Senate Lawmakers Under Pressure To Add Millions In Spending To State Budget

Apr 7, 2017

House lawmakers might have given nearly unanimous approval to the state budget last week, but not everyone is happy with the compromise package, and many advocates are now pushing Senate lawmakers to add millions of dollars in new spending on child care, state colleges, human-services programs and other services.

On Thursday afternoon, in a conference room on the first floor of the Statehouse, about 20 people waited their turn for five minutes of facetime with members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

Ludy Biddle, of NeighborWorks of Western Vermont, sought a $250,000 appropriation for a program that subsidizes energy efficiency retrofits for low- and middle-income homeowners. Mark Redmond, of Spectrum Youth & Family Services, asked lawmakers to replace a $125,00 grant that will expire at the end of June, and likely require layoffs if he can’t find substitute funding in the meantime. And Robyn Freedner-Maguire, of Let’s Grow Kids, was looking for $9.5 million for the Vermont Childcare Financial Assistance Program.

Last week, House lawmakers approved a spending plan that doesn’t rely on any new taxes or fees to balance the state budget. The approach secured buy-in from legislative Republicans and, perhaps most importantly, Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

But it meant saying ‘No’ to many organizations seeking a larger slice of the state’s $5.8 billion budget pie. And advocates are hoping the Senate will consider a different budgetary framework.

“We experience and average turnover rate of 18 percent and often lose our staff to higher paying, better benefitted positions,” said Emily Marshia, co-executive director of the Orange County Parent Child Center.

"I want to make it clear — I'm not saying that I'm out there proposing that we build a budget that requires new revenues." — Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Jane Kitchel

Marshia’s organization is part of a 15-center network that serves thousands of families across the state every year. Marshia says below-market wages for center staff have hobbled the organization’s ability to meet its clients’ needs. She’s asking the Senate for an $8 million increase in base funding.

“Whether you find a parent child center in extreme rural Tunbridge, or more urban Chittenden County, families rely on one-time or long-term supports where they need it,” Marshia said.

Freedner-Maguire told lawmakers that the state’s Childcare Financial Assistance Program bases its tuition assistance levels on market rates that are eight years out of date. She says it’s left the operators of child care centers with an untenable decision.

“Do they ask families who are already financially struggling to cover the gap, or do they take a financial loss for children receiving financial assistance through CCFAP?” Freedner-Maguire said.

The House also failed to include $4 million in base funding increases for the Vermont State College system — the amount Chancellor Jeb Spaulding says is needed to avoid operating at a deficit next year. The House included a one-time, $2 million increase. But they took the money from a special fund that's supposed to provide tuition assistance to Vermont students.

Morna Flaum teaches at Johnson State College. In 1980, she told lawmakers this week, the state covered more than 50 percent of operating costs at state colleges, with students’ tuition making up the remainder. She says today, 84 percent of operating revenue comes from tuition.

“In every semester I have taught at VSC, I lose about 10 percent of my students to this vicious cycle,” Flaum said. “It is a double tragedy. They will still be carrying student debt, but they won’t have a degree.”

Caledonia County Sen. Jane Kitchel, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, says her committee would prefer to include a number of line items that did not make it into the House’s version of the budget.

“There are areas that have been fiscally underfunded and those days are coming back to haunt us,” Kitchel says.

Kitchel says members of her committee are particularly interested in boosting child care subsidies, increasing money for state colleges, and bolstering a community mental health system that is experiencing staff turnover due to below-market wages for workers.

“So just because the House didn’t include it in its budget in no way is going to influence our willingness to if there’s a way to make some progress in those areas,” Kitchel says.

Kitchel, however, says the problem is the same one her committee has every year: Existing revenues aren’t sufficient to meet the demand for new spending. And she says the Senate is not keen on solving that problem by raising taxes or fees to meet that demand.

“That is not my approach,” Kitchel says. “I want to make it clear — I’m not saying that I’m out there proposing that we build a budget that requires new revenues.”

Kitchel says the first order of business will be to see whether the Senate can find ways to reallocate existing resources. If there are still worthy programs for which no money is available, then the Senate will have to make its own choice: sacrifice spending priorities in the interest of fiscal restraint, or call for tax increases to pay for new allocations.

This post was updated at 9:59 a.m. on 4/10/17 to correct Ludy Biddle's name