders and candidates from up and down the ballot to discuss the incomplete centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment and the work ahead to achieve true equality."

As those speakers are all Democrats, including Balint, Treasurer Beth Pearce, Speaker Mitzi Johnson and House Majority Leader Jill Krowinski, the event's Democratic tone wasn't exactly a big secret. But Republican Rep. Heidi Scheuermann of Stowe took to Twitter to complain about the partisan monoculture.

"Must have misplaced my invitation, @mollyforvermont for this "Rally to Elect VT Women." Oh wait ... I'm a VT Republican woman, so not woman enough apparently. Seriously, in the future, please make clear that this & @EmergeVT priority is Dems, not women," Scheuermann wrote on Twitter.

Emerge Vermont, as readers might know, is an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office. Its alumnae in the Statehouse include Balint, Gray, James, and state Reps. Emilie Kornheiser of Brattleboro and Sara Coffey of Guilford. Its graduates have made a habit of winning elections.

The question practically asks itself: Does the Vermont GOP have a similar program for women candidates? And if not, why not?

Here's the thing: The first woman elected to the Legislature was a Republican. Edna Louisa Beard (1877-1928) represented Orange in both houses. She first ran and won in 1920, after then-Gov. Percival Clement refused to call a special legislative session to vote on ratifying the 19th Amendment.

Here's a non-partisan toast to Edna Louisa Beard, whom we think would be pleased to learn that women of all parties hold 73 of 180 seats in the state House and Senate.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Reach him at


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