Legislature adjourns session

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(Host) The 2006 Legislature has finished its work.

And an agreement on a new state-funded college scholarship program helped break the legislative logjam on the final day.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The agreement between legislative leaders and Governor Jim Douglas was reached after a day of negotiations.

Tempers grew short, and Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie was called in to help broker the deal.

But by the end of the day, there were smiles all around.

Representative Martha Heath is chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee.

(Heath) “I’m obviously very pleased that we were able to reach agreement. It was extremely important to the Legislature that for the ongoing funding that we be able to have an opportunity to weigh in on whether the proposal the governor has made is the right one for addressing the demographic challenge that we face.”

(Dillon) Lawmakers and the governor agreed to a one-time, $5 million dollar appropriation to be divided by the University of Vermont, the state colleges, and the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation. That should cover about 250 scholarships for high school seniors graduating in 2007.

In addition, they agreed to a $5 million dollar continuing appropriation that will be devoted to scholarships or other post-secondary education programs. How that money will be targeted will be determined by a commission to be named by the governor and the Legislature.

Governor Douglas had wanted to spend $175 million dollars on scholarships over 10 years. He said the money was needed to help make school more affordable – and to change what he said was an alarming demographic trend of young people leaving the state.

The governor had threatened to veto the budget unless the money was included. He ended up with less than he wanted, but he said he was satisfied that it was a good first step.

(Douglas) “It’s an important down payment on our state’s demographic future. I certainly will continue to urge legislators in the future to make a greater commitment to higher education. But this is an important step.”

(Dillon) Senator Dick Sears is a Bennington Democrat and was the lead negotiator for the Senate on the issue. He pointed out how far the two sides have moved to reach a compromise.

(Sears) “We started with a governor with a $13 million out of tobacco fund and we started out with a Legislature saying dead on arrival. And here today we’ve come together with a $5 million program ongoing.”

(Dillon) Senate President Peter Welch says the new commission may decide to spend some of the $5 million on other programs to improve the skills of the Vermont workforce, rather than just on higher education.

(Welch) “And this post-secondary initiative is going to search to find ways to help kids who have trades, electricians, masons, plumbers – folks who are working hard and can make a decent living in Vermont and who very much want to stay in Vermont just as much as kids who are fortunate enough to be able to go to college.”

(Dillon) Governor Douglas’s original plan would have required college students to stay in Vermont for three years after graduation, or else they’d have to repay the college scholarship money.

The new plan says the money goes to students with no strings attached.

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

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