Gov. Peter Shumlin was surrounded by schoolchildren when he signed the Fiscal Year 2014 budget into law today. The governor chose to focus his remarks on two education initiatives included within the $1.4 billion bill.
Shumlin began by noting,“We had to close a $67 million budget gap without raising incomes taxes, sales taxes and meals taxes on hardworking Vermonters,” before turning his attention to two monetarily minute pieces of the budget that, he said, are “critically important.”
The two line items — one makes school lunch free for all students on the subsidized food program and the other offsets tuition hikes for Vermont students attending the University of Vermont or one of the Vermont State Colleges — encountered little resistance in the Legislature.
Vermont is now the first state to make school lunch free for students that qualify for a reduced-price lunch under the federal program. The budget allocates $322,250 for the expansion. The state already provides free lunch to families at 130 percent of the federal poverty line; now families at 185 percent of the federal poverty line will also qualify.
There was a simple rationale for making this change, according to Shumlin. “It should be a basic right that if you go to school and you’re hungry, you get a meal,” he said.
Marissa Parisi is the executive director for Hunger Free Vermont, which has pushed for the provision for several years. According to Parisi, when the Legislature passed a similar provision in 2008 that made breakfast free for all low-income families, participation jumped 85 percent.
The $2.5 million increase in the allocation to UVM, the Vermont State Colleges and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. comes after five years of holding the state’s investment in higher education steady.
“We have raised the allocation to those institutions so no Vermont kid will pay more at UVM next year than he did last year and to ensure that more students who go to the state colleges will not have to pay more next year than they did last year,” Shumlin said.
UVM’s tuition will increase 2.9 percent in 2014; at the Vermont State Colleges, the increase is 4 percent.
Shumlin signed the bill in the cafeteria of the Milton Elementary School, and one of the lawmakers by his side was Rep. Ron Hubert, a Republican from Milton. Hubert said he supports the governor’s education agenda, but he is worried about the long-term costs.
“I think they are both good ideas. I’m hoping that we can maintain them in the future. They are both going to cost more money in the out years. I know everyone is touting how a great a job we did but it’s a 4 percent increase in the budget which is really unsustainable in the long run,” Hubert said.
Shumlin’s emphasis on education isn’t surprising — he focused exclusively on the subject at the start of the session, laying out a host of reforms, a handful of which made it into law. “This Legislature partnered with me to pass the most ambitious education initiatives that we’ve seen in years,” Shumlin told the cluster of Milton students.
Shumlin was also successful in getting the Legislature to expand dual enrollment and early college programs. Several other initiatives languished, including a tuition reimbursement program for college graduates that major in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and stay in the state, and plans to expand child-care and pre-kindergarten programs.
But most the debate between the unveiling of the governor’s budget and the signing of the bill dwelt on an entirely different area of state government — human services.
Two of the topics that dominated the budgetary deliberations in the Legislature were Shumlin’s proposal to fund a large investment in child care by reducing the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and his plan to put time limits on the family welfare program.
During brief speeches from the Legislature’s key budget-writers — Senate Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, and House Appropriations Chair Martha Heath, D-Westford — also chose to highlight the school lunch expansion as a provision they were “particularly proud of.”
After the ceremonial signing, Kitchel characterized her committee’s achievements in the budget-writing arena in broader terms. Kitchel said her committee was focused on “how investments are being made, how systems are operated, and how to produced better outcomes,” and, she added, “that’s not very sexy.”
Human services issues loomed front and center during many of those discussion.
“One of the areas that we certainly spent a lot of time on was programs in human services and looking at how they are operating and where we need to make improvements,” she said. “A number of them came up — Reach Up, Developmental Services, and fuel assistance.”
Kitchel also pointed out the $6 million investment in fuel assistance for low-income Vermonters marks the first time the state has included money for this program in the base General Fund appropriation
Kitchel’s fellow Appropriations Committee member, Sen. Sally Fox, D-Chittenden, also said she is pleased with measured approach the Legislature settled on in the human services arena. “I’m happy that the human services programs came out pretty much whole. We are taking a good look at some of the issues about Reach Up before we actually implement any drastic changes.”