With just seven weeks remaining in the 2017 Legislative Session, there remains a great deal to do.  And, while much of what might be on the horizon is problematic, there is some good news to report.

One of the most challenging tasks before us this year – to develop a budget without increasing taxes and fees – seems to be relatively on track, at least on the part of the House.

While the budget that will be presented to the full Vermont House this week has not been completed as of this writing, from all reports, it will be a budget that does not rely on any new taxes or fees.  This is very good news!

In all of my years in the House, I do not recall a time when the Democratic leadership in the House did not fight for (and pass) significantly increased revenues to pay for significantly increased spending.  This year, however, with Governor Phil Scott in the corner office, it has been made clear that a veto is imminent if it increases taxes and fees on Vermonters.

 

As I examine the budget in detail this week, I will be looking for recommendations for further investments in certain areas, including tourism and marketing and other economic growth efforts, and efforts to address our opiate epidemic.  I would also very much like to see a reallocation of some of the incredibly generous $1.6 billion K-12 education monies to early childhood education and higher education, both of which are suffocating because of K-12 spending.  But, given the fierce objection from the educational status quo to the Governor's budget proposal in that regard, I'm assuming that is off the table for this year.

At this time, it is unclear what might happen to the House Budget proposal when it is considered on the House floor, and later in the Senate.  But it is my hope that, in the end, I will be able to support a responsible state budget that increases investments in certain areas, finds efficiencies in state government and its programs, reduces spending where responsible, and protects the most vulnerable - all without raising taxes and fees on our already overburdened Vermont families and businesses.

I am also pleased to report that a bill to partially address the "benefits cliff" challenge is expected to pass the House and advance to the Senate this week.

As background, the "benefits cliff" describes the disincentive many low-income parents have to either not work more hours, or not accept a raise in wages for fear the extra income will result in a disproportionate cut in the benefits they receive, including in Reach Up and in the Child Care Financial Assistance Program.

Championed by lead sponsor, Rep. Brian Keefe (R-Manchester), H.326, which I also co-sponsored, would instruct the State to "disregard" the amount of income a person receives in a wage increase or increased hours, if that income was put into a long-term retirement account for herself/himself, or an education savings account for a child/children, such as the "529 Accounts" offered by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation.

By doing this, the individual/family receiving benefits would be able to both avoid being cut off altogether from Reach Up or the Child Care Financial Assistance Program, and be encouraged to save money for their own financial security or for their children's future higher education.

The "benefits cliff" has been a subject of concern for all of us throughout the years, and H. 326 is a creative way to partially mitigate the challenge, while encouraging people to work and save as a pathway out of poverty.

As these two positive developments work their way through the process, I am sorry to report that an almost 1% payroll tax on all employees throughout Vermont is also gaining traction.  And, a $2.00 per room per night Occupancy Fee on all of our visitor room nights has been progressing in the Senate.  This means that every bed and breakfast, every small inn, and every lodge/motel would be charged an extra $2.00 per room per night on top of the 9% (in some cases 10%) rooms tax.

Rest assured, I will do allI can to fight the latter two proposals, and am hopeful that calmer heads prevail and that they are defeated before they go any further.