Scott Budget Earns Pans and Plaudits

By Mark Johnson – VT Digger

Jan 23 2018

Legislative leaders gave Gov. Phil Scott’s proposed budget mixed reviews Tuesday. They labeled some of his ideas “workable” and extensions of their own. Others they dismissed outright as simplistic.

Their biggest criticism was of what he failed to mention.

The strongest blast came from the chair of the Senate Education Committee, Philip Baruth, who charged Scott with a “profound lack of courage” for failing to recommend a specific way to deal with education costs, including an $80 million hole in the education fund and a projected 7 percent average increase in property tax rates.

Earlier in the day, Scott’s administration secretary, Susanne Young, defended that no-proposal approach, saying the administration’s education cost-control ideas last year were roundly rejected. This year, she said, the administration decided to lay out several ideas, hoping the administration and lawmakers could cooperatively develop a plan.

In a news conference after Scott’s speech, leaders of the House and Senate expressed a desire to work with the governor and noted areas of easy agreement with the administration: the need for two new facilities to hold criminal mental health patients and workforce development efforts. Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Scott’s proposal to waive income taxes for some Social Security recipients was explored by her committee last year.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, gave a response reflecting the fact that lawmakers received the detailed budget book only moments before Scott started his speech.

Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said the proposal was “last year’s budget with some new initiatives around the edges.”

The Senate president pushed back on what he called Scott’s “gloomy portrayal of Vermont where demographic trends and financial policies have put us on a road to ruin.”

Ashe highlighted positives — a strong credit rating, a reduction in the crime rate and prisoners, a “top five” in the country education system, a “gold standard” response to the opioid crisis, few Vermonters without health insurance — that were “inherent” in Scott’s speech, he said, and the result of previous efforts by the Legislature, which has been controlled by Democrats for more than a decade. Ashe also gave credit to the Democratic administration under Peter Shumlin, whom Scott replaced in 2016.

“We hear a lot of discussion from some in the administration about the sins of the past, that legislators had been spending on inappropriate things, and what was unique in today’s address was there were very few criticisms of any actual thing that has been in those past budgets,” Ashe said.

“This budget is largely a carry-forward of the vision that has been in those budgets that we have passed in recent years,” he said, suggesting they could find common ground.

Ashe said the Legislature’s ability to hold the line to Scott’s demand for budget growth of a little more than 2 percent was “not so difficult” but will depend on whether appropriations from the federal government are cut or Vermont tax revenues are negatively impacted by the recent federal tax cut. Ashe cited Scott’s failure to discuss the looming possibilities from Washington as a hole in the speech and urged the governor to work with the Trump administration to hold Vermont harmless.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, panned the speech. The issues Scott failed to mention, he said, including how to pay for the cleanup of Lake Champlain. He also said Scott should have been “more specific” about education money-saving ideas and should have laid out details of the plan to build a new large-scale correctional facility.

“There were a lot of big issues that are going to be big issues for the Legislature, no doubt which he chose to ignore in his budget speech,” Pollina said. “And I think that’s kind of disappointing because it shows a lack of willingness to provide the real leadership when it comes to the budget.”

Overall, Pollina said the governor “nibbled around the edges on some really important issues and really didn’t lay out a path that’s going to change our economy very dramatically.”

On education, Scott’s failure to endorse a specific plan means he “expects us to do all the heavy lifting as usual,” the state senator said.

“I don’t know whether the menu idea is an improvement over last year’s idea, which was ‘I’ll just dump it all on you at the end of the session,’” Pollina said. “So at least this year … he’s dumping the menu early in the session but he’s not really doing anything to move it along.”