Senate Appropriations Committee chair Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia)
The 30-member Vermont Senate unanimously approved a $7.2 billion state budget Thursday that reflects only modest cutbacks to state government due to strong pre-coronavirus revenues and a massive federal bailout.
Sen. Jane Kitchel (D-Caledonia) warned her colleagues and the public, however, to brace for far more painful cuts ahead as revenues dry up and more difficult choices loom.
“The pandemic has hammered our revenues, and this year’ budget does not fully reflect that revenue loss,” Kitchel said.
Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said it had been “amazingly difficult” for Kitchel’s appropriations committee to juggle the budget interests of the governor and the House and Senate committees in the current climate.
A key reason the proposed cuts weren’t deeper was because the state received $130 million more in tax revenue in July than it had expected, something that clearly will not be repeated, Kitchel said.
The Senate’s budget changes, which still need a final vote and then approval by the House, align in many ways with the version the House passed on September 10.
For example, the budget preserves $23.8 million in bridge funding for the Vermont State Colleges System, which had warned of a dire financial crisis that could force the closure of campuses in Lyndon, Johnson and Randolph.
Kitchel noted that the state was largely able to afford the infusion because some of the $1.25 billion federal CARES Act funding had boosted public safety and health budgets.
“We made a commitment to the state colleges system, and this fulfills it,” said Kitchel, whose district includes the Lyndon campus.
There are a number of differences in the budget proposals, too, but few seemed substantial enough to prevent the two chambers from reaching consensus.
One was the reinsertion of $21,000 into the budget to outfit capitol police with body cameras. The House removed the allocation, but the Senate restored it, Kitchel said, in part due to recent protests about police accountability.
The Senate also trimmed $136,000 from a line item in the House budget proposal that's meant to ensure that the Agency of Natural Resources has the staff to administer the Global Warming Solutions Act, which Kitchel said she fully expected to be passed despite the governor’s veto.
The Senate version would also set aside $1 million for plug-in electric vehicle incentives. The House version had $500,000 for a high-efficiency vehicle incentive program.
Sen. Debbie Ingram (D-Chittenden) expressed concern about adding money to the public safety budget. While she agreed with funding a new program that would require the state police to partner with mental health professionals on calls that might have a mental health component, she did not agree with giving more money to law enforcement.
Ingram said she had recently met with clergy in Burlington about the protests there, and she worried that adding cash to the public safety budget “sends kind of a bad signal” to people hoping for “transformative changes in public safety.”
Ashe assured Ingram that the budget was not being increased to achieve the change.
“This is repurposing dollars that were already in the base budget and shifting them to be used to contract with mental health professionals,” Ashe said.
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.
Correction, September 18, 2020: A previous version of this story misidentified the group Ingram spoke with about Burlington protests.