June 20, 2017
This opinion piece was written by Speaker of the House Mitzi Johnson and published around the state. It is a straightforward and honest description of the dilemma we are facing as a Legislature and a state — how do you react to a situation where you are faced with a negotiation over something less than tangential to what you are negotiating over, and when the opposition, in this case Governor Scott, refuse to negotiate in good faith? It is easy to call this “spin,” especially if you don’t agree with it, but in this case, it speaks to the truth. The Vermont Legislature, and Democrats/Progressives in general, passed a budget that raised no taxes or fees, and an education tax yield bill that lowered the statewide property tax rate. This is fact. The Governor’s initial budget proposal would have required a substantial rise in the statewide property tax, and his desire in these negotiations is to take savings negotiated by local school boards for statewide purposes. We fundamentally disagree.
When your state representatives were sworn in January 4th, each pledged faithful, honest service to the people and constitution of Vermont. In my opening remarks as Speaker of the House, I asked them to do this by evaluating and prioritizing our state’s needs to support the long-term health and wellness of our state. Given the vast uncertainty at the national level, and your voices at the local level, your legislators crafted a budget that carefully balances Vermont’s diverse, sometimes competing requests. We worked across political aisles to find budget reductions. Together we invested in housing, higher education, water quality, economic development, childcare and mental health. We put more money into the education fund to reduce pressure on your property taxes and raised NO taxes and fees. We spent less than the projected revenues, building savings that will mitigate uncertainty in federal funds.
The budget invests in Vermont’s future, makes good on our promises, and does so with great fiscal restraint. It passed 143-1 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate. Former Governor Douglas praised the budget as a “positive step.” In vetoing the budget, Governor Scott said no to a morally and fiscally responsible budget, and no to its inclusive, non-partisan process.
In addition to the budget veto, the Governor vetoed a property tax decrease in H.509 that would have gone directly to Vermont taxpayers. Two years ago, teachers agreed to move from comprehensive health care plans to high deductible plans with much cheaper premium and much higher out-of-pocket costs. The teacher health care savings that have been widely discussed come from that already-agreed upon change. It’s happening no matter what the legislature and Governor do. Those savings are already happening in local negotiations. Centralizing those negotiations in Montpelier doesn’t necessarily increase savings- it just makes it easier for Montpelier to raid those savings to spend it elsewhere. We can’t let that happen.
Just how much is the savings on your property taxes? Hundreds or even thousands of dollars? Nope. Under Governor Scott’s last-minute demands, a home valued at $200,000 would, at most, bring savings to Vermont families of less than $22 each year, less than a tank of gas. The House and Senate passed various bills that would have guaranteed savings of $25-$65, but Governor Scott rejected these as well. A veto of the budget should not be taken lightly. It is the second budget veto in Vermont’s history. If a budget is not in place by July 1st, Vermont state government shuts down. In Vermont we do things differently than in Washington DC. We work together, solve hard problems, and help out our neighbors. Our economy and our communities do not need MORE uncertainty. Given that there were other options on the table, $22 is not worth the veto that rolls back the investments we made and throws our state into weeks of uncertainty.
So how would the investments in vetoed budget have helped Vermonters? The $2.5 million increase in child care services for working families could have helped parents get back to work and build a workforce for small businesses. Higher education is a key component of a strong, healthy future, but it out of reach for many Vermonters. The legislature’s budget allocated an additional $3 million that would have improved access to the Vermont State Colleges.
The Democratic legislature earned an “A” grade from the Vermont Chamber of Commerce who applauded the legislature’s no new taxes as well as the expanded investments that would have gone to economic development throughout the state in Small Business Development Centers, micro business development, economic development marketing, downtown infrastructure development (known as “TIFs”) and career and technical education. Appreciating the importance of agriculture and forestry in rural economic development, the legislature made additional investments in working lands, the farm-to-school program, and the logging sector.
The vetoed budget included a $35 million housing bond that would have generated a $100 million in construction of affordable and middle-income housing. The legislature listened to Vermonters underserved by an overwhelmed, underfunded mental health system and made significant investments that would have supported community mental health care and developmental services. We reinforced funding for our home and community based services, including Adult Day Centers and Meals on Wheels. We budgeted significant funds to clean up our state waters.
This is an excellent budget that is the culmination of years of difficult decisions and strong work this session across party lines. While Legislative leaders will continue to work with the Administration to find our way through to agreement that restores these critical investments and property tax savings, Vermonters can be very proud of the Legislature’s budget, its tri-partisan support and the solid, fiscally responsible investments their legislature made in our communities, economy and future.