By Rep. Jim Harrison
In my prior role with the Grocers Association, I remember going into the House Appropriations Committee where the chair at that time, Michael Obuchowski, had a sign on the wall, “What part of NO do you not understand…The N or the O?” The message was clear if you were coming in to ask for funding. Be prepared to get turned down.
And even though the sign is no longer there, committee members continue to scrutinize proposals for funding increases. That’s their job. In my first term, I went in there on behalf of our committee to request $75,000 for a study related to law enforcement. Well after what seemed like some pretty rapid fire questioning, I think I came out with $5,000 and a new appreciation of understanding “NO.”
This past week, some may liken South Burlington voters to the appropriations committee after they voted down their school budget again, this time by a bigger margin on a lower budget request. Whether the dissatisfaction with the school budget was unique to South Burlington or a harbinger of things to come in this age of economic uncertainty is anyone’s guess.
We do know, however, that absent more federal funds to help states offset significant reductions in revenue, the appropriations committee will be saying “no” a lot. Current estimates suggest upwards of a $400 million deficit across various state budgets for the coming year.
On Friday, the Vermont House gave preliminary approval to legislation that would set statewide education property tax rates to increase as expected when local school budgets were adopted in early March. However, to maintain that level of increase, the Ed Fund will incur a significant deficit (estimated at $156 million) that will need to be paid back by increased taxes or reduced school spending over the next few years if federal help is not available. Under the tax bill, average statewide homestead rates will increase about 3 cents to $1.542. Earlier projections would have had the tax rate increasing 22 cents to cover the budget shortfall.
Other legislation of note
The Vermont Senate is moving ahead with a bill to remove Scott from participating in how the elections will be administered this fall. Back in March, given all the unknowns related to the pandemic and the state of emergency, the legislature gave the Secretary of State, Jim Condos, the ability to make changes to how the November elections were run if the governor agreed. Condos has made it clear he wants to send out ballots to all voters this fall, even if they haven’t requested an absentee ballot. Scott has indicated he may be agreeable but didn’t want to make that decision until after the August primary. Condos wants to proceed with all-mail balloting now for November. Scott worries that sends the wrong message about reopening Vermont if decided now.
House and Senate committees have started reviewing various components of the administration’s economic recovery package. The agriculture sector, which has a $50 million proposal from the federal CARES money, has sparked discussion over how much is spent to keep dairy farms afloat versus spending funds to help farms diversify.
A scaled back transportation bill was approved by the House in light of decreased tax revenues, such as the gas tax.
The Senate Natural Resources Committee is reviewing the House-passed Global Warming Solutions legislation, signaling an intent to get it passed this session. The legislation puts greenhouse gas reduction goals into law and sets up an independent panel to come up with plans to implement reduction strategies.
The House Government Operations Committee held a preliminary hearing on the Pay Act, legislation generally approved every two years to fund the cost of the collective bargaining agreement with the state employees union.
The estimated cost of the negotiated increases is about $31 million in the first year and $36 million in Year Two. As the contract was negotiated last winter before the Covid recession, it is unclear what the Legislature will appropriate given the looming deficit across state government next year. The governor’s administration, attorney general and auditor have already indicated they will not be instituting cost of living increases to their exempt staff (non-union appointed positions). The states’ attorneys also indicated they would forgo salary increases for themselves.
Jim Harrison represents Bridgewater, Chittenden, Killington and Mendon in the state house. He can be reached at JHarrison@leg.state.vt.us.