BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Legislature is entering the final phase of the 2022 session, with the budget bill for fiscal year 2023, the transportation bill, and the capital spending bill all receiving approval from the House last week.
The proposed state budget for FY 2023 is more than $8 billion, the largest in Vermont history, thanks to strong General Fund revenues and hundreds of millions of dollars in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
But when local lawmakers briefed members of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce in an online version of the organization's annual breakfast meeting on March 28, there was one overriding theme - Vermonters should not get used to seeing big budgets in the future.
“The overarching thing that I've been hearing is that there is disconnect between what is happening in the State House and the people,” said State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney. “There's a sense that we're just flush with money because we got the biggest budget we've ever passed.”
Mrowicki said that while the state “has a lot of ARPA money and federal money, and that's expanded what our budget looks like this year, I can tell you the Appropriations Committee is being kept up at night because we are still not able to meet all the requests and the needs that we would like.”
“Next year is going to be completely different,” he said.
House Majority Leader Emily Long, D-Newfane, echoed that thought.
“The challenge for us is to be careful with the use of the ARPA funds, because we know they won't be there next year,” she said.
Even so, the Legislature is trying make the most of what has been described as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address long-deferred needs.
And local lawmakers told Chamber members that they have been in the thick of the process.
Focus on transportation
State Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro, focused on the $866 million transportation bill that the House passed last week. That legislation focuses on investments in bridge and road repairs and public transit, and significant increases in funding for electric vehicles and the infrastructure to run them.
Vermont got $2.2 billion from the infrastructure bill passed by Congress last fall for investments in and upgrades to roads, bridges, water and sewer systems, and expanded broadband access, with transportation needs to get the bulk of that money.
Burke said that while the House Transportation Committee had a record amount of money to spend due to ARPA, “we had to move some money around” to comply with the stipulations on how the money would be spent that came with the federal largesse.
With $12 million earmarked for incentives for Vermonters who want to buy electric vehicles and for other programs to help low-income Vermonters with transportation needs, Burke said the transportation budget is a bipartisan effort that “addresses our transportation emissions in order to meet the goals of our Climate Action Plan” to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.
Boosting the creative economy, and workforce issues
Burke said that of interest to Brattleboro's arts economy is H.624, the Creative Futures Bill, which passed the House last week and calls for $17.5 million of economic aid to Vermont organizations and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The funding will come through two programs: a forgivable loan program administered by the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) and Capital Investment Grants administered by Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD).
Reps. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, and Tristan Toleno, D-Brattleboro, who could not attend the breakfast, had their reports relayed to the Chamber by Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro.
Coffey said the Creative Futures Act helps a sector of the economy that has been the slowest to recover from the pandemic. She said that the bill, which also has strong support in the Senate, is helping transform the conversation about the creative economy and what it contributes to Vermont.
Toleno said he has spent much of his time on a workforce development bill, H.703, that addresses a common complaint among Vermont businesses of all sizes - the ability to hire and retain skilled workers and add to a labor pool that has been depleted by the retirement of the baby boomers and the disruptions of the pandemic.
Some solutions the bill addresses include loan forgiveness for students who commit to staying in Vermont to work or to start businesses, increased funding for vocational training, more apprenticeship opportunities for people who work in the building trades, and addressing staffing shortages in health care.
Addressing the housing crisis
However, as Kornheiser and other lawmakers at the breakfast emphasized, the biggest problem facing the state is the lack of housing at all income levels.
“It's the top concern for Vermonters right now,” said Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Brattleboro, with access to affordable child care and rising energy costs not far behind.
Balint said that the housing crisis affects the worker shortage in Vermont because while the unemployment in the state is at an all-time low, prospective workers are having a hard time finding an affordable place to live.
“People want to move here, but they can't find a place to live,” said Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster.
One group of people who are feeling that pinch, she said, are the nearly 100 Afghan refugees who arrived in Vermont over the past few months.
Bos-Lun said most are in the process of moving from their temporary quarters at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, and are ready to work in the community, “but we need more housing for everyone.”
A perennial complaint among Vermonters - the byzantine system that funds education - may finally get straightened out with the passage of S.287, a Senate bill designed to improve student equity by adjusting the school funding formula.
Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, said the House is ready to pass the bill, which changes pupil “weighting,” the system that accounts for additional costs associated with educating students who are living in poverty or who speak a language other than English.
For the past few years, Sibilia has said this formula has left many rural school districts underfunded. She says it is essential to reform it “in order to know we are providing equitable access to resources for all of our students, and that we have a tax system that is fair throughout our state.”
“Right now, since Act 60, that system has been out of balance and created harm,” Sibilia said.
Some of the local lawmakers in attendance at the breakfast said that the districts they now represent will change, starting with the 2022 election.
The once-a-decade process of redistricting, based on population changes in the 2020 U.S. Census, has been going on over the past few months and had led to some new districts being drawn up.
According to the new House and Senate district maps for Windham County that were approved by the Senate last week and now await Gov. Phil Scott's signature, Coffey's Windham-1 district of Vernon and Guilford is unchanged, while Sibilia's current district on the western edge of Windham County has been dismembered.
A new Windham-2 district - encompassing Dover, Jamaica, Wardsboro, Stratton, and Somerset - has been created. Readsboro, Searsburg, and Stamford, Bennington County towns that Sibilia currently represents, have been shifted into a new Bennington County district with Pownal.
Londonderry has been moved into a revised Windham-Windsor-Bennington district with the towns of Winhall, Weston, and Andover, while Windham has been moved into a new Windsor-Windham district with the towns of Athens, Grafton, and Chester.
The new Windham-3 district now consists of Rockingham, Westminster, and Brookline, while the new Windham-4 now contains just two towns, Putney and Dummerston.
Windham-5 will cover Townshend, Newfane, and Marlboro, and Windham-6 has just three towns - Wilmington, Whitngham, and Halifax.
Brattleboro keeps its three districts - which will be now be known as Windham-7, Windham-8, and Windham-9 - with some subtle shifts to district lines within the town.
As for Windham County's two Senate seats, their boundaries will remain, with the exception of Londonderry and Wilmington shifting into Bennington County's Senate district.