VT Digger, April 26, 2016

The Senate wrangled over a slew of amendments Tuesday afternoon before passing the fiscal year 2017 budget bill.

The body approved the $5.76 billion total spending package on a vote of 23 to 5. Senators had given it preliminary approval the evening before.

Lawmakers mulled several amendments throughout the afternoon Tuesday.

They narrowly defeated a proposal from the Government Operations Committee that would have changed the section of the budget that relates to the risk management division, a part of the Agency of Administration that functions as an in-house workers’ compensation claims office.

The budget anticipates saving $500,000 from privatizing the division. The administration has already undertaken the initial steps of the process, including issuing a request for proposals from companies. The administration is reviewing eight options, according to Secretary of Administration Justin Johnson.

The amendment would have postponed privatization of the division until January and initiated a study on privatization in the meantime.

Johnson, who spoke with the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning, said he was limited in what he could discuss about the proposals. He confirmed that all eight submissions came from companies based outside Vermont. The proposals could cut the division’s $1.8 million total annual operating expense by as much as half, he said.

Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, reported the amendment on the floor. Pollina referenced a previous attempt to privatize the division two decades ago, which he characterized as “a disaster.”

The Vermont State Employees’ Association has been a vocal critic of the plan to privatize the division, saying the quality of service employees receive during workers’ comp claims would decline. Privatizing the division would also mean the loss of about 10 state jobs.

But opponents of the amendment said postponing privatization would leave a hole in the state budget. Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a member of the Appropriations Committee, noted that could affect funding for the state employees’ new contract. The budget fully funds a 2 percent raise for state workers in the next fiscal year, a salary increase recommended in a Vermont Labor Relations Board decision last week.

Ultimately, the amendment failed, with 13 votes in favor and 15 opposed.

Though several amendments were introduced on the floor, most were withdrawn or defeated. Only one, brought by Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison, passed.

Ayer’s amendment, which does not come with any appropriation or anticipated expense, calls for a report on universal primary care. It was accepted on a voice vote.

Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, introduced an amendment that would have directed a study of Vermont Health Connect to focus solely on exploring alternatives to the health care exchange. The language in the budget provides for a study that would look at alternatives but would also focus on diagnosing and offering suggestions to fix problems with the exchange.

Benning said the state should not spend more time and money making Vermont Health Connect work.

But Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers need more information to fully understand whether the exchange is workable. “Is it totally a lemon or does it need a new carburetor?” Kitchel said.

That amendment failed, with 20 voting against and 8 in favor.

Other amendments touched on various aspects of the budget, including the repeal of the University of Vermont’s rule that caps in-state tuition for Vermonters at 40 percent of the tuition charged for non-Vermont residents. That amendment was withdrawn.

The Senate approved both parts of the revenue package — the miscellaneous tax bill and the fee bill — on voice votes.

All three money bills were expedited to the House, which had already passed slightly different fiscal plans. It’s likely that conference committees — panels that form to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of bills — will begin to meet in the coming days.