As Scott Looks To Widen Support For Budget Plan, Lawmakers Grow More Skeptical

May 9, 2018

Gov. Phil Scott’s five-year education plan may have landed with a thud in the Vermont Statehouse, but the administration hopes to have better luck with people outside the Montpelier political bubble.

Last Friday, business officials and economic professionals across the state received an invitation to join a conference call at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. Though the email came from a state worker at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the event had been orchestrated by the Scott administration, which harnessed the ACCD email list to reach prospective ears.

The subject of the call was the governor’s plan to reduce education spending over the next five years, and use the savings to buy down property tax rates.

Scott himself wasn’t on the call.

But his Chief of Staff Jason Gibbs, along with Finance Commissioner Adam Greshin, Tax Commissioner Kaj Samsom, and Administration Secretary Susanne Young, delivered a 45-minute "information session" on the governor’s plan.

At the end of the call, Gibbs signed off with a special request.

“We hope that you will share your point of view, whether it’s on this plan on its merits, or you know, other perspectives, with your legislators,” Gibbs said.

"It's this idea of using one-time money to keep rates flat, and then counting on these savings to pay it back that I think is problematic." — Calais Rep. Janet Ancel

This moment of public outreach wasn’t a one-off for the administration. They held a second call for business leaders on Wednesday. And an administration official says Scott’s aides are organizing a similar call for leaders in the education sector.

The strategy is designed to build pressure on Montpelier from outside in, and enlist support from key constituencies for the administration’s controversial education plan.

The battle for hearts and minds inside the Statehouse, however, isn’t exactly succeeding. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says the more she learns about the governor’s plan, “the more obvious it is that it was thrown together and it hasn’t been thought out.”

Fueling that sentiment is a new analysis by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office.

Scott wants to use $58 million in one-time money this year to avoid an increase in property tax rates next year. He says he’ll pay back that one-time money in the future, by shaving hundreds of millions of dollars from education expenses over time.

But the analysis by the Joint Fiscal Office says there “major technical errors” in the governor’s plan. House Ways and Means Chairwoman Janet Ancel says the administration has overshot savings potential by as much as $160 million.

“Some of the numbers simply don’t add up,” Ancel says.

Ancel says that misfire isn’t exactly breeding confidence in Scott’s plan to use one-time money, since lawmakers don’t have much faith it’ll ever get paid back.

“It’s this idea of using one-time money to keep rates flat, and then counting on these savings to pay it back that I think is problematic,” Ancel says.

Commissioner of Taxes Kaj Samsom says even if the projections are off, there’s still more than enough savings in the governor’s plan to pay back the one-time money, and even have enough left over to keep property tax rates flat in the future.

“Those adjustments don’t worry me,” Samsom says. “The top line and the focus is $400-plus million of savings,” Samsom says.

In order to get those savings, however, lawmakers will have to agree to reductions in staffing numbers in public schools, and an administration proposal to lower the excess spending threshold.

Ancel says there isn’t enough time left in the session to vet those proposals. Senate Majority Leader Becca Balint says she agrees.

Balint says lawmakers found themselves in this position last year, when Scott introduced a late-session plan for education savings.

“We’re not sticking around. We played this game last year with this team, and we did this dance for weeks and weeks and weeks,” Balint says. “We’re not doing it again.”

Balint says the Senate intends to wrap up its work this week, pass a budget and adjourn by Saturday.

If the governor doesn’t like it, Balint says the onus will be on him to veto the budget, and call lawmakers back to Montpelier for special session.

With Scott vowing to reject any budget that doesn't keep property tax rates flat next year, it appears as though Montpelier is once again headed down that budget veto path.