The Vermont Senate on Thursday passed a $7.15 billion budget that makes few major changes to the spending bill that the House passed last week, but increases funding for Vermont schools to cover Covid-19 expenses, and a hazard pay program for essential workers.
The budget bill advanced in a unanimous 30-0 vote on Thursday afternoon, and is expected to pass on a second vote Friday.
Speaking to the Senate, Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted that while the state’s tax revenues have been “hammered” by the pandemic, this year’s budget “does not fully reflect that.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott were able to avoid making big cuts this year, in large part because of a tax surplus in July.
They have also been able to benefit from the $1.25 billion the state received in coronavirus relief fund dollars from the federal government earlier this year.
The Senate’s budget harnesses more of those federal dollars to help Vermont’s K-12 school system address the costs of reopening amid the Covid-19 crisis.
By the end of June, lawmakers and Gov. Phil Scott had provided schools with $50 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars to help them pay for pandemic-related expenses.
But in recent weeks, as districts began to tally their updated spending totals and anticipated expenses in the coming months, they reported that they need much more funding
The budget Scott presented to lawmakers last month included no additional funding for schools. The House’s budget added an additional $32.4 million of federal coronavirus relief fund dollars for districts.
The Senate, which received the most updated funding requests from school districts, increased that amount to $53 million.
Schools are asking for additional money to cover a variety of costs including personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies, additional staff time and technology for remote learning.
The Joint Fiscal Office also estimates schools need about $14 million in additional funding to pay for upgrades to their air quality systems.
In an interview this week, Jeffrey Francis, the executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association, said that schools need the funding because they have been “asked to go above and beyond in many different ways” during the pandemic.
“They are acting in extraordinary good faith in terms of doing the best job they can and they’re worried about educating kids, and keeping them healthy, and safety,” Francis said.
“And while they need to pay attention to what they spend and how they spend it they should not be worried about where the money is coming from,” Francis added.
If federal money wasn’t used to cover school expenses, the burden would fall on taxpayers.
Kitchel said senators were concerned about the impact that would have on property taxes, which are used to fund education.
The budget also boosts funding for a proposed expansion to the state’s Covid-19 hazard pay program. In June, the Legislature created a hazard pay program that covers employees in the health care and human services sector.
But the Senate recently passed legislation to expand the program to include employees at essential retail businesses, including grocery stores.
The House included $15 million for the program, but senators upped the spending to $22 million.
Kitchel said that the Senate was able to “redeploy” $25 million coronavirus relief fund dollars that had been allocated earlier this year to help struggling health care providers, but hadn’t been spent. This helped the chamber boost funding for the hazard pay program and schools.
The Senate’s budget includes $5 million for a program that would provide stimulus payments to Vermonters who didn’t receive federal payments earlier this year because of their immigration status.
But the Senate changed how this program would be funded. The House used $3 million from the state’s Tobacco Litigation Settlement Fund to pay for the program.
The Legislature had previously slated that money to pay for reforms to the state’s program for dealing with child abuse and neglect cases — its Children in Need of Care and Services, or CHINS, program.
Senators said they were opposed to diverting funds that could be used to reform the state’s child welfare system.
“We need to really continue looking at how we assure the protection of our children. And this, in our mind, to divert money that was to benefit Vermont children to fund a new program was not where we wanted to go,” Kitchel said.
Instead, the Senate used $3 million from the state’s reserve funds for human services programs to cover the cost of the stimulus payments.
The spending bill also redirects about $500,000 in the budget for the Vermont State Police to hire mental health experts to work in five additional police barracks throughout the state.
Senate leaders made this a priority in June, in the wake of calls for criminal justice reform after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis in May.
After the budget bill passes on Friday, it will return to the House for review before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.
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