Amid flaring tempers about homelessness and panhandling, a participant holds a sign at a 2019 rally in downtown Brattleboro.
Shanta Lee/Commons file photo
Amid flaring tempers about homelessness and panhandling, a participant holds a sign at a 2019 rally in downtown Brattleboro.

Governor, Legislature at odds over budget priorities

Most local lawmakers eye an override of Scott's budget veto

BRATTLEBORO — For almost five months, state legislators worked diligently on a budget. In one afternoon, Gov. Phil Scott vetoed it.

Scott's veto, which came down on May 27, was based on affordability.

“Vermonters have made it clear that living in our state is not affordable, and the data backs that up as we are ranked as having one of the highest tax burdens in the nation,” Scott said in a press release.

Scott, a Republican, accused the Legislature - where Democrats have a supermajority - of spendthrift spending.

“Across this budget and other bills, the Legislature's tax, fee, and spending decisions this session may add an average of nearly $1,200 to a household's burden each year - on top of higher property tax bills and inflation, which have already consumed the increase in most people's paychecks,” Scott said.

The bills the governor especially disliked seem to be the ones most dear to Democratic senators and representatives: “child care, universal school meals, the clean heat standard, and more.”

“Here's the bottom line,” Scott said. “I cannot support a budget that relies on new and regressive taxes and fees, combined with the overall increase in base spending that is far beyond our ability to sustain, especially because there is a way to achieve our shared policy goals without them. The risk to Vermonters is too great.”

To override Scott's veto, the House and Senate need a two-thirds vote in each chamber. Although the Legislature has adjourned for the year, leaders have tentatively scheduled a return in late June to override governor's expected budget veto.

The Legislature has already overridden Scott's veto of the Affordable Heat Act and turned it into law.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Baruth immediately issued a blistering response to Scott's veto.

“At this point, Phil Scott has issued far more vetoes than any governor in Vermont history, an increasingly unsettling aspect of his tenure,” Baruth said in a news release.

“And this veto of [the budget] has to be the most flawed and harmful of any in recent memory,” he continued.

“With one-time money subtracted, the Legislature's budget and the Governor's differ by about 3% - with nearly all of that difference flowing to mental health, adult-days, and other critical service providers.”

* * *

Much of the drama about the budget revolves around the motel voucher system, which is set to begin expiring on June 1.

The formerly federally funded General Assistance (GA) housing program, also called the “motel voucher program,” has been excessively costly, but it has housed homeless Vermonters in hotels and motels since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Funding runs out for the program on June 1. By the beginning of July, approximately 3,000 Vermonters - including families with children, elderly people, and those with critical illnesses - will be returned to the streets.

Scott's veto “freezes expanded emergency funding to municipalities and agencies being asked to provide the actual transition plans for those exiting the General Assistance housing program,” Baruth said.

Throwing a bone to the situation, Scott's government has extended part of the voucher system for another 28 days. And it issued a request for proposals for outside contractors to provide emergency shelter staffing and services, with the goal of providing up to 1,000 shelter beds statewide.

But Baruth all but accused the governor of cruelty towards the most vulnerable Vermonters.

“The Governor knows that June is the crucial month,” Baruth said, “He knows very well that the Legislature cannot act until late June [when lawmakers will return for the special session]; with this veto, he has made continuing uncertainty about GA funding and solutions a certainty.”

Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski immediately called on Scott to declare a state of emergency to address the end of the voucher program.

“Homelessness is not an isolated problem affecting a few individuals; it is an issue that impacts all our communities,” Krowinski said.

She wants government agencies, nonprofit organizations, businesses and Vermonters “from all walks of life” to “effectively address the immediate needs of those experiencing homelessness,” much as Vermonters worked together unusually effectively in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

“Moreover, this declaration will empower us to implement targeted and comprehensive measures to address the root causes of homelessness,” Krowinski said. “Through a coordinated and multifaceted approach, we can break the cycle of homelessness and provide a pathway to stability for those in need.”

* * *

Windham County's legislators responded with vigor to the governor's budget veto.

“I'm tired of playing politics with people's lives,” Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, D-Brattleboro, told The Commons. “We can't tinker with people's lives anymore - we need to step up and govern.”

Good government serves all of us, Kornheiser said.

“In times such as these, of growing uncertainty and economic disparity, it is our job to ensure equity and stability, now and for our future,” she said. “It is our job to fund infrastructure and services that support Vermont's families, businesses, and communities.”

In Windham County, “people are struggling to make it work,” she said.

“Parents can't find or afford child care,” Kornheiser continued. “Workers can't find suitable housing. People can't get a dentist appointment. Families are losing loved ones to overdose. Car repairs and heating bills are too expensive.”

Vermont cannot afford to put “slapdash patches” on problems any longer, she said.

“Vermonters pride themselves on duct tape and baling twine, but at some point, we need to build up our capacity,” Kornheiser said.

“This session we passed a record $8.4 billion balanced budget for FY24 that will make immediate and lasting improvements to quality of life in Vermont,” she asserted. “With a focus on long-term solutions and stability, we've made transformative investments in critical infrastructure and services that too many Vermonters have gone without.”

* * *

Sen. Wendy Harrison, D-Windham, said that “the governor's veto was predicable, but that doesn't make it less harmful.”

She told The Commons she would support an override of Scott's veto.

“The governor's excessive focus on taxes as the only measure of affordability is not only a mistake for the harm it will cause to individual Vermonters, it is also a mistake for the harm it will cause to Vermont's economy,” said Harrison, calling “quality of life” far more important than taxes.

“The budget as adopted by the Legislature will strengthen the economy,” she said.

Both she and Kornheiser mentioned child care funding provisions in the vetoed budget.

“Vermont employers, large and small, urged the Legislature to financially support child care and housing,” Harrison said. “Manufacturers, hospitals, schools, construction companies, the hospitality industry, and others are losing opportunities because they cannot recruit and retain employees. The root causes they identify are housing and child care.”

“The child care bill proposed in the Legislature's budget will make Vermont significantly more affordable to parents of young children and to child care workers,” she said. “More housing will allow Vermont families more options, helping stabilize prices and rents, and making it more affordable for people to move here from out-of-state. More workers will make Vermont business more successful.”

* * *

Rep. Leslie Goldman, D-Bellows Falls, also said she will vote to override the veto.

“The speaker stated in her press release that the Legislature 'engaged in a comprehensive process, taking testimony from Vermonters, and carefully weighing the diverse range of budgetary needs,'” Goldman told The Commons. “As a member of the Health Care Committee, I and my 10 committee members worked very hard through this process to support health care needs in all 14 counties. We supported our underfunded health care workforce, including our doctors, nurses, other staff and hospitals.”

The budget, she said, “included needs in both the mental and physical health care system.”

“This was a deliberative and comprehensive process and I support this work being funded as presented in this budget,” Goldman said. “Not supporting this budget halts this work.”

A significant consideration in her committee work was the reality of Vermont's aging population.

“Democrats are making long-term investments in child care and climate,” she said. ”These are crucial investments that will attract younger people and families to Vermont.”

* * *

Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, said he will vote to override the veto with a sense of urgency. He told The Commons that the state either uses a one-time fund surplus, as Scott's budget would, or it plans for the long term.

“Scott said, 'My budget leveraged a historic $390 million in surplus revenue to fund our shared priorities like child care, voluntary paid family and medical leave, housing, climate change mitigation, and more - all without raising taxes or fees.' This is the very definition of unsustainability,” Mrowicki said.

“Democrats are making long-term investments in child care, housing, climate action, health care and, as the governor likes to say, 'protecting Vermont's vulnerable,'” Mrowicki said. “His budget uses one-time money as a one-time investment.”

He pointed out another chilling aspect to the veto override.

“I will also note that after checking with Clerk of the House BetsyAnn Wrask, if we don't override and don't reach an agreement before July 1, government shuts down,” Mrowicki said.

“There is no provision for rolling back to the previous budget,” he warned. “And basically, all the leverage goes to the governor if he knows we can't override a veto. I can't even imagine what that budget would look like but unless we override - that may be what we have to swallow.”

* * *

Not every legislator is feeling the same way. Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, takes a measured response. For one thing, she is questioning the numbers.

“I think it's important to understand that the governor proposed a total budget that was close to a 10% increase over last year; the Legislature, 13%,” Sibilia told The Commons. “These increases account for a large amount of one-time federal funds and revenue that was higher than expected.”

The budgets have to be backed up with financial documents, data, and fiscal notes, she said.

“The governor's veto statement that the legislative proposals may cost $1,200 per household?” Sibilia said. “The press should ask to see the math on that. Roughly $700 of that $1,200 per household is attributable to an unscientific guess about the effect of a proposal that may never go into effect.”

“When my family decides what to have for dinner, watch on TV, or where go for a hike or if we are going on vacation, we have to prioritize and compromise,” Sibilia said. “In government and in life, we have to prioritize and compromise.”

The governor's budget is a simple proposal to run the government for the coming year, Sibilia said. The Legislature's budget is “made up of the priorities of all of the people's representatives working with the Governor's administration and other representatives for municipalities, businesses and special interests.”

For example, the governor said he opposes an increase in Department of Motor Vehicle fees.

“I do not,” Sibilia said.

“When the fees do not keep pace with the cost of providing services, we see a decrease in service,” she said. “The governor is opposed to the payroll tax to fund child care, and so am I. It seems the governor may be opposed to universal meals for our kids. I was opposed to that program when it was available for some students and paid for by all taxpayers. Now it is available for all students which will reduce the overall state burden by drawing down available federal school lunch dollars.”

* * *

Rep. Michelle Bos-Lun, D-Westminster, told The Commons she refuses to override the governor's veto because she is joining with Progressives and some Democrats in demanding that more money be put in the budget to provide shelter for those being evicted when the voucher system ends.

The Legislature voted in session not to do so.

“The governor said the motel program was only meant to be short term and there must be a better way,” Bos-Lun said.

“I agree that the pandemic-era iteration of the general assistance motel program needs to be ended, and that better options are needed. But an appropriately supportive transition time and plans for stable places for people to move to are essential,” she added.

“Moving Vermonters from motels into the tents or onto the streets is not a better way to meet their needs and connect them with services,” Bos-Lun said.

Unless substantial changes are made, she cannot support the budget, she said.

“I can't support a budget that doesn't work for everyone,” she said. “And I believe all Democrats, and in fact all those serving in office, want that. Moving people into tents doesn't work for families and people with disabilities, and it doesn't work for me. I can't approve a budget with that being the plan.”

This is a policy problem, not a budget problem, Bos-Lun said.

“There are a couple of relatively simple changes that could be made in a new, more inclusive budget that won't push 90% of vulnerable Vermonters into tents and onto sidewalks,” Bos-Lun said.

“Members of the House coalition concerned about this issue have been meeting with our Legislative Clerk, Joint Fiscal, and Legislative Council,” she said.

“We'll show up with the plan ready to go on the 20th,” Bos-Lun said. “I am optimistic we can address this and solve this in a timely way if we work together on a slightly changed budget.”

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