Reporter Debrief: Scott's FY22 Budget Lays Out Range Of 'One-Time' Funding Proposals
Republican Gov. Phil Scott presented his fiscal year 2022 budget on Tuesday to a virtual joint session of the Vermont Legislature. It was a rosier address than predicted just a few months earlier, when state economists expected the COVID-19 pandemic to punch a $430 million hole in revenue collections.
Instead, Scott presented a $8.6 billion budget buffeted by millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds. But he cautioned lawmakers not to use the one-time cash infusion on programs that cannot be sustained in future years.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with reporter Peter Hirschfeld, who closely followed Scott’s budget address. Their conversation below has been edited for length and clarity.
Henry Epp: So, Pete, it wasn't that long ago that Vermont's financial outlook was really dire. The state's economists were expecting a drop in revenue of over $400 million. That hasn't happened thanks to all the federal funds that have come to the state during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what's Gov. Scott prioritizing in his budget with all of this one-time money?
Peter Hirschfeld: What is he prioritizing? Everything, it seems, and I'm only half-joking, Henry.
According to the administration, there's enough money right now to fully fund all of state government with no cuts to services or programs, and still have $210 million on top of that to spend on other initiatives. And what you saw in Phil Scott's budget address today was his plan for spending that money, and get ready for a long list here. There's:
- $10 million to improve outdoor recreation infrastructure like trails and cabins in state parks and boating and fishing and hunting access.
- $25 million for weatherization to subsidize retrofits of houses for low- and middle-income families.
- $20 million for affordable housing. This is money that would be used toward the construction and renovation of rental units, mobile home parks, single-family dwellings.
- Nearly $20 million for broadband, money the administration wants to use to address a lot of the gaps in broadband access that the pandemic has exposed.
- $25 million for brownfield remediation. This would go toward the cleanup of old industrial sites so towns and cities can redevelop that land for commercial and residential purposes.
- $10 million in subsidies for community scale solar projects.
- $20 million for the Vermont State Colleges System.
- $1 million for tourism marketing.
It was like one of those Oprah moments for Phil Scott where it's like, “you get a car, you get a car." And there really is something in this budget for a lot of people to like.
Was any of that a surprise to you?
The magnitude of the money available was a surprise to me. Another thing that stuck out to me was, one of the things I didn't include in that list I just read you, was actually the biggest new spending initiative that the governor proposed in the budget, and that is the $53 million for a massive IT modernization program in state government.
You recall, Henry, Vermont has had a number of technological snafus over the past years. You know, we can all remember that really catastrophic shortcoming that plagued the unemployment division's mainframe at the Department of Labor this last spring.
Phil Scott says Vermont has a unique opportunity to use this one-time windfall to jumpstart a modernization program that will address a raft of IT issues across state government. And so, it's not surprising that Phil Scott wants to invest in that particular area. I think the magnitude of the investment he's proposing illuminates the scale of the challenges that the state faces on that IT front.
Well, Scott's approach to state budgeting has often been at odds with Democratic legislators in past years. So how are the Democrats reacting to this plan that he announced today?
I talked to House Speaker Jill Krowinski a few minutes after Scott delivered his budget address. She gave it a generally favorable review. Krowinski says she'd like to see a more trained focus on the 20,000 Vermonters who've either left the workforce or still can't find jobs as a result of the pandemic, the large majority of whom, she pointed out, are women.
But Krowinski says Scott's focus on broadband, child care, rebuilding after the pandemic, are very much in line with the House's legislative priorities.
They're going to be fights along the way, for sure, about how to spend this money, but these are fights about how to spend money, not where to cut programs or services. And Krowinski and the governor, I'm sure, too, were worried they were going to be having much more difficult conversations in the months ahead.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.