House lawmakers have crafted a state budget that includes roughly $24 million in ‘bridge funding’ for the struggling state college system.
The budget proposed by Gov. Phil Scott last month — to fund the last nine months of the current fiscal year — did not specify funding for the Vermont State Colleges, which sought an additional $23.8 million to cover a budget shortfall in the current fiscal year.
This spring, legislative leaders pledged to provide the state colleges with bridge funding. The money would stabilize the system as it mulls restructuring options.
Bridge funding was floated after then-chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed closing three campuses because of financial woes. Spaulding was heavily criticized for that plan, and soon resigned.
Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said if colleges had to shut down, the consequences would be dire.
“If those colleges were to close, the impact it would have on the communities around them would be devastating,” Toll said.
“So finding that bridge funding in secure general fund dollars I think was huge to the economy in the Northeast Kingdom, to the economy around Castleton and to Randolph and to Johnson. Just imagine if we did not secure that funding, what the economic fallout would be,” she said.
The state college system includes Castleton University, Northern Vermont University campuses in Johnson and Lyndon, Community College of Vermont, and Vermont Technical College.
The House Appropriations Committee finished its work on the state budget bill on Tuesday. In total, the budget, which is buoyed by about $850 million in federal coronavirus relief fund dollars, spends $7.15 billion.
The full House is expected to pass the legislation over to the Senate this week.
In the budget he presented in August, the governor proposed using federal dollars from the coronavirus relief fund to provide $30 million in bridge funding for the college system.
However, Congress and the Trump administration would need to grant states more flexibility for the funds to be used in this way.
The CRF dollars, which were doled out to all 50 states after President Donald Trump signed the CARES Act in March, are supposed to be used to cover expenses related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Scott administration has also said that before it commits to more state funding for the college system, it wants to see a plan for how the colleges will achieve long-term sustainability.
In building their budget, House lawmakers were able to find additional state dollars by harnessing about $24 million of the federal CRF to cover payroll expenses in the departments of health and public safety.
Using the federal money to cover departmental expenses “freed up” state dollars that could be used for the bridge funding, according to Steve Klein, the director of the state’s Joint Fiscal Office.
And this use of the federal relief fund money fit within the federal guidance, according to Klein.
The federal government has said that the dollars can be used to cover payroll expenses for public health and public safety employees during the pandemic.
The budget bill also includes $10 million in federal funding for the University of Vermont and $10 million for the state’s independent colleges and universities to spend on Covid-19 related expenses.
The House pared down the amount of federal dollars that Scott asked to spend on economic Covid-19 relief.
The governor proposed spending $133 million in coronavirus relief fund dollars on a variety of economic recovery initiatives. Under the House’s budget, the expenditure was reduced to $100 million.
The House proposal adds funding to help the K-12 education system pay for reopening expenses during the Covid-19 crisis. The budget includes $32.4 million in federal funding to help schools address the costs of outfitting for and operating during the pandemic.
The funding would include about $5 million for schools to upgrade air quality systems, according to the Joint Fiscal Office.
In addition, the budget includes $15 million to expand the state’s Covid-19 hazard pay program to include grocery store and retail workers.
The Senate has passed legislation to expand the hazard pay program to include employees at essential retail businesses. The total cost of the combined proposals is nearly $20 million.
In June, the Legislature passed a hazard pay program that covers employees in the health care and human services sector.
Missing out on the latest scoop? Sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on politics. And in case you can't get enough of the Statehouse, sign up for Final Reading for a rundown on the day's news in the Legislature.