Special Session Update — June 1

The House returned for Day 3 of the special session on June 3, 2018. The major topic of discussion and debate was H.13, the State budget bill. For an update of the events leading to the deliberation, see my May 30 update here.

H.13 was modified slightly from the budget bill (H.924) that passed in the 2018 session. The major change was that the Appropriations Committee removed a $34.5 appropriation to the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System that the Governor proposed be used to buy down property tax rates. The appropriators’ rationale was to pass a budget and leave unanswered one-time policy questions for future debate. This, they reasoned, would provide assurance that we have a State budget in place.

One other amendment that was worked into H.13 was language I added, at the urging of Essex constituents, to address an issue to clarify the process for election of members to unified school boards. This language was originally part of the miscellaneous education bill (S.257) which failed to pass at the end of the 2018 session. I was very pleased that the House Appropriations Committee agreed to attach my language without objection.

Thus, the House took up the amended State budget and a series of member amendments. The first amendment, brought forward by Rep. Toll, proposed language to clarify that the $34.5 million in unobligated dollars be made available to pay down teachers retirement obligations in the event that no deal is made to appropriate the funds by July 1. I voted yes on this amendment, which passed on a near unanimous vote. 

Next, we took up an amendment offered by Rep. Cynthia Browning to reallocate various streams of dollars, removing Act 46 merger costs from the Education Fund, to buy down property tax rates. While this idea was intriguing, review of the amendment was not supported by the House money Committees. It was noted that H.13 was a budget bill that had not been offered to address property tax changes. Rather, a second bill, H.4, is available to deal with property taxes after the budget passes. I agreed with this approach and joined the 84 members who voted against the amendment, which failed on a vote of 46-84. 

The members of the Appropriations Committee put forward an amendment that signaled the legislature’s intent to address Education Fund issues prior to July 1. The House unanimously supported the amendment, which passed. I voted yes.

Rep. McCoy next put forward an amendment to require that the General Assembly annually set the nonresidential property tax rate. Because of the way the proposal was structured, this could blow a hole through the Education Fund that would be extremely problematic. As such, I voted no. The amendment failed on a mixed voice vote.

We then moved to vote for H.13. I voted yes. The bill passed by a vote of 86-44. As I said in my vote explanation, “Madame Speaker, we must put in place this budget and keep our government open for business. By voting yes, we support a number of important investments, including a critical appropriation to create a National Guard Tuition Benefit Program. My neighbors have asked that we invest in our Guard personnel. I vote yes to create a program that is long overdue, and for Vermont’s Guard personnel who will soon be able to access postsecondary training and education because of this budget.”

Failure to put in place a budget for July 1 could be a financial disaster for our state. Vermont is known for its fiscally moderate policies and consensus revenue and budgeting processes. These sound practices inform the rating agencies’ views of Vermont. It would be a shame, and fiscal malpractice, for us to undercut decades of sound budget management due to political pressures. The stakes are too high, with a portfolio of financial borrowing that extends to state and municipal infrastructure, the cost of higher education, affordable housing development, and economic development. 

It’s time to end the stand off and forge consensus.