The 2018 Legislative Session Begins and the State of the State Speech

The 2018 Legislative Session began on Wednesday, Jan. 3rd, at 10 AM. Our first few days were relatively eventful in that the governor gave his State of the State address on Thursday, the same day we passed H.511, which is an incremental step that legalizes the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana. One of our additional tasks in the very near future is to pass the Budget Adjustment Act.

The Budget Adjustment Act is essentially a mid-year “true up” for our State budget. Though not constitutionally required to do so, Vermont always maintains a balanced budget. We do our best to anticipate shortfalls through the use of fiscal projections and other tools but it’s not an exact science and a correction typically needs to occur halfway through the fiscal year. This year we need to adjust for a relatively small shortfall and with some savings from a postponed bond issuance and other General Fund reversions it does not look like this will be a particularly heavy lift.

The governor gave his State of the State address on Thursday. It was a very aspirational speech but light on any detailed plan. He continues to say that he will not approve any budget that increases taxes or fees. We were able to accomplish that last year but it remains to be seen if that is realistic this year with increased costs. Fees, by the way, pay for services (licenses, permits, inspections, etc.) that are offered to Vermonters. No increase in fees essentially means that the price of gasoline won’t rise, that wages won’t increase for our state workers who are doing the work, and that associated costs for providing those services won’t go up in any way. This seems a unrealistic.

The governor devoted time talking about his desire to focus on working age people and outlined some ideas for how to achieve that goal. He wants to start a workforce expansion program, which is an excellent idea. We have a number of successful companies already in Vermont that need workers but we need to provide workers who have the skills needed. Recruiting from our existing population makes a lot of sense and considering our National Guard and other former service members could work well if they have the skills necessary to do the jobs available.

Tuition-free higher education for our National Guard members was also on the governor’s list of things to do. This, too, is a great idea. States that surround us offer this benefit to their Guard members and it makes us less competitive if we don’t.

The governor wants to make it more affordable for retired veterans to live in Vermont and suggested exempting their military pensions from income tax. This sounds good because we want to honor their service but a question has been raised as to whether they really need this benefit. It probably varies on a case-by-case basis.

The governor wants to expand adult education though details on this were not offered and the governor would like a re-location plan to encourage younger people from out-of-state to move to Vermont. As the mother of three young men, I would suggest that job availability is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to that idea. Two of my sons have made it back to Vermont and the third would like to move back as well, but the job situation doesn’t work for him and his family at this time. One of my Vermont sons has a job that pays a living wage, the other would need higher wages to be considered successful.

The detail that was left out of the State of the State speech was how the governor proposed to pay for this. All of these ideas, while laudable, have a price tag so either you are going to raise revenue (taxes and fees) or you are going to rob from some other area to pay for them. After years of cutting the budget, I will be interested, when the governor gives his budget address in a couple of weeks, to see where he proposes to get the money.

On a slightly different, but related, topic, I found all this talk about workforce development and re-location plans highly ironic when viewed through the lens of the education funding conversation. With my Windham School Board Chair hat on, I listened to the governor’s concern about staff to student ratios in our schools with a certain amount of perplexity. The governor has suggested that we could save $100 million in education costs if we could reduce our ratio from the current state average of one staff member for every four students to one staff member for every five students. So how does that work? It means that we would have to fire 20% of our locally-based school employees to meet that ratio goal with no meaningful conversation about why we require so many employees.

Could it have something to do with what is expected of our schools these days? Not only do we educate our students, we are expected, in many cases, to feed our children, which is a fantastic investment in their futures and the good use of our education dollars – children learn better when they are well-nourished. In many schools, backpacks are sent home with students on the weekends so the children might have something to eat. We also deal with increased discipline problems, special education costs, and the results of the opioid crisis to name just a few.

I’m not opposed to cutting staff when it’s appropriate and we have done so in Windham but to make a blanket statement and set some “picked-out-of-the-air” goal with no research as to the root of the problem and possible repercussions is irresponsible. Trying to re-locate people from out-of-state to do jobs that may not exist, while at the same time aspiring to put local, hard-working Vermonters out of work doesn’t make sense.

If we want to grow our economy and create healthy communities and a strong future for Vermont, we should be thoughtful, deliberate, educated, and careful with our words and actions.

During the Legislative Session, I, and every other legislator, can be reached by phone toll-free at 1-800-322-5616. Please leave a message with the Sergeant at Arms’ office and I will return your call as soon as possible. I can be reached via email at cpartridge@leg.state.vt.us as well.