Lawmakers say they are committed to finding “bridge funding” for the struggling Vermont State Colleges System this year, even though that additional money isn’t directly included in the budget proposed by Gov. Phil Scott last week.
Legislative leaders said this spring they would provide bridge funding for the state colleges. That came after then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing three campuses because of financial woes. Spaulding was heavily criticized for that plan, and soon resigned.
The money would stabilize the colleges — Castleton University, Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, Community College of Vermont, and Vermont Technical College — as they look at options for restructuring. The colleges were crippled by a combination of dropping enrollment and lack of state government support.
In the budget he presented last week, the governor proposed using federal dollars from the coronavirus relief fund to provide $30 million in bridge funding to help the colleges cover a budget shortfall this year. But the U.S. Treasury hasn’t authorized using the federal money that way; it was intended to cover Covid-19 expenses.
Both Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, and House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, expressed concern that Scott didn’t put the money in his state budget.
Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters Tuesday that it’s “very clear that there’s a commitment” to provide bridge funding to the state colleges. However, lawmakers still haven’t figured out where to get the millions the state colleges say they need to get through the end of the fiscal year next June.
Toll said that money will be “very difficult to come by,” but legislators will look across Vermont’s funds, consider how some of the federal money could be used to cover the expense, and determine “how we make up the difference.”
“But there is a commitment there, and there’s a keen eye on that topic. It won’t slide; we’re paying full attention,” Toll said.
The state colleges asked for $40 million in bridge funding for the current fiscal year. Two reports issued in June found that the state colleges needed $30 million, or more, in the current fiscal year to cover a budget shortfall.
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The governor and Legislature have already provided $12.5 million in combined state and federal dollars to the colleges, and with $4 million in leftover funds from the last fiscal year, the colleges say they now need $23.8 million to stay afloat.
Before the governor commits to more funding, he wants to see a plan for how the colleges will achieve long-term sustainability.
The administration is “just as concerned as the Legislature over the viability of our state college system,” said Adam Greshin, Vermont’s finance commissioner, but it’s too early to make decisions, since it’s unclear how much is actually needed to get the colleges through this fiscal year.
“They don’t know what they need. It was $40 million, then it became $30 million, now it’s $23 million,” Greshin said. “It’s just too early. The Legislature, I believe, is getting ahead of the process here.”
In June, the Vermont State Colleges established a task force to advise how to move forward and ensure “financial viability.” The task force issued preliminary recommendations this month, and is expected to deliver an update in October.
The budget bill Scott signed in July also established a select committee to come up with a plan for the future of higher education in Vermont, and in particular to address “the urgent needs of the Vermont State Colleges.” But that committee’s report isn’t expected until next April.
Sen. Phil Baruth, D/P Chittenden, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee and is also on the select committee, said that if the state “conditioned” the bridge funding on the committee’s recommendations, it would be repeating “the errors that were made” when the former chancellor suggested closing three campuses in April.
“It throws everything into uncertainty and it digs the state college system into a deeper hole in terms of potential enrollment,” Baruth said. “I have to say flatly, I think the governor’s got it wrong. And I think ultimately he will sign off on a budget that produces that bridge funding. I don’t know why they’re making an issue out of it, frankly.”
Speaking to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, the new chancellor of the state college system, Sophie Zdatney, said that without the bridge funding, the colleges will have to take “significant and dramatic steps.”
“We’re operating on the edge, so if we don’t have bridge funding, then it will result in significant action that will be taken — I would imagine along the scale of what was proposed back in April,” Zdatney said.
Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the committee, reiterated that lawmakers are “very committed to seeing the system stabilized,” but will have to work hard to do so, given that Scott’s proposal relies solely on federal money.
Senators said that freeing up money for the state colleges will likely involve cuts elsewhere in the budget that’s intended to finance the state government for the last nine months of the fiscal year.
“If anybody who’s been around our Appropriations Committee very long thinks there’s $23.8 million in discretionary spending in this three-quarter budget, I don’t know where it is,” said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, a committee member.
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