Town Meeting week is not only a good time to get involved in local politics, but also check in on what’s going on in State government.
In January, I presented my budget to the Legislature and my priorities haven’t changed. In fact, they haven’t changed much at all since I first ran for governor. I still believe it’s important to focus on the fundamentals, work together to find practical solutions, and follow through to finish what we started.
One thing that has changed over the last three years, is the billions in federal recovery aid we’re receiving. This – coupled with historic state surpluses due to responsible budgeting – has given us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fund our obligations and invest in addressing challenges we’ve faced for decades. If we do this right, we’ll restore the vitality of left-behind communities, help people get ahead and let them keep more of what they earn.
But we know the federal money won’t last forever – and when it does dry up, even the Legislature’s economist predicts a downturn. So instead of spending on programs we won’t be able to afford in the years ahead, we must invest in initiatives that put us in a stronger economic and fiscal position to generate more dollars in the future, rather than raise taxes.
After last year’s election, there was a lot of talk about a super majority of Democrats and Progressives in the Legislature, but this is nothing new. What’s been overlooked is the real majority: More than half the Legislature serves towns with less than 1,000 people – small, underserved communities who desperately need our help. And as Governor, I represent all of them. So regardless of party, they should be our priority.
Real transformation requires us to lift up the regions that have been left behind. That’s why the budget I proposed would expand economic growth to more areas of the state and strengthen our very foundation. We’re focused on the basics – housing; water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure; high-speed internet; small businesses; the workforce; and health and safety – because these are the sparks that ignite revitalization. We’ve invested historic amounts in these areas, and the budget I proposed this year follows through on this strategic approach.
Right now, there’s still a lot of common ground, like housing. But there are also storm clouds on the horizon.
Before leaving for Town Meeting break, the Legislature passed the Budget Adjustment Act, which is supposed to take care of things that can’t wait until the next fiscal year. In this one bill, they spent about $50 million more than I proposed. This is concerning because they haven’t told us what they’ll cut in the full budget to pay for it.
The Legislature is also considering bills – many cited as top priorities – that could add hundreds of millions of dollars in costs for everyday Vermonters. This includes adding a payroll tax for paid leave that may cost workers and employers about $100 million a year. They’re also considering increasing a whole host of taxes to pay for a childcare proposal advocates say requires $279 million a year. Then there’s the so-called “Affordable Heat Act,” which just passed the Senate, and we estimate could cost $2 billion dollars in total with Vermonters seeing heating bills rise by at least 70 cents per gallon and/or needing to pay thousands in upfront costs to transition to cleaner heat.
I’ve proposed alternatives to each of these priorities without raising taxes and fees, including a voluntary family leave program; tripling the State’s annual investment in childcare to help thousands more families; and a more effective way to plan for a transition to cleaner heat. We can do all of this without asking those who can least afford it to pay more.
Elected officials need to remember that the decisions we make during these volatile and inflationary times have real life consequences on people who can’t carry more financial burden. And because the silent majority are at work, trying to make ends meet, they’re counting on us to protect them and their pocketbooks. Town Meeting week is a chance for Vermonters to remind us of that, so we can finish this legislative session with a clear focus on the needs of our communities, not our political parties.
Phil Scott is Governor of Vermont and resides in Berlin.