MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott is continuing his call for new spending on early and higher education, even after local voters gave widespread approval to increased school budgets, ignoring the governor’s plea for level-funded budgets.
Scott said there are still opportunities to find savings within the state’s education fund to pay for $9 million in new spending he has called for in early child care and education, and the $5 million he is seeking for higher education.
The governor’s proposed 2018 fiscal year spending plan sought level-funded school budgets and a requirement that teachers pay at least 20 percent of their health care premiums to help fund the new initiatives.
But lawmakers rejected Scott’s call to move the school budget vote date to May, ensuring that local school boards would put their existing budgets up for a vote on Town Meeting Day. Voters approved 183 budgets on Tuesday while rejecting 18.
Scott said the low voter turnout Tuesday means that most Vermonters are not weighing in and he rejects the notion that voters are not upset about rising property taxes that pay for the state’s public school system.
“I’m not sure they were listening to what I had to say,” the governor said on Capital Beat on Vermont PBS. “We have a 25 percent turnout for town meeting. It’s not the vast majority of voters who are speaking up and I think we need to engage people, we need to have more people show up and participate.”
Scott added, “I don’t think that tells us a whole lot about the way people are feeling. There’s somewhat of a disconnect between those who are voting on their school budgets and property taxes, for some unknown reason.”
The proposal to require teachers to pay at least 20 percent of their health insurance premiums could save the state as much as $30 million per year, Scott said. He called on lawmakers to pursue that policy as a way to fund the new investments in early and higher education.
House leaders called on Scott to come up with a Plan B budget before departing for the annual weeklong town meeting break. But Scott made clear that no such plan is coming.
“For those who say Plan B, I would say the plan I put out was balanced, it spent within its means and there was a portion of that the Legislature didn’t accept,” he said. “But the vast majority of the budget I put forward they’ve taken advantage of. They’ve taken advantage of some of the cuts and some of the redistribution of funds and so forth, the savings we’ve found in state government. … So I wouldn’t say there’s a need for a Plan B. I think we just move on with Plan A and we’re going to find other savings in other areas.”
The House Appropriations Committee has accepted many of the budget savings the governor presented. The committee has worked to reduce the projected budget gap from $72 million to about $18 million. But they have set aside Scott’s new spending initiatives to do so.
The governor said he generally supports the work the House has done so far.
“I think most of the reductions have been taken from what I presented, so I think most of them I would agree with,” Scott said. “I haven’t seen too many at this point in time that I disagree with.”
He added, “I don’t believe there will be any rubber stamps on any budget proposal, whether it’s mine, the House’s or the Senate’s.”
Scott said he stands firmly behind his pledge to reject any new taxes or fees to help balance the state budget, saying it is “essential for Vermonters.”
“They’ve been taxed enough. They don’t have the appetite for any more spending, and more taxes and fees, and I believe there’s a path to doing that,” he said.
Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said her panel has been poring through the general fund looking for ways to save an additional $18 million. She suggested that popular programs and services, including the Vermont Veterans Home, may need to be cut to balance the budget without new revenue.
Scott said he expects to hear more warnings of dire consequences before agreement on a state budget is reached.
“Obviously, we’ll work with them.,” the governor said. “There’s a lot of posturing going on. Making draconian cuts is always the threat, in some respects. No different from any other year that I’ve seen in this building.”
Scott added, “I guess we’ll see what they come up with at the end of the day when they finally pass it through the house, as to whether they cut things such as the Veterans Home.”