Final Reading: Senators grasp for revenue alternatives to fill budget holes

Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, chair of the Senate Finance Committee speaks during a committee meeting at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Friday, March 22, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A more detailed plan for transitioning 2,000 homeless Vermonters out of motels will be released in the next few weeks, according to Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the state’s Economic Services Division.

Brown told the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee that of the 1,500 households currently offered housing by the state in motels, 1,700 adults and 300 children are being served. The state will work with housing organizations to find families affordable units and provide continued services, he said. - Grace Elletson

— Senate Finance lawmakers began brainstorming Tuesday about how the state could raise revenues to combat steep revenue shortfalls from the coronavirus pandemic. One solution may be to tax Vermont’s wealthiest. 

“I’ve asked — since I’m starting to get the ‘tax the rich’ emails — the tax commissioner ... ‘Do we have any billionaires?’” Committee Chair Anne Cummings, D-Washington said. “Because that seems to be the new word to tax.”

Cummings has collected a list of income information on the state’s millionaires, and said the committee would be looking into a wealth or income tax later this week. 

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said legislators should look into government agency redundancies and promote efficiencies to save on costs. Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, cautioned that the Legislature may not be the best body to make those administrative decisions. 

Cummings also pointed to chatter she’s been hearing among real estate agents that more people might be interested in moving to Vermont as more companies embrace telecommuting — perhaps bringing some much needed tax revenues. - Grace Elletson 

— The House Ways and Means committee voted out the so-called "yield" bill on Tuesday. The bill, which is passed each year, sets the crucial number upon which local education property taxes are calculated. 

The legislation does not solve the massive hole in the Education Fund, which is projected to be short about $156 million next fiscal year, according to the latest estimates. But it does send a strong message that lawmakers do not intend to do so on the backs of property tax payers.

If the bill is enacted into law, the average homestead property tax rate would be $1.542 next year. That's about 3 cents higher than the current rate.

"What I like about this bill is it sets the tax rates, it sets the yields. It gets that question off the table, so we will stop reading news stories about how we're going to have a 22-cent property tax increase, which is not the intention of this committee," said committee chair Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais. 

"But it also signals that we understand that those tax rates aren't sufficient to raise enough money to make the education payments that we have to make, and there will be a second bill." - Lola Duffort

— The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance sent a letter to lawmakers and the governor with more details about how it would like the state to address the racial disparities present in Covid-19 testing data. Recent data found that black Vermonters have the highest rate of positive Covid-19 tests

The alliance is calling for targeted COVID-19 and antibody testing for communities and people of color, funding to provide people of color the option to shelter-in-place, financial assistance for utilities and rentals post COVID-19, and translation services for Covid-19 communications. 

The group is also calling for the creation of an Emergency Racial and Ethnic COVID-19 Response Task Force to help investigate and institute these ideas. - Grace Elletson 

— Rep. Cynthia Browning will be running for reelection this fall, this time as an independent. Browning, who represents the Bennington-4 district, would be challenged by two other candidates in the primary if she ran as a Democrat, according to The Bennington Banner

She faced party backlash in March after she called for a quorum during a House session, forcing 76 lawmakers to enter the chamber to vote on Covid-19 legislation.

"I expect that the full force of the party establishment will be arrayed against me in the primary," Browning wrote. "I do not believe that Montpelier should be choosing our representatives, and primaries tend to have low voter turnouts, so to ensure that the voters have a chance to choose me in November I will be running as an Independent." - Grace Elletson

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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