Valley News – Vermont House agrees to $367 million package with typically searing expenses

MONTPELIER — Vermont House has given final approval to a $367 million spending package that invests the most in retention bonuses for frontline social service workers, as well as housing.

The Senate gave the bill the go-ahead in the days leading up to the recess of the Legislature’s town meeting last week. HB 679 is now heading for the governor’s office.

The budget adjustment bill is typically a $5 million to $10 million adjustment to the current year’s budget, and is often one of the first bills passed in a given year. But with state coffers full of federal aid and the pandemic still reverberating through labor and housing markets, the governor and lawmakers decided to spend a lot of money.

Major policy initiatives are usually addressed in the annual budget bill, which sets out all state government spending for the coming fiscal year.

But even the relatively smaller items in this year’s budget adjustment reflect political decisions that could have fueled weeks of debate and legislative turmoil in a typical year. Nearly $9.7 million, for example, would go to Vermont State Colleges to extend a popular program of free education in critical skills shortage areas for a second year.

The bill also quietly extends the status quo of a program that houses Vermont homeless people in hotels until at least June 30. (For now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency takes note.) Nearly a month to push state officials to allow hundreds of people back into the program, winning a concession that the rules eligibility would be relaxed until March 1.

Retaining workers is a key theme in the spending program, as labor market dislocations have rattled state social services. With retail and fast food restaurants now offering well over $15 an hour, state government programs that rely on low-wage workers to provide direct care to vulnerable people are scrambling to keep their employees.

The package spends $60 million on retention and recruitment grants to these programs, including assisted living facilities, nursing homes, residential care homes, designated agencies and addiction treatment providers. .

Separately, lawmakers also included $6 million for child care workers and nearly $4.9 million for correctional officers.

Governor Phil Scott and Democratic leaders agree that Vermont needs to invest heavily — and quickly — in new housing. To that end, the bill provides $55 million to the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board to invest in building and expanding shelter capacity.

But Scott had wanted to spend more, including $20 million to help landlords rehabilitate vacant or code-breaking properties. Lawmakers didn’t say no — but they attached that tab to SB 210, a consumer protection bill for renters that the governor could ultimately veto.

Scott made it clear that he was unhappy with the package. Administration officials say they object less to spending plan priorities than to how much lawmakers want to spend and how much money they use. In particular, the governor disagrees with how lawmakers are choosing to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds, saying the one-time federal money should be earmarked for concrete infrastructure projects — and no to people and programs.

“These projects are critical and they are expensive. That’s why they haven’t been made, and they may never be made if we fail to direct those resources to once-in-a-generation investments,” Secretary of Administration Kristin Clouser wrote to lawmakers. of the House and Senate as they sat down to negotiate a final fiscal adjustment deal.

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, countered that all money is fungible, and she said her main concern was getting dollars out of the U.S. bailout before their expiry. She also noted that federal funds come with strings attached as to where they can be directed, and argued that using this money ahead of state dollars whenever possible gives officials the State more discretion elsewhere.

“We spend ARPA dollars where we are confident we can spend them, and we save the most flexible dollars to use for other needs,” she said.

The deal eventually received unanimous Senate approval. After initially voting against the measure, Republicans once agreed to a last-minute amendment that pledged to use more state dollars instead of ARPA funds for certain projects if the surplus from the Vermont continues to grow.

Jason Maulucci, a spokesman for the governor, signaled Monday that a veto was unlikely, though he suggested the administration could make its point more forcefully with the annual budget bill.