MONTPELIER — Gov. Peter Shumlin on Thursday gave high marks to the 2013 General Assembly, a body that he said granted 90 percent of his education priorities and completed one of the most productive sessions “in years.”
“It was a very productive session,” Shumlin said during a phone interview with the Addison Independent. “I thought they got more tough things done than I’ve seen a Legislature get done in a first half of a biennium in many, many years. There is a lot to celebrate with Vermonters.”
Ranking high on the list, according to Shumlin, was passage of a fiscal year 2014 budget that did not require an increase in broad-based taxes. This was accomplished in part due to some rosier-than-anticipated tax receipts in April, which allowed lawmakers to balance the budget by making $10 million in cuts. The resulting almost $1.4 billion spending plan represents a 4-percent increase over this year.
“We managed to balance what is for me the third straight deficit budget by making cuts, supporting those who need us and not raising income taxes, sales taxes, meals taxes and some taxes we haven’t heard of before to get us there,” he said. “It was tough enough to raise the gas tax.”
Lawmakers raised the gas tax by 6 cents per gallon to generate enough state revenue to leverage almost $60 million in additional federal highway money to help fix Vermont’s deteriorating roads and bridges.
“It was a tough choice, nobody wanted to do it, but we had to,” he said of the gas tax.
With that in mind, Shumlin said he didn’t want to foist additional broad-based tax increases on Vermonters, the majority of whom he said are still regaining their economic footing.
“It wasn’t the right time in this fragile economic recovery to run to Vermonters and say, ‘and now we are going to raise every single other tax we can think of,’” he said in what was clearly a reference to a House proposal in March to raise $27 million through a tax increase on the wealthiest Vermonters; a bump in the cigarette tax; and lifting the sales tax exemption for soft drinks, candy, bottled water, dietary supplements and clothing worth more than $110.
House leaders had sought that money to backfill what at the time was a more dire budget deficit and the prospect of federal sequestration-related cuts.
Shumlin acknowledged that he, too, had asked for an additional $33 million in revenues (in part from a tax on break-open tickets) to assist Vermonters in weatherization efforts and to boost child care subsidies. The Legislature balked at his request, setting the stage for a tax confrontation resolved during the final hours of the session.
“(The Legislature) proved we could cut our way out of the (budget) mess, not tax our way out of it,” he said.
All in all, the governor was pleased with the outcome of the session, particularly regarding the Legislature’s action on his public education priorities — an agenda that dominated his state-of-the-state address back in January.
Specifically, he said the General Assembly endorsed his proposals creating the opportunity for students to set “individualized plans” to tailor their education (with apprenticeships and internships) to career paths; a “dual enrollment” plan through which students can earn up to a year of college credit while still in high school; new requirements for students to take algebra in 9th grade and geometry in 10th grade to boost math, science and engineering skills for the new generation of jobs; and higher education spending to buy down tuition increases next year for Vermont youths attending the University of Vermont and state colleges.
“We put forth a very ambitious education plan, and 90 percent of it got passed,” Shumlin said. Of the programs that did not get passed this year, the governor said, was a Vermont Strong Scholars program that would have paid the fourth year of a college graduate’s education at UVM or an approved Vermont college (in math, science, engineering and other select degrees) if those students agreed to stay in the state working for a minimum of five years. Putting more money into early childcare programs is also an outstanding priority of the administration. Both issues will be revisited next year, Shumlin said.
The governor was also pleased that lawmakers agreed to his proposed changes in the welfare-to-work Reach Up program, which provides cash assistance for basic needs and services to people looking for work. Shumlin’s major request was that benefits be capped at five years.
“We want Vermont to be a compassionate state that takes care of people who desperately need us… ” Shumlin said. “However, we were the only state left in America where our Reach Up welfare benefits were timeless and not temporary.”
The cap, he said, will send a message to able-bodied Reach Up recipients “that it’s time to go to work.”
Shumlin also touted additional, what he called “quality of life” measures OK’d by lawmakers this year. They included:
• Free school lunches for all eligible children. Shumlin said federal subsidies were not covering costs.
• The decriminalization of possession of up to one ounce of marijuana. People caught with less than an ounce will still be subject to fines, but it will no longer be a criminal offense that could preclude the offender from qualifying for student aid and various federal programs, nor will it hurt a person’s future job searches.
“This will ensure we use our precious law enforcement dollars to go after the heroin epidemic and other drug challenges that are destroying our communities and driving crime,” Shumlin said.
• A bill that seeks to better regulate and police the proliferation of opiate-based drugs.
• A measure that will allow migrant workers to obtain driver’s licenses. Shumlin said many Vermont farms are dependent on migrant workers, many of whom become isolated without a means of getting to stores, churches and other locations. Opponents objected to the driver’s license provision, arguing that those who are in the country illegally should not be afforded a right that has been reserved for legal residents.
“We know we can’t get milk to market without foreign labor,” the governor said. “For them to be able to get to grocery stores, to the doctor’s, to be part of our communities during a day off is just compassionate and the right thing to do.”
• A so-called “death with dignity” bill that will allow terminally ill patients diagnosed with six or fewer months to live to obtain a lethal dose of medicine from a participating physician.
“We had a dignified and lengthy debate — and let’s not forget we have been talking about this for 10 years — but in the end… the Legislature made the right decision that if you are terminally ill, if you’re in excruciating pain and are in your last days of life, with your doctor and your family, you should be able to make a choice about how you spend your final days,” Shumlin said. “I think that is a compassionate thing to do.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]