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Can Vt. lawmakers avoid budget showdown with governor?

Updated: May. 13, 2021 at 5:30 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - There’s just over a week left in Vermont’s legislative session and lawmakers are in the home stretch of crafting a state budget to send to Governor Scott, but disagreements remain over how one billion in federal coronavirus cash should be spent.

House and Senate lawmakers Thursday continued to hammer out the details of a $7-billion state spending plan. A tsunami of over a billion of American Rescue Plan funds has flipped fears of a financial shortfall into a debate over how to use the bounty of cash.

“I feel strongly that we can’t squander this opportunity, that we need to utilize this to transform Vermont,” Governor Phil Scott said this week.

Scott and the Legislature largely agree on what is in the budget, but they disagree over how to pay for it. The governor and his team want to spend the federal COVID cash on housing, economic recovery initiatives, water and sewer, universal broadband, and climate change initiatives, and they say the ball has to start rolling now.

“It helps organizations make decisions about staffing and about other investments they may need to make in order to take advantage of those dollars,” said Vt. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore.

But Democrats say Scott’s proposals leave some important things out. They want to use some of the funding to prop up the state colleges, workforce development, and mental health, and they say the state has four years to decide how to spend the money, so there’s no need to rush. “We don’t want Vermonters to feel like we’re going to lose an opportunity. We have time to get this right,” said Senate President Becca Balint, D-Windham County.

With just days left in the session, the budgetary picture is changing daily. Federal officials this week released new guidelines of how the money can be spent, so legislative economists are analyzing how that could affect their spending plan. Democrats say their investments in Vermonters will meet federal guidelines. “Let’s make these investments in people, let’s help people get through this pandemic, and then let’s regroup and talk about strategies moving forward,” said House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington.

Whatever the final budget looks like, the governor is not counting out a veto. Krowinski says they are hoping for the best but also preparing for any outcome. “If that doesn’t happen and it ends with a veto, then we’re going to have to end with a veto override or a compromise to get us to a shared goal to get us through this crisis,” she said.

While the debate continues in Vermont, action in Congress on the president’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could change the entire conversation, sending a flood of cash toward broadband and housing in the months ahead.

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