House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) with House Appropriations Committee chair Kitty Toll (D-Danville) and vice chair Peter Fagan (R-Rutland)
A couple of really odd things happened Thursday in the Vermont House.
A $5.8 billion proposed state budget won near unanimous backing, with a 143-1 vote. Beforehand, Republican House members gathered for a press conference and declared that they liked the plan produced by a chamber led by a Democratic majority.
“Today is the first step in the right direction,” said House Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton).
And a tax bill that raises no new taxes passed 138-0. “That was a first for me,” Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover) tweeted afterwards, referring to the unanimous vote.
Turner said it was a first for him, too. He didn’t think he’d ever before voted in favor of a tax bill during his 12 years in the legislature.
The widespread support came for a budget that would increase overall state spending spending by 1 percent. On Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee chair Kitty Toll (D-Danville) called the small increase “a significant accomplishment.”
The Ways and Means Committee chipped in $5 million in new revenue to fund the budget. The money would come not from new taxes, but by cracking down on those who already should be paying taxes.
Committee chair Janet Ancel (D-Calais) told colleagues Thursday that her panel held the line with an eye toward looming federal budget cuts. “We rely heavily on federal money. If those programs are cut, we are going to need to look at whatever tax capacity we have,” she said.
Even Republican Gov. Phil Scott praised the budget, though the plan disregards his proposal to fund childcare and higher education by holding local school budgets to level funding.
“They’ve done a lot of work. They could have gone in a different direction,” Scott said Wednesday.
For all the agreement, it’s often the dissent that stands out.
“Ten [no votes] would have been easier than one,” Toll said after watching the first budget she oversaw as committee chair pass.
Toll confronted Rep. Warren Van Wyck (R-Ferrisburgh), who cast the lone vote against the budget bill, as he was leaving the House chamber.
“You never darkened my door,” she lectured. “You can vote however you want, but come to our committee if there’s something you need.”
Van Wyck responded that he had spoken to committee member Mary Hooper (D-Montpelier) to express his view that state spending has been too high for the last eight years and more cuts were necessary. “I think we ought to look at going on a diet,” he said.
Before the House is done voting on the budget bill Friday, there will be more voices of dissent. Republicans and liberal Democrats plan to offer amendments seeking to shift some of the decisions the Appropriations Committee made.
The Working Vermonters’ Legislative Caucus plans to seek a broader definition of who qualifies for emergency housing after the committee eliminated a cold-weather exemption. The group also wants to put parameters on which grants the Agency of Human Services can cut.
Republicans will seek to restore funding proposals Scott made for childcare subsidies, housing, economic development and military education. They’ll propose paying for those by closing the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor. The move, which Scott had proposed, is projected to save $3.5 million.
Given that Republicans hold just 53 of the 150 seats in the House, their amendment is unlikely to succeed. But Turner claimed Republican success Thursday for pushing Democrats to create a budget that included no new taxes. “What really drove that is the governor has been solid: He will veto any new fees and taxes,” Turner said.
A day earlier, Toll downplayed Scott’s role in the budget outcome. “I can’t think of a day the House Appropriations Committee was working under the shadow of a veto. I don’t think we had that conversation,” she said.
“I agree,” chimed in Rep. Peter Fagan (R-Rutland), the committee vice chair.
The budget closes a $73 million revenue gap through a variety of program cuts, increases in certain federal funding and yet-to-be identified administrative savings. Most of the cuts went over without an outcry. One exception was the elimination of a cold-weather exemption that provides motel rooms to homeless people during extremely cold temperatures.
The House’s budget plan does not provide the same increases in spending for childcare subsidies or higher education that Scott had proposed. Budget writers noted that Scott’s plan depended on forcing local communities to level fund school budgets, which failed to gain support.
The House budget does offer the Vermont State Colleges a $2 million budget increase — half the $4 million that the colleges sought. And the money comes from the Higher Education Trust Fund, which provides student scholarships, meaning, in essence, that the budget increase helps the colleges at the expense of students.
The tax bill is expected to raise $5 million by cracking down on those who should be paying taxes already. That means the state could catch up with Vermonters who neglect to pay sales tax on online and out-of-state purchases. The House bill would also direct the Tax Department to reach into taxpayers’ bank accounts for overdue taxes when other options have failed.