The Vermont House and Senate have reached agreement on a roughly $5 billion state budget for next year, a deal that clears the path for the 2012 Legislature to adjourn this weekend.
The negotiators also scrapped controversial provisions, including one that said electricity ratepayers should get money back when the state’s largest utility is sold.
The budget deal came late Thursday afternoon, with a handshake between Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Jane Kitchel and her House counterpart, Westford Democrat Martha Heath.
"Do we have a deal? We have a deal! That’s wonderful," Heath exclaimed. And after a moment of celebration, Kitchel summed up the mood.
"Must be a sign that it’s almost time to go home," she said.
The agreement on the budget is one of the last pieces to fall into place before the 2012 session can adjourn.
As part of the negotiations, the Senate side agreed to toss two controversial provisions. The first dealt with a merger between the state’s largest utilities. The amendment – added to the Senate’s version of the budget – said that ratepayers should get money back when Central Vermont Public Service Corporation is sold. The second, also part of the Senate budget bill, allowed child care workers to form a union and bargain with the state.
Kitchell said her side agreed to give up both provisions because they concerned non-budget items.
"We had a lot of discussion and it was a difficult, obviously, area of the budget because it had such a strong vote in the Senate," she said. "But in the end we felt that this was better to keep the budget focused on spending."
The budget increases spending by about 6 percent, if you include funds that are allocated to help the state recover from Tropical Storm Irene. If the Irene funds are removed, state spending will rise about 3 percent
House and Senate negotiator also reached an outline of an agreement on a tax bill. One sticking point was a tax on cloud computing, or software services that are accessed on computers outside Vermont.
Calais Democrat Janet Ancel Chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
"Both the House and Senate proposals on the table, they assume that the taxes exist, and create a moratorium until a certain date," she said.
Ancel said that businesses that had paid the tax earlier will get a refund.
Another dispute between the House and Senate concerned rolling back an exemption to the state’s mandatory childhood vaccination law. The two sides decided against imposing new restrictions and instead called for stronger reporting requirements for schools.
Lincoln Democrat Mike Fisher chairs the House Health Care Committee. He said the vaccine debate brought out the essence of Vermont’s state motto: "freedom and unity."
"There’s no other issue I’ve ever dealt with where those two values, those two goals have been put so head to head," he said. "There’s no other issues I’ve dealt with in health care where one’s individual decision has such a potential impact on the community."
House and Senate leaders say their goal is to adjourn the 2012 session on Saturday.