House rejects key plank in governor’s budget

MONTPELIER — Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s budget proposal suffered a potentially fatal blow Friday as the House voted to reject his plan to move school budget votes to May 23.

The House voted on an amendment to an underlying education bill from the Senate. It called for moving local school budget votes from Town Meeting Day in March to May 23, as Scott called for in his budget address last month. Scott was looking to provide more time for local school districts to find a way to level fund 2018 fiscal year budgets at 2017 fiscal year levels, which he wants the Legislature to mandate.

Gov. Phil Scott (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

Gov. Phil Scott (Times Argus/Stefan Hard)

But the House voted 47 to 87, largely on party lines, against the amendment sponsored by Barre City independent Rep. Paul Poirier, who himself was against the idea. Poirier, in announcing his amendment, asked the body to reject it.

“I’m going to vote against it and I encourage my house colleagues to vote against it,” he said.

Scott’s budget plan calls for transferring some general fund obligations to the general fund and calls for investments in early and higher education from savings in K-12 public school funding. In order to cover the additional costs in the education fund Scott wants the Legislature to mandate level-funded school budgets and force teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums.

But the whole package rests on an initial step of provided local school districts more time to figure out how to level fund budgets while dealing with contractual pay raises and rising health care costs. School districts must warn their school budgets at least 30 days before Town Meeting Day on March 7, a deadline that will arrive early next week.

Rep. Paul Poirier

Rep. Paul Poirier

Poirier said forcing a vote on his amendment provides clarity for school districts. Legislation introduced in the House by Republican members seeking the May 23 voting date had not yet been taken up.

“School boards started putting their budgets together last fall,” Poirier said. “With this big uncertainty over their heads, they don’t know what to do.”

He also said forcing mandates on local school districts as Scott has requested runs counter to what Republicans have said in the past.

“What we’ve heard, and I’ve heard in the last few years, the criticism from my friends on the Republican side, is that the previous administration was too top heavy,” he said. “If this were to pass it flies in the face of having local control.”

Rep. Ronald Hubert, R-Milton, advocated for moving the date and allowing Scott’s proposal to continue to be explored. Hubert said at least 50 constituents have spoken to him about Scott’s proposal and just three have been opposed.

“All three people are a member of the school district,” he said. “I don’t know if this is the perfect answer, but I think it might be a step in the right direction.”

Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, argued that it is too late in the school budget process to ask local districts to adjust. She said the proposal “weakens our communities.”

“It’s too late for this proposal,” Browning said. “In legislation, in comedy, in taxes, in sex, timing really matters.”

The House also rejected — on a 52 to 83 vote — an amendment by Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, that sought to make the change next year. That proposal, would have left Scott’s 2018 fiscal year budget proposal in limbo, however, and could have resulted in property tax increases if the savings Scott sought from level-funded budgets this year are not achieved.

The action in the House Friday followed a straw vote in the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday that showed no support for Scott’s proposal. Sen. Phil Baruth, D-Chittenden, called for the straw vote on moving the school budget vote date to gauge support. It was rejected on a 6 to 0 vote. Not even Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who sponsored a bill laying out Scott’s budget plan, voted in favor of it.

Scott spokeswoman Rebecca Kelley chastised the House Friday for rejecting the date change.

“We are extremely disappointed that the legislature voted down an opportunity to extend the discussion on Gov. Scott’s proposals to transform our education system and give Vermonters a break from ever-increasing property tax rates,” she said. “This is a vote in support of a status quo that has woefully underfunded early care and learning and higher education, and has continuously raised property taxes to an unaffordable level for so many.”

The administration seemed unwilling Friday to give up on the governor’s plan, however.

“Despite this vote, the governor’s plan still offers the Legislature a blueprint to build a ‘cradle to career’ education system. The governor looks forward to working with the Legislature on a way to accomplish these common goals to create a continuum of learning and right size our current system, without raising taxes or fees or surcharges on overburdened Vermonters,” Kelley said.

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