Governor Phil Scott rebuked House Democrats this week as the $8.5 billion FY2024 budget bill passed on the House floor. Since the beginning of the legislative session the governor has expressed concern about whether Democratic priorities are sustainable. On Wednesday he kicked off his weekly press conference by leveling his most pointed and direct criticism of the House budget to date.
The governor said he is not an “alarmist,” but that he is concerned about the direction Democratic proposals will take the state. He said the House budget includes $60 million more in on-going, baseline spending than the budget he proposed in January. He also criticized major Democratic priorities – including a universal paid family and medical leave insurance program and universal child care – saying the proposals raise millions in new taxes and do not account for how the programs will be funded in future years.
Governor Scott said Democrats are not taking uncertain economic projections as seriously as they should be. He said he supports paid family leave and child care expansion but argued the state can pursue these initiatives without raising new taxes.
As expected since the last election, the tone of the 2023 legislative session is more combative between the executive and legislative branches than the past few years. From March of 2020 until this year Democratic lawmakers and the governor largely put their differences aside to focus on pandemic response and recovery. But this session is more reminiscent of the pre-pandemic years, when Democratic leaders and Governor Scott regularly clashed on the budget.
Democratic lawmakers in the House pushed back against the governor’s criticism of their budget. They highlighted investments in housing, social services, workforce development, infrastructure, environmental projection, education and training as well as other initiatives. They said their budget focuses on the critical needs of Vermonters, especially the most vulnerable, who face significant challenges in these difficult times.
Democrats also referenced the 2022 election, which gave both the Senate and House supermajorities, as confirmation that their priorities are supported by and in the best interest of Vermonters.
While on paper Democrats have the numbers to control state policy unilaterally, achieving consensus on legislative priorities remains complicated. While both chambers highlight paid family leave and child care as top priorities, the House seems to favor the former while the Senate favors the latter. The Senate’s child care and paid leave bill, S.56, includes a much more modest paid leave program than what is included H.66, which was approved by the House earlier this month. The Senate repealed the existing child tax credit to help fund the child care program in S.56, a move expected to receive serious scrutiny in the House. On the House side, the Appropriations committee diverted $20 million in proposed child care funding to pay for housing, a move that will likely be scrutinized in the Senate.
As the calendar turns to April the stakes are high. Stay tuned for what will surely be one of the more dynamic and exciting endgames in a while.
On Thursday, the House gave final approval to H.483, a bill that increases regulation of independent schools that accept public funding. The bill bans independent schools from turning away a student that receives public tuition in most cases. The version that passed the House did not include a private right of action for students and their families, which supporters of the bill had wanted. The bill would also place a moratorium on the State Board of Education’s approval of additional independent schools, as well as limit public tuition payments to a 25-mile radius of Vermont. The bill now heads to the Senate, where it is expected to be met with less enthusiasm than in the House. A similar bill in the Senate, S.66, has been collecting dust on the wall of the Senate Education committee, indicating a lack of appetite for the controversial issue. If the bill does pass the Senate, and if the House and Senate are able to reconcile their differences, the bill will still have to gain the support of
the governor, as the numbers in the legislature to override a potential veto seem less certain on H.483 than other Democratic priorities.
On Friday, the Senate gave final approval to a bill meant to address the housing crisis in Vermont. S.100, also known as the HOME bill, is a culmination of efforts by housing advocates, and policy makers in both chambers, led by Senator Kesha Ram Hinsdale who chairs the Senate Economic Development, Housing & General Affairs committee. After the bill left the committee, housing advocates expressed frustration with what they see as a good bill that was excessively diluted by the Senate Natural Resources committee and environmental advocates. This committee worried that some Act 250 reforms in the original bill would result in sprawl. Housing advocates don’t think the bill goes far enough to address the enormity of the housing crisis. The bill now heads to the Vermont House, where the tension between affordable housing and land use regulations will likely increase.