The House passed a suite of money bills Thursday and sent the state’s fiscal year 2017 package to the Senate.
The $5.77 billion state budget for the next fiscal year passed on a vote of 94 to 40. Lawmakers passed the miscellaneous tax bill on a voice vote.
The House chamber approved both bills after hours of wrangling over nearly a dozen amendments, debating state worker security, Vermont Health Connect, electronic cigarettes and more.
Before the final roll call, House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, called for the body to vote down the budget and to start from scratch.
“This budget is another step in the wrong direction,” Turner said. “Raising taxes on Vermonters is not the only path ahead.”
Turner said that he and members of the GOP caucus introduced cost-saving legislation that would have allowed the House to avoid raising fees and taxes. The revenue package for the general fund is $37 million; the transportation budget, which will be voted on next week, brings the total up to $48 million.
On the House floor, Rep. Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said that Turner’s suggestions to the panel were vague. He referred to bills his members had proposed that would save money, she said, but she never saw a list.
“What I found was a list of bills from his party that totaled $15 million to $30 million in spending,” Johnson said.
Turner said after the House adjourned that he felt Johnson’s comments were a personal attack. He disputed her assertion, and insisted that he had offered specifics.
“If she’s frustrated that we continue to point out the inefficiencies in the budget she put together or the difference of opinions, then you know, I apologize for that,” Turner said. “But that’s our job to do that.”
After the vote, Johnson reiterated that she had invited Turner to bring in specific proposals to save money in the budget.
“He’s been promising me a plan for two years, and I have not seen one,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the House Appropriations Committee’s process for assembling the budget had been “deeply inclusive.” The panel, she said, incorporated priorities from policy committees.
Both Johnson and House Speaker Shap Smith celebrated the passage of the bill, which had the support of Republicans in the appropriations committee, and had strong support on the floor.
“The thing that disappoints me the most in the process, in particular in the vote on the floor, is that if you believe that the budget should be reduced, put numbers on a page and dare to vote for them,” Smith said.
In a statement, Smith said “all representatives were given the opportunity to review and make recommendations about state programs, allocation of resources, and whether our investments were achieving successful outcomes.”
“The House budget uses no one-time funds for ongoing needs,” Smith said. “New strategies were adopted to build our reserves. Most critically, we’ve made long overdue investments in the Vermont State College system, expanding access to child care, and to the designated agencies that provide community health services.”
Miscellaneous tax bill
Before passing the tax bill, the body adopted an amendment from Rep. Oliver Olsen, I-South Londonderry, that puts a 3.3 percent provider tax on ambulance agencies around the state. The money raised will draw down a federal Medicaid match.
The revenues are meant to raise reimbursement rates for ambulance services under Medicaid. But opponents of the amendment argue that it will not be possible to ensure that the revenues really will go where intended.
“This is just another tax with no way of knowing it will be spent on ambulances,” Rep. Ron Hubert, R-Milton, said, explaining his vote against the measure.
The amendment passed on a vote of 100 to 41. A companion amendment in the budget bill authorizes $2.3 million in state and federal funds for increased ambulance reimbursement rates for services provided to people on Medicaid.
Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, introduced an amendment that would have imposed a 92 percent tax on electronic cigarettes. Till made a case for the tax on the floor citing high rates of usage among young people.
“This is just a new product to try to get youth addicted,” Till said.
The tax won support of the House Ways and Means Committee, by a vote of 8 to 3, but the effort was quashed on the floor when Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, challenged whether the proposal was germane to the underlying bill.
The question kicked off a procedural scrum. House Speaker Shap Smith ruled that the amendment was not germane; Till requested a suspension of the rules.
Ultimately, Till withdrew the amendment. However, the House Ways and Means Committee met during a recess and voted 8 to 3 to pass the amendment as a separate bill. It will be on the House floor next week, but will need a suspension of the rules to pass to the Senate.
The budget bill
In the course of a debate that lingered on into nightfall, without a dinner break, lawmakers defeated an amendment from Rep. Doug Gage, R-Rutland, that would have funded an independent study of Vermont Health Connect by using money from a study of Dr. Dynasaur. The study of the exchange is currently in budget language, but does not have an appropriation attached.
“If no evaluation is under way, how can we be sure that any more money that is being spent is going to fix this problem,” Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, said.
But others argued that there are efforts to vet the system already underway. Members of the House Appropriations Committee voted against the amendment, citing an issue with the proposed funding.
Representatives from Barre made an emotional appeal for an amendment that would add a $1.9 million appropriation to the budget to increase workplace safety at state offices, following the shooting of a social worker outside a state office in Barre in August.
The House Appropriations Committee did not include a $1 million appropriation in Gov. Peter Shumlin’s recommended budget for state worker security. The committee felt there was not a specific plan for how to spend that money, Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said. The budget bill asks the administration to create a security plan, which would be funded in a budget adjustment next year.
Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, who introduced the amendment, said the House is waiting too long to act. “If one of us were shot on our way out tonight, I guarantee you it wouldn’t be seven months,” before lawmakers discussed security, Poirier said.
Poirier’s colleague, Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre, also spoke in support of the amendment. Walz cited a meeting with workers at the state office complex in Barre. “The echo of that gunshot still resonates in the building,” Walz said.
Poirier ultimately withdrew his amendment.
Members of the House offered and approved several other amendments to the big bill, including a requirement that the Department for Children and Families to report on the impact of a $125 monthly cut in Reach Up benefits for households that also receive federal disability benefits.
The House also adopted amendments directing studies of people who are eligible for both Medicaid and Medicare, and collection of more information about grant recipients and home health agencies.