Public hearings Monday night on Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget showcased strong support for some of the new spending initiatives in the Republican’s plan. But advocates’ hopes for increased funding are about to meet with some harsh fiscal realities in Montpelier.
Heather Lytle was among the two dozen or so people who navigated snow-caked roads to The St. Johnsbury School on Monday evening. With 26 years in the child care profession, Lytle is in her element with young kids. Speaking at public hearings takes her a little outside her comfort zone.
“I’ve never done this before, so I’m just going to read my script,” Lytle told the three lawmakers seated at a table in the school’s auditorium.
Lytle, a Danville resident, is the director of Kingdom of the Kids on the Hill child care center in St. Johnsbury. She was on hand Monday “to encourage you to support the governor’s proposal to increase funding for the child care financial-assistance program.”
“Low-income families have a difficult time finding affordable, high-quality care for their children,” Lytle says.
Scott’s budget proposal would pump more than $7 million in new money into that financial-assistance program. The increase would help low- and middle-income parents pay for child care costs that often exceed $10,000 per kid annually.
Judy Pransky, another veteran child care professional, had a similar message for the lawmakers on hand to get residents’ take on Phil Scott’s budget.
“We need to be doing something important right now, and that is bringing at least this kind of money to early childhood services in Vermont," Pransky says. "Because we are creating a whole new generation of latchkey children, children who are going home because their parents don’t quality, they are not eligible, for quality child care."
Child care subsidies aren’t the only programs slated for significant increases in Scott’s budget. He wants $6.5 million in new money for higher education, $1 million for pre-K services, and $1.6 million to fund classroom innovations.
Just because Scott has proposed the expenditures, however, does not make them any closer to becoming reality.
“I would assume that the larger expenditures would probably have to be in reduced amounts, if they were entertained at all,” says Danville Rep. Kitty Toll, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
Toll was on hand for the hearing in St. Johnsbury Monday, one of five budget hearings taking place simultaneously across the state. Toll says it isn’t that lawmakers don’t think Scott’s initiatives are worthy ones.
The problem, according to lawmakers, is that Scott’s entire budget is predicated on a mandatory spending freeze at every local school district in Vermont.
Scott would use the $41 million in savings to support his new spending initiatives. Most lawmakers say the plan would inflict potentially severe damage on local schools.
Toll says her committee is still in the very early stages of its budget-building process.
“So nothing is off the table,” Toll says. “I’m just looking at large amounts of spending as being a very difficult hurdle to get over.”
Lawmakers aren’t the only ones concerned with the tradeoffs in Scott’s budget, and the pressure it puts on local schools.
Ranny Bledsoe is the superintendent of the St. Johnsbury School, a kindergarten-through-8th-grade school that she says has among the lowest per-pupil expenditures in the state.
On Monday, Bledsoe told lawmakers that she resents the fact that she has to argue against the funding increases for child care contained in Scott’s budget.
“One of the things that I most mind about Gov. Scott’s proposal is the way that it pits Peter against Paul in this process,” Bledsoe says.
Bledsoe says the peculiarities of her district’s spending formula mean that Scott’s plan would require a $350,000 cut at the St. Johnsbury School.
“That is not a freeze for a pre-K-thorugh-8 school, that is a catastrophic cut,” Bledsoe says.
Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says Scott has made it clear that he won’t abide any increases in taxes or fees. And Kitchel says that makes it even more unlikely that the Legislature will be able to accommodate funding increases for child care and higher education.