State News

On a different page

By Jim Harrison

As I begin my third year on the House Appropriations Committee, I have often marveled how the 11 member (now 12) could reach consensus on the major budget bills each session. That doesn’t mean we all agreed on every appropriation, but enough compromises were made to achieve unanimous votes in committee.

Unfortunately, last Friday, I was the first to break that trend with our first committee informal vote on the annual Budget Adjustment Bill before us (official vote will be Jan. 30, so it’s still possible things may change as I write this column). The BAA as it is referred to, starts with a proposal from the administration that is a series of revisions to the current budget we are operating under. It includes revised line items in various agencies after they have six months of actual expenses to review. 

Additionally, this year’s proposal included the utilization of more federal funds, especially Medicaid, which helped free up state dollars for several one-time investments, like $30 million more for broadband and $9 million for a secure youth residential facility.

Essentially, the committee agreed to almost all of the administration’s proposed changes. However, various House committees and advocates weighed in on extra funding requests for a total of over $90 million, roughly a 25% hike from the initial proposal. And while there are current state surplus dollars to pay for the additional one-time requests, it begs the question of what won’t be funded in next year’s budget or which of the proposed tax breaks from the governor will now be put on hold or conversely create pressure for future tax hikes.

I will admit I was getting a bit cranky on Friday afternoon. What put me in the “no” column was an extra $21 million to extend the hotel voucher program without limits to participation for the last three months of the current fiscal year. Up until now, the expanded hotel program for the homeless, has been paid for by federal funds. The new $21 million being appropriated will be from Vermont taxes. I tried to find a compromise by suggesting some parameters as to who would still be eligible (families with children, disabled, seniors over 65), but those recommendations were rejected by the committee.

Under the expanded eligibility, which is the only one of its kind in the country, virtually anyone can get a room if they are available. We have young working age individuals that come to Vermont to get free rooms and other benefits. Places like Rutland have seen a significant uptick in crime and drug usage attributable to some of the individuals in the hotel program. The state does not help those communities with their extra law enforcement costs, which means local taxpayers get stuck with that bill, too. The only area we could agree on was to add a request to the Dept. of Children and Families to meet with various stakeholders to come up with a longer-term plan to reduce the need for the hotel vouchers. This is an approach that has been undertaken before, but unfortunately failed.

Other items of interest:

Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, told a Senate committee that the legislative proposal for a Clean Heat Standard, could increase heating fuel prices by an estimated 70 cents per gallon, although acknowledging the program could offer overall savings perhaps by 2030.

The House Appropriations Committee set aside $9.2 million to help an estimated 139 organic dairy farmers get through the winter.

The House Judiciary Committee has been holding hearings on H.89, which proposes to shield Vermont health care providers for serving patients who come here for reproductive health care services that may not be legal in their own state. 

The Chair of Senate Government Operations has introduced legislation, S.39, which would extend health care and childcare benefits to members of the legislature and asks for a study on legislative pay. The bill is co-sponsored by every member of her committee, which is where the legislation will be reviewed.

Over 50 House members have introduced legislation that reintroduces Vermont to a path towards a single-payer state-funded universal health care plan. This comes nine years after former Governor Peter Shumlin pulled the plug on such a plan because of the new taxes that the initiative would have required.

The governor signed into law H.42, which continues to give municipalities flexibility with remote meetings as well as voting by Australian ballot at town meetings. However, he criticized a provision that no longer requires school districts to disclose per pupil costs to Vermonters when voting.

The Dept. of Financial Regulation announced a decrease in workers compensation rates paid by employers on policies beginning after April 1 by an average of 6.9%.

Over the next few weeks, House and Senate committees will be busy reviewing their priority bills for the session. It remains to be seen if middle ground can be found on some of the larger policy initiatives that will be considered. And perhaps whether the member from the town of Chittenden can land on that same page?

Jim Harrison is the state house representative for Chittenden, Killington, Mendon and Pittsfield. He can be reached at: or

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