MONTPELIER, Vt. — The Vermont Senate on Monday gave initial approval to a $1.44 billion general fund budget that boosts payments for Medicaid providers and health care for retired teachers, but keeps higher education funding at about the same level.
The Senate's 24-to-3 vote to give the measure preliminary approval came after about four hours of debate highlighted by an unsuccessful bid to shift $5 million from business development to weather-tightening homes of low-income residents.
When separate transportation, education and other funds are added in, the state is on track to spend about $5.5 billion in combined state and federal funds in the fiscal year 2015, which begins July 1.
Vermont historically ranks at or near the bottom among states for funding its public colleges and university, and that won't change this year. Total spending for the University of Vermont, state colleges and the Vermont Student Assistance Corp. financial aid program would go from $88.8 million to about $89.2 million.
Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said her committee decided to use the $400,000 in additional higher education funding passed by the House differently: It will go instead to grants for the three high schools in Vermont that have the lowest rates of students going on for further education.
Sen. Richard Westman, R-Lamoille, argued that $400,000 wouldn't go far toward addressing tight campus budgets, and might better be used to address a newer and growing problem: declining enrollment at the state colleges.
Westman called declining enrollments "something much more difficult for those state colleges to deal with" than frugal state appropriations.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive-Democrat representing Washington County, countered that one reason students may not be showing up is high tuition, a problem he said would get worse as costs rise and state support remains flat. He said empty classroom seats are due to the fact that the schools — the state colleges run nearly $20,000 for tuition room and board for in-state students — are "priced out of the reach of many Vermonters."
Pollina also found himself at the center of another fight on the Senate floor, unsuccessfully arguing that $5 million should be shifted from funds earmarked to entice businesses to open and grow in Vermont to weather-tightening the homes of low-income Vermonters.
Pollina and a few allies argued that latter program creates jobs for weatherization contractors, cuts heating costs for low-income residents, reduces Vermont's carbon footprint by saving fuel, and saves money for a state program that helps people with low incomes with energy costs.
The amendment was voted down 23-4 after some senators argued that they didn't want to go against the plan drafted by the Appropriations Committee. Others, including Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, argued that the job growth the business-development funds are designed to promote is more important to the state.