Eric L. Davis: Work remains after budget adoption

Last week, the Vermont House passed the state budget for fiscal year 2018 by a near-unanimous vote. The Senate is likely to follow suit later this month. The Legislature appears on track for adjournment before May 15.
The House leadership — Democratic Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Republican Minority Leader Don Turner — both said they appreciated the bipartisan spirit in which the House approved the budget. The contrast between Montpelier and Washington in this regard could not be more profound.
Gov. Scott noted that the House budget met the fiscal criteria he set out at the beginning of the session. The budget was balanced without having to resort to new taxes or fees, and the growth rate in state spending — about 1 percent, according to Speaker Johnson — was lower than the rate of growth in the state’s overall economy.
The consensus on the budget demonstrates that divided government does not have to be an impediment to action. However, the session will likely end in May without resolving several other issues that are important priorities for many individuals and organizations in Vermont.
Progressive Party leaders and progressive-minded voters — an important constituency within the Democratic Party — will be disappointed that three bills high on their agenda are unlikely to emerge from committee this year. The first year of the biennium will probably end without action on increasing Vermont’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next several years, on establishing a paid family and medical leave program for those workers whose employers do not already offer such a benefit, and on legalizing and regulating the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana. Progressive activists will urge the Democratic leadership to move ahead on these bills in 2018, even if they end up being vetoed by Gov. Scott.
Two other important issues — funding for lake cleanup and rebalancing education spending — will be carried over to 2018 and beyond. In January, State Treasurer Beth Pearce presented the Legislature with a detailed report on sources of funding for the state’s share of a multi-year effort to clean up the state’s waterways, particularly Lake Champlain. Legislation implementing this report was considered by several committees, but final action is not likely until either 2018 or 2019.
Short-term funding sources for the cleanup program are available through 2019. However, the long-term future of the project could be seriously jeopardized if cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency budget proposed by the Trump Administration and enacted by the Republican Congress substantially reduce EPA grants to the states. These federal grants are the largest single funding source for Vermont’s lake cleanup program.
In his budget address in January, Gov. Scott challenged the Legislature to level-fund K-12 school spending for 2017-18 in order to provide additional resources for both early childhood education and public higher education. Because the governor’s proposal came shortly before most school boards had finalized their budgets for town meeting, and because it had not been discussed with stakeholders prior to being announced, nothing happened on the education finance front this year. The Legislature will, however, commission yet another study on school spending.
Gov. Scott is now in a strong position politically, both because of the relatively uneventful and harmonious legislative session and because of his willingness to speak out against Trump administration initiatives on immigration and health care reform. Scott should expend some of his political capital in the second half of 2017 working with school boards, the NEA, leaders in the pre-K and post-secondary education sectors, and legislators, to develop a plan to shift resources over time from K-12, where enrollment is declining, to pre-K and post-12 education so that it could be presented to the Legislature in January 2018.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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