Senate approves $370 million spending package

Jane Kitchel on the podium with Statehouse columns in the background
Senator Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, at a press conference in Montpellier on June 2, 2021. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Senate has given preliminary approval to a $367 million spending package, a move that would spend tens of millions of dollars on retention and recruiting bonuses on social service programs, housing initiatives and job cuts. debt – among a dizzying array of other initiatives.

The package is the Senate’s response to a budget adjustment bill passed by the House and approved last month. The lower house can now choose to accept the Senate’s changes and send H.679 to the governor’s office, or propose yet other amendments.

The budget adjustment law is usually a low-key affair that makes minor changes to the current year’s annual budget, while major policy initiatives and debates are reserved for the annual finance bill. But with unprecedented amounts of federal money to be spent quickly, this year’s process is a different story.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott and the Democratic-controlled legislature have repeatedly clashed over the best use of Vermont’s federally funded windfall. The governor argued that one-time money should be reserved for transformational projects that primarily require one-time capital investments. Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been equally eager to spend on people and programs.

These disagreements are reproduced here. Of particular concern for the Scott administration: a $60 million recruitment and retention grant program that would send one-time bonuses to thousands of workers in the state’s social service sector.

Bonuses were originally the Governor’s idea. But lawmakers doubled the amount, using $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, and increased the number of eligible employees.

Vermont still has about $500 million to spend in bailout funds, along with eye-popping surpluses and some $2.2 billion from the infrastructure deal reached late last year. But administration officials say the money will nonetheless flow quickly and should be used more strategically.

The measure passed, 24-6, with near unanimous opposition from Republicans. Sen. Rich Westman, R-Lamoille, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee responsible for drafting the budget, was the only GOP senator to vote with Democrats and Progressives.

“Housing, broadband: it’s expensive. And that’s why they weren’t made. So to take half a billion dollars and cut it by 20% — which they’re doing — that’s a big deal,” Vermont Commissioner of Finance and Management Adam Greshin said in reference to the plan. Total American bailout of the Senate bill. expenses.

But Democratic lawmakers say the need to retain frontline staff is critical as Vermont and the country see upheaval in low-wage sectors. The Senate also added a requirement that bonuses must be conditional on workers staying for at least a year.

The fiscal regularization bill is sprinkled with other bailout spending not related to infrastructure. There’s $6 million for the Vermont Food Bank, for example, and $10 million for Vermont State Colleges to continue a popular free tuition program for another year. Another $6 million has also been set aside for bonuses for child care workers.

Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin briefs journalists
Adam Greshin on January 24, 2019. File Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

But the legislation also differs in what it does not include.

Scott had asked to spend $80 million between three housing initiatives. The House accepted two, totaling $75 million, but cut a $5 million program that would help subsidize the construction of homes for middle-income families struggling to enter the housing market. (Lawmakers have said they are open to accepting the administration’s proposal for a so-called “missing middle” program during the regular budget process, but they need more details.)

Meanwhile, the Senate reduced Scott’s $80 million request to $55 million — at least in the Budget Adjustment Act. They kept aside the $5 million the House withdrew and also canceled a $20 million appropriation for the Vermont Housing Improvement Program, which would help pay for new secondary suites or help owners to rehabilitate vacant or code-breaking properties.

Senate Democrats say they intend to eventually donate that $20 million to the program. But they now plan to join it with S.210, an update to S.79, a rental registry and security bill that Scott vetoed last year.

Last year’s tenant protection bill also included language that created the housing improvement program, and senators say the new appropriations should be coupled with legislation that formally establishes the housing improvement program. Vermont housing improvement.

After Scott’s veto, the administration went ahead and created the program anyway, since an initial kitty was earmarked in the 2022 budget. Lawmakers counter that was a suspicious move.

“We are not repeating the problem that was created last year and we are making money and politics travel together,” said Senator Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee.

But taking the housing improvement program assignment and putting it in S.210 is also widely seen as an attempt to force Scott to negotiate a bill he doesn’t like. And Republicans argue that’s an unnecessary delay.

“The governor believes that any deferral of housing revenue is a step in the wrong direction,” Greshin said.

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