Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia)
The Vermont Senate gave unanimous approval Tuesday to a $5.85 billion budget that would make large investments in mental health care and child welfare in 2019, while passing over several of Gov. Phil Scott’s proposals.
Despite winning support from every Senate Republican, the bill, which increases spending over the previous year by less than 1 percent, faces an uncertain future.
It relies on a $34 million tobacco settlement, and Scott announced Tuesday that he wants to use a majority of that money to hold property taxes level. The Republican governor could decide to veto the budget to pressure lawmakers into supporting his property tax and education cost-containment proposal.
Like the House, the Senate rejected a number of cuts that Scott recommended. Its budget would restore funding to two programs that serve people with disabilities, a loan repayment program for doctors and a health insurance cost-sharing program.
The Senate budget, unlike the House version, doesn't include tuition assistance for Vermont National Guard members, which the governor proposed.
The budget would invest $7 million from the tobacco settlement into the state’s child welfare system. Calling the current court model “very adversarial,” Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) said she wants to “see if we can do a better job for our children and for our families that are suffering.”
Another $10 million from the settlement would be used to shore up the teachers’ pension fund. And $5 million would support programs to expand the number of mental health and substance abuse workers, complementing a $4.3 million allocation that would raise salaries for mental health workers.
The budget would also provide more money for mental health beds. Again drawing on the settlement money, it would give $1 million to the Brattleboro Retreat, a private psychiatric hospital, to renovate space for 12 beds for patients in state custody. The capital bill includes another $4.5 million for this project.
The Senate and House will now need to reconcile their respective versions of the budget in a conference committee.