Douglas to veto budget without scholarship funds

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(Host) Governor Jim Douglas says he’ll veto the state budget unless the Legislature includes money for his new scholarship program.

The threat of a veto is the latest sign of an escalating dispute between legislative leaders and the Douglas Administration.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) As the end of the legislative session draws near, the political temperature usually goes up a few degrees in the Statehouse.

This year is no exception. The Douglas Administration and Democratic leaders are deeply divided over the governor’s scholarship plan.

The governor has traveled around the state to promote the program. He pitches it as a bold initiative that will keep young people in Vermont in the years ahead.

Democrats say it’s a worthy goal. But they don’t like the governor’s proposal to pay for the plan with $175 million in tobacco settlement money. Democrats say that money is already pledged for health care and other priorities.

Douglas fired back on Wednesday.

He said he would veto the budget unless it includes the scholarship plan. And he criticized Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Susan Bartlett.

(Douglas) “I can’t understand how someone whose committee has approved a $180 million health care new program says that it’s not the time to consider a $175 million dollar new program for higher education. That’s just ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s time to invest in our future.”

(Dillon) Douglas says two state colleges – Lyndon and Johnson State are under financial pressure. He pointed out that Johnson State is in Bartlett’s senate district.

(Douglas) “And I was disappointed also to see the Senate Appropriations Committee slash the funding increase for the state colleges and for the university and for VSAC. This is an investment in our future that we need to continue ramp up over time. The chancellor has made it very clear that either Johnson or Lyndon is not likely to be in business over the long term unless we make this kind of investment.”

(Dillon) Bartlett says she is a strong supporter of Johnson State. She says the governor is playing politics with the issue.

(Bartlett) “I know the folks in that community and at the college system know how much I have already done and over the years for the state college system. So I think trying to portray me as someone who doesn’t care about kids or higher education and the future of the state, just I don’t think it’s going to be a particularly effective tactic.”

(Dillon) And she says the governor’s plan wouldn’t fix the fiscal problems facing the state colleges.

(Bartlett) “If we want to address the issues of workforce development, how we make college more affordable and the economic vitality of our state college systems, then that’s what we should be having the conversation about. And we should be having a conversation about sustainable sources of revenue forever for addressing those issues. The economic vitality of the state college system, you can’t address with one-time money.”

(Dillon) A coalition of human service organizations also weighed into the debate. The groups held a Statehouse news conference to say that the tobacco settlement funds are needed for health care and smoking cessation programs.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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