There was some big news this week from the legislature. Some of it positive, some not so much.
Let's start of with the good news. Budgeting officials from the Agency of Education notified the House Ways and Means Committee this week that 60% of school budgets have been submitted at this point (school boards are required to send the Agency a copy of the budget being voted on town meeting day) and the results are promising. Overall spending is only up by 0.68%. Add to this the stronger than expended returns of the consumption taxes dedicated to the education fund and statewide average property taxes are now expected to hold steady in 2022. This won't mean that property tax rates in individual towns will remain the same, but on average they won't go up or down by much.
And now the bad news. The state college system is in even worse shape than last year when then Chancellor Jeb Spaulding proposed offing Northern Vermont University. State college leadership informed the House Education Committee this week that their first pass at a 2022 budget showed them up to $45M in the hole. They are estimating a $235M structural deficit over the next five years and an additional $20M because of Covid impacts. They are hoping the Legislature will approve $51M in funding for this coming year, which is $17.4M more than the Governor's recommended budget. This means the legislature would need to either pull these funds from somewhere else or find a new source of revenue.
One slimmer of hope; CCV conducted an experiment with the McClure family foundation last year where they offered all high school seniors in Vermont a free class at CCV. Over 600 students jumped at the offer (more than double how many typically enroll in classes) and of these 80% plan to continue studies. This proved to be exceedingly successful as it boosted net continuing college enrollment by 30% statewide. Similar programs could be offered across the state college network and better awareness and career planning services could be wrapped around this program.
Broadband expansion is still a hot topic in the House, but there was little movement this week despite some squabbles about how state funds should be accessed by local utility providers. Legislators have still not found a dedicated funding source for the investments they hope to make, or a mechanism to deliver them, but we think they are hoping more federal dollars become available.
The Vermont Outdoor Recreation Collaborative (VOREC) is asking for $5M in grant money to support local efforts for trail buildout and repairs (this money was included in the Governor's recommended budget). The outdoor recreation industry is growing at five times the rate of the underlying economy and is heavily reliant on these sorts of infrastructure projects. Similarly, the Agency of Commerce and Community Development requested an additional $1M be added to the state's marketing program to help a beleaguered tourism industry and also to capitalize on pent up demand once Covid restrictions are lifted.
Analysts from the Joint Fiscal office informed the House Government Operations Committee this week that the total projected liability for retirement and retiree health benefits, along with other post-employment benefits, total $9.8B (that's billion with a "B"). If you total those liabilities, we have funded about 40% of that obligation leaving a shortfall of $5.7B. We are also not keeping up with the needed contributions to these funds so that liability is still growing.
If you divide the shortfall among Vermont's population of 624k, that yields roughly $9k per person. That's a hefty bill to pay off... To be fair, that is amortized over 30 years so it's really $300 per person per year. Still though, that's a lot just for the pension fund let alone our other state obligations.
The Senate Government Operations Committee is still working through a mammoth elections bill. What started as nearly 100 ideas is now down to 60 or so. The two major decisions this week were to table ranked choice voting - an elections process where voters rank their candidates from favorite to least favorite. This allows voters subsequent choices to be counted if their top candidate doesn't have enough support to win a plurality. Incidentally, Burlington is looking at re-implementing this type of voting system so the legislature is likely to get another look at this.
The second idea to get the axe this week was a proposal to require voters to select which party ballot they wish to cast in statewide primaries. This was meant to avoid the confusion of mailing three ballots to voters as this resulted in a number of spoiled ballots this past summer, however elections officials raised concerns that this information would be public record. Voters already have to declare which ballot they want to cast for presidential primaries every four years, but this would have increased the frequency to every two.