On Thursday, state officials announced the receipt of $28 million in additional funds from a universal settlement with tobacco companies. On Friday, House budget writers made the big decisions on how to spend the money.
There was agreement between Gov. Phil Scott, Attorney General T.J. Donovan and top legislative leaders to devote half of the windfall to addressing the opiate crisis. And there was general agreement that the money should be spent on short-term expenditures that would have real impact but wouldn't create ongoing budgetary obligations.
The House Appropriations Committee had the initial say on how to spend the other $14 million. As it wrapped up its work on the state budget Friday, it also made those decisions.
"We devoted $10 million to the teacher pension fund," said Appropriations chair Kitty Toll (D-Danville). "We put $2 million into our rainy day reserves, $1.5 million to higher education ... and $500,000 to a revolving loan fund for energy improvements in state-owned properties."
State Treasurer Beth Pearce had lobbied for the pension contribution, and was very pleased with the outcome. "This is a very good investment for the taxpayer," she said. "That $10 million will result in $29 million in savings on interest."
Members of the House Appropriations and Human Services committees worked out an agreement on the opiate money; that working group's decisions were then rolled into the budget by Appropriations. The group apportioned $2 million, and left the other $12 million to be decided over a longer period of time. Lawmakers plan to spread that money over the next four fiscal years to maximize long-term impact and to avoid the potential whiplash effect of a one-time appropriation that might not be sustainable.
Half of the $2 million would go to a loan-repayment program for people being trained as licensed addiction counselors. "You would be able to apply for loan repayment and you would have to guarantee five years of service to Vermont, similar to what we do with loan repayments for physicians and veterinarians," Toll said.
Some $660,000 would boost addiction services in state prisons. State officials have been trying to improve addiction assistance for inmates since Seven Days published a story in November on the lack of such services.
Another $300,000 would help pay for Circles of Support and Accountability, in which trained volunteers help former inmates reintegrate into their communities. Finally, $40,000 would go toward an inventory of school-based substance abuse support. "Where are the gaps, how do we coordinate and move forward?" said Toll. "We don't really have an inventory of what we do in the schools."
Those figures were folded into a fiscal year 2019 budget approved unanimously Friday afternoon by House Appropriations — a budget that, Toll noted, "does not raise any taxes or fees." The committee will review the budget on Monday after it's actually printed; if the panel gives the final OK, the budget proceeds to the floor of the House, which may vote on the spending plan by the end of the week.