By Rep. Kate Webb
Last Friday, the House passed the 2018 budget on a vote of 143-1 and the corresponding revenue package on a vote of 138-0. This near unanimous support reflects universal acknowledgement that it is time to “keep the ship steady,” so to speak, as we prepare for uncertainty ahead.
The budget focus continued to build on the 2015 collaborative efforts of then-Appropriations Chair Rep. Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) and her Vice Chair, Rep. Peter Fagan (R-Rutland). Extending their approach toward government accountability, this year’s budget reflects the practice of using a multiyear approach to decision-making; contains steps to create a two-year budgeting cycle; appropriates less-than-projected state revenues; and strengthens and builds critical state reserves and rainy day funds.
The revenue package follows suit, reflecting the need to preserve taxing capacity in anticipation of federal budget cuts. The current bill would raise an additional $5 million by making it easier to collect notoriously difficult taxes. The State currently has approximately $150 million of uncollected taxes on the books, and this bill includes additional strategies to collect from noncollecting sales and use tax venders.
The FY2018 balanced budget grows by 1% to $5.815.5 billion, with the General Fund portion of $1.563.8 increasing by 1.8%. With revenues projected to grow by 3.7%, the current budget bends the spending curve and puts us on a path to live within our means.
The House-passed bill protects the Education Fund by limiting its use to public pre-K-12 education. Although most House members were very interested in the Governor’s plan to increase support for high quality childcare as well as our colleges and universities, the House did not support moving these responsibilities to the property tax. These obligations will remain in the General Fund.
A significant portion of debate centered on changes to the “Cold Weather Exception,” which allows vulnerable Vermonters to access hotel vouchers during harsh weather. The House bill supports the notion that money spent on a single motel night here and there is not nearly as effective as increasing access to shelters such as Harbor Place in Shelburne, where social services can also be provided. The current bill cuts funding for hotel vouchers, while increasing shelter space in the Rutland and Barre areas.
I have heard from many members of our community regarding a bill to allow limited recreational use of marijuana over the age of 21. I have attempted to get back personally to everyone in our community and typically read, or have saved to read, every article or report you send to me. Humorously, I am more likely to receive written requests to vote “no,” while those who want a “yes” vote catch me in person.
It is currently unclear whether this bill will emerge from the House Human Services Committee, although I expect it will at some point. While it is possible the Senate could simply support the House version, allowing individuals to grow two plants and possess one ounce of marijuana, many anticipate the Senate adding a regulated retail market including taxes, fees, and programs. Regardless of the final plan, this is an important public discussion particularly given that we all have concerns regarding the expanding illegal drug market, effects on our young people, and how to prepare for regulated markets growing around us in Quebec, Mass., and Maine.
I am available to meet in person in Montpelier Tuesday-Friday and in Shelburne Saturday-Monday. I am also reachable at email@example.com or by cell phone: 802-233-7798.