The following is a letter from the Progressive House Caucus to the Progressive State Committee explaining their position on the state budget.
Hello Progressive State Committee
Last week the House of Representatives almost unanimously approved the proposed FY 2018 budget. By all accounts it was an austerity budget which made cuts that will adversely affect some vulnerable Vermonters. So, why did the majority of Progressives vote in favor of this kind of budget?
At the beginning of the session the governor presented his proposed budget to the legislature, which shifted a number of costs to the Education Fund, essentially putting a $50 million deficit onto property taxes. Progressives and Democrats united in condemning it. The House then set to work on creating its own budget, with Democrats being aware of the governor’s promise to veto any increase in taxes or fees and the fact that they could not over-ride a veto.
So, with no new revenue, except for $5 million expected from increased enforcement of current tax laws, and with continued inflation and contracted raises, cuts needed to be made. Interestingly, large portions of the budget are off the table when discussing making these cuts. Most education revenue cannot be considered because it is funded from property taxes rather than the General Fund. The Transportation Fund and Capitol Funds are also not allowed to even be considered for cuts. That leaves only the General Fund to absorb the brunt of the cuts.
The Appropriations Committee did an exemplary job of outreach, asking every representative and every committee for their input. They considered strategic reallocation of funds in some situations. For example, disproportionate share payments for hospitals were reduced and the money was redirected to strengthen the mental health system’s hotspots, such as crisis beds and services. They nibbled a little in hopes that some of the proposed cuts could be absorbed into administrative efficiencies and ended programs that have outlived their usefulness. Unfortunately, some cuts will hurt vulnerable people via not funding the Cold Weather Exemption.
Our caucus fought hard on the floor for two amendments. One amendment would have restored funding for the Cold Weather Exemption. The other would have instructed the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to transfer $200,000 from their $34.5 million budget to the Apprenticeship Program at the Department of Labor. That money would train young people in high paying, non-outsourceable jobs in the trades. Unfortunately, nearly all Republican and Democratic legislators voted against our amendments.
So, with broad Democratic and Republican support of the budget, Progressives could support or oppose the budget bill. What are Progressives to do?
The Progressive who voted “no” on the budget during the voice vote did so because she felt that she must stand up for vulnerable Vermonters and use her voice on their behalf.
The six Progressives who supported the budget recognized the hard work of the Appropriations committee, noted the deficiencies, fought for the amendments, but ultimately decided to save their energy for the big fight in October when we will likely see massive federal budget cuts. They noted that a yes vote on this budget gives Progressives a seat at the table in October and puts us in a better position to oppose huge state budget cuts stemming from the loss of federal funds.
It is rare that Progressives vote in unison on a budget vote; some demonstrate support for the work of the majority while noting the deficiencies, and others reject what the majority prioritizes. We all fight for a budget that respects the needs of all Vermonters.
This fight is not over. The Senate is now considering the budget and can make changes. We encourage you to let your Senators know that you support restoring the Cold Weather Exemption to the budget. We also encourage you to continue organizing in preparation of what will likely be a big budget fight in October.
Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman
Rep. Diana Gonzalez
Rep. Sandy Haas
Rep. Mollie Burke
Rep. Cindy Weed
Rep. Selene Colburn
Rep. Brian Cina