Vermont’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2018 is being reviewed by the state Senate Appropriations Committee after its passage by the House last Friday. Two legislative leaders spoke about the spending plan shortly after it crossed over to the upper chamber.
The fiscal plan proposed by Republican Governor Phil Scott faced some initial controversy over an education funding remix and adamant stance that a $70 million budget gap be closed without raising taxes or fees.
Late last week the House passed the $5.8 billion budget proposal on a 143 to 1 vote. The House Appropriations Committee chair characterized it as a fiscally responsible plan that closed the gap and met the governor’s mandate to not raise fees or taxes.
House Minority Leader Republican Don Turner says his caucus has been trying for years to get a budget that keeps spending in line with growth. “We have for a number of years been opposing budgets that were really structurally unsound. They spent more money than the revenue would generate. This budget, although we don't agree with all the priorities, it does put us in a much better structurally fiscally sound position than we've been in years.”
The budget as passed by the House grows at less than 2 percent compared to the state revenue stream, which is growing at just under 3 percent. No one-time money is used for base spending and there are no new taxes or fees.
The budget has now moved to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Turner says the Senate has historically been more conservative than the House when reviewing budget proposals. “Now that might change. There's a new Senate President Pro Tem, a Progressive-slash-Democrat and the lieutenant governor’s is a Progressive-slash-Democrat. I think you're going to see more desire to spend more and I think you might see a flip flop in what was a more conservative chamber this year. But I am very comfortable knowing that Governor Scott, if there's going to be tax increases or fees, he's going to veto the budget.”
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe is a member of the Appropriations Committee. “I think there will be some changes as a result of the Senate work. It won't be a fundamental overhaul of the House budget but it will reflect the particular vision of members of the Senate.”
Early in the House deliberations education initiatives from Governor Scott were rejected by budget writers. Ashe says the Senate in general agrees with that House move. "The basic construct, which was to use state education tax payments to fund all sorts of non K-12 education needs, has largely been rejected by both the House and Senate.”
Leaders in Vermont have indicated that a special session may be needed later this year if the proposed federal budget impacts the Vermont budget. The federal fiscal plan concerns both Turner and Ashe. “The prospects of all or even parts of the Trump budget passing have me very worried for the state. Water quality is a good example where even there many of the dollars are not in our control. We need to know what Trump Administration proposals will actually pass before we set in motion new funding streams and strategies.”
Turner, while concerned, reflects a more partisan perspective. “We in Vermont have become very very dependent upon federal dollars. I'm not as concerned though as the majority of the Democrats are with the Trump budget. The reason is that there are 33 Republican governors in this country. I gotta believe that there’s going to to be some communication at some point on where we can start to trim some of the spending but in a way that is methodical and puts us in a better place going forward and it won't be all cut in one year.”
The Vermont Constitution requires that the House first pass the budget proposal before it is reviewed by the Senate.