Reporter Debrief: With End Of Session Near, Budget Differences Remain Between Scott, Legislature
Elected officials in Montpelier this year have an unprecedented amount of money to work with while crafting the state’s budget. That’s thanks to an unexpected boost in state revenues and a series of massive COVID relief packages from Congress. How to spend that money, however, has become a source of tension between the Republican governor and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.
Last week, the Vermont Senate approved a $7 billion state budget. Speaking at a media briefing last Friday, Gov. Phil Scott expressed his concerns, especially around the use of American Rescue Plan Act funding, also known as ARPA.
“I have a lot of concerns with the budget, mainly around the ARPA funding,” he said. “This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with a billion dollars to put towards things, tangible things, that I think are so necessary, that will be transformational in so many ways if we do it right. And I don't think they're doing it right.”
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with statehouse reporter Peter Hirschfeld, who has been closely following the budget debate. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Henry Epp: What specifically does the governor think that lawmakers are getting wrong?
Pete Hirschfeld: So that ARPA funding that Scott's talking about there, Henry, comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, and it has given the governor and lawmakers a billion dollars to work with as they try to help Vermont emerge from the pandemic.
Phil Scott wants to use that money for physical infrastructure projects, namely broadband, water, sewer, housing, climate change mitigation. And the budget passed by the Senate last week, by and large, shares those goals. But it also includes about $40 million worth of smaller allocations for services and grants, things like workforce development, tourism promotion, youth employment initiatives, child and family services.
Phil Scott says, look, these may be worthy initiatives, but he says they aren't the kind of investments that we ought to be putting this ARPA money toward. He says Vermont should be able to look back in 20 years and see a physical legacy from this once-in-a-generation infusion of federal money, and he says there are components of the Legislature's budget package that just don't meet that objective.
So earlier this week, the Scott administration sent a letter to legislative leaders outlining its concerns with their budget and requesting some changes. So how are lawmakers responding to that correspondence?
I spoke with Senate President Becca Balint this week, Henry, to get her initial response, and she says she thinks that the Senate budget proposal is very much in line with the express purpose of the American Rescue Plan Act. She says she and other lawmakers actually went back and read the language in the bill and rechecked the guidance from the feds that they've put out on how to use it:
“It really seemed to signal to us that they were looking at investments in people, in families, in communities, and we really wanted to keep that narrative at the center of the work that we were doing.”
So Becca Balint says physical infrastructure is important. It's critical, she says, and she says Vermont needs to invest heavily on the kinds of priorities that Phil Scott has laid out on that front.
But she says Congress has signaled pretty heavily that it plans to pass a separate infrastructure bill later this year. And, she says, that'll supply Vermont with even more money to address the kinds of infrastructure needs, be it broadband or housing that Phil Scott is so focused on. And she says, given the fact that the Legislature has foreknowledge of that infrastructure bill coming down the pike, Vermont really needs to use some of this ARPA money for what she calls “human investments.”
Pete, lawmakers are hoping to adjourn by May 22. That means they only have a few weeks left to resolve these disagreements with the governor. So, what are the prospects for those negotiations in these next few weeks?
You know, there's already speculation, Henry, as there always is, about whether these disagreements over elements of the budget will lead to some dramatic standoff at the end of the session, or even maybe a budget veto. But Becca Balint says she doesn't really see that outcome in the offing.
And I was struck by something she observed about the letter that the Scott administration sent to her and other legislative leaders. She noted its length — 13 pages. And she also noted the effort that Scott's team went into to really underscore its rationale for the changes that it was requesting in the budget.
“Nobody in the Senate could remember a time when an administration had written a letter that long, and it has an appendix in the back. And so, I was thinking about that, because I love people. I think a lot about people. What does this say? This says to me, the governor really wants to get it right.”
Becca Balint told me that debates over line items or budget expenditures are fundamentally debates over values. And she says there's just so much overlap right now between the values that the governor holds dear and the values that the Legislature wants to champion.
And she says in the grand scheme of things, there's far more unity than dissension, and she sounds really optimistic that negotiations in the coming days and weeks wield a compromise not just that everyone can live with, but that all sides can feel good about.
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