House OKs budget on 2nd reading

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MONTPELIER — The Vermont House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a $7.15 billion fiscal 2021 budget on Thursday on a second reading, setting the stage for final passage as early as today.

The budget passed 140-4 on a roll call vote, and every member of the Bennington and Windham county delegations voted yes. It will head to the state Senate once it passes on a third reading,.

The largest changes in the spending plan from the proposal offered by Gov. Phil Scott are centered on higher education. The House budget includes $23.8 million in bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges System — funding that Scott offered only if the federal government loosened spending requirements on COVID-19 relief funds, or provided more.

The total amount includes $1.66 billion in general fund spending.

Between coronavirus relief funds and general fund dollars, the budget allocates nearly $210 million to higher education this year, including a total of $98.4 million for VSCS, $80.5 million for the University of Vermont, $20 million to the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, and $10 million for the 11 members of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said the funding boost represented "the largest single-year investment in higher education in modern history."

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Colleges and universities have been hard-hit by the pandemic, as student enrollment dropped and students were sent home for online courses. But the Vermont State Colleges System was in deeper financial trouble, as the system had relied heavily on tuition revenue for decades due to relatively meager state budgetary support. The call for bridge funding came when former Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing three of its campuses — a proposal he then rescinded before stepping down — and allows the system time to develop a future plan.

"We know we are in a historic moment for the state college system," Chancellor Sophie Zdatny said. "This bridge funding provides us with an opportunity to make the system better, stronger and more unified, while maintaining high quality and expanding access."

The Appropriations Committee found the general fund dollars for VSCS by identifying line items that could be backfilled with coronavirus relief dollars.

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The budget does not raise taxes or use funds from the $208 million in reserve funds in the general fund. Appropriations Committee members, in presenting the spending plan, said they wanted to leave those funds alone, with the expectation that they could be needed for the fiscal 2022 budget.

The budget also provides CARES Act funds for K-12 schools to help address COVID-19 back to school needs, invests $2 million in child care financial assistance, and adds another $1 million for electric vehicle incentives.

The outgoing chair of the Appropriations Committee, Rep, Kitty Toll, D-Danville, said the budget maintains the House's spending priorities and does not cut programs or services for the state's most vulnerable residents. Toll is stepping down from the Legislature after this term.

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"This budget is balanced. It keeps reserves in place for capacity. It is a steady-state budget during an uncertain time," Toll said.

Toll and her committee's work were repeatedly commended by fellow members, who hailed their efforts despite the difficult financial circumstances.

During discussion, state Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said language in the budget clarifies the Legislature's intent when it funded only one year of the Pay Act, which funds the contract agreement between the state and the Vermont State Employees Association. The House had always intended to fund the second year of the deal, but to do so in the fiscal 2022 budget, and without having to re-open negotiations with the union, Hooper said.

Administration officials have previously said that by statute, the Legislature's lack of second-year funding for the Pay Act re-opened talks between the union and the state.

State Reps. Brian Cina, Selene Coburn, Randall Szott and Zack Watson voted no on the budget. Coburn and Watson stated they opposed the budget because it failed to raise taxes on the wealthiest Vermonters, missing an opportunity to raise revenue that could be invested in addressing the economic inequality exposed by the pandemic.

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.


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