MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott stood his ground Thursday, a day after House Democrats accused him of “shirking” his responsibility to lead and provide them with new ideas to help balance the state budget.
Scott, a first-term Republican, said at his weekly news conference Thursday that lawmakers should complete their own budget proposal if they aren’t prepared to accept his. The governor’s proposal has seen little support in the Democratic-led Legislature.
His budget plan, which was revealed in late January, called for local school districts to level-fund their budgets, which would have saved $41 million in the education fund. It also calls for teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums, saving an estimated $15 million in the 2018 fiscal year. Scott proposed to move some general fund obligations to the education fund and provide new funding for early and higher education with the expected savings.
Lawmakers rejected the idea, arguing that general fund obligations should not be covered by savings in the education fund, which is mostly funded through the statewide property tax. Any education fund savings should be used to lower property taxes, legislative leaders have said.
As their own news conference Wednesday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D- South Hero, and the leaders of the Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, called on Scott to come forward with new ideas. They said the Appropriations Committee has reduced a projected $72 million gap between expenditures and revenue to $18 million and Scott should help finish the job.
Scott rejected that premise Thursday.
“I still would put forward that there are a number of opportunities within the education fund. We spend $ 1.6 billion to educate 86,000 kids and for the life of me I can’t understand why there’s a pushback in terms of wanting to go into that area. I haven’t seen one idea that’s come out of House Appropriations at this point in time that even would venture into that area whatsoever,” he told reporters.
Despite insisting that savings can be found in the education fund, the governor refused several times to articulate any beyond what he already proposed. One problem, however, is that Town Meeting Day has come and gone and voters approved more than 90 percent of school budgets, most with increases. That means the $41 million in savings that Scott hoped to book to help balance the budget are no longer available.
Scott said lawmakers should embrace his idea to require teachers to pick up a larger share of their health insurance premiums. And he suggested that lawmakers look to raise the ratio of staff to teachers within Vermont schools in future years. But he provided no new ideas to achieve savings to help balance the 2018 fiscal year budget.
Instead, Scott said lawmakers should complete their own plan so it can be debated.
“My budget that I proposed was balanced, it lived within its means without cutting services or frontline staff. I’m saying, ‘How about (the House) at this point coming up with some proposals that we can consider? How about working together?” Scott said.
Asked if he had a list of additional savings to match the $41 million he had hoped to save from levelfunded school budgets, before voters approved ones with increases, the governor demurred. He encouraged lawmakers to find savings in the education fund.
“ Let’s go to the education aspect,” he said. “Health care. Just go to health care.”
Scott noted the process this year is different because the administration and the Legislature are controlled by different parties. He said both sides would eventually come to a budget agreement.
“This is a little different than it’s been the last six or seven years,” he said. “It’s not a single-party rule in terms of the administration and the legislative branch. It’s just different, and I know it’s tough to get acclimated to that, but we’ll figure it out.”