Senate likely to change key points in budget bill

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(Host) The House Friday gave its final approval to this year’s budget adjustment act. The measure now goes to the Senate where key leaders plan to change the most controversial parts of the bill.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports:

(Kinzel) The bill as passed by the House provides additional funds in the current fiscal year for several programs including the Corrections Department, the state police and social services. The legislation also includes two major policy initiatives that are not related to this year’s budget – Powerball, and a plan to cut the statewide property tax rate of Act 60 from $1.10 to $1.07.

Senate Appropriations Chair Susan Bartlett says it’s likely that her committee will go along with many of the budget items in the bill. But she expects the two policy initiatives will be significantly changed. Bartlett, who is the lead sponsor of the Powerball bill in the Senate, wants to pull Powerball out of the supplemental budget bill to force the Legislature to deal with this issue as a stand alone item. Bartlett says lawmakers would be able consider dedicating revenue from Powerball to several different education programs if it’s considered as a separate bill:

(Bartlett) “I think it’s one of those issues that people feel strongly about shouldn’t be trapped into voting for it to support something larger that they have positive feeling about. So I would prefer to see it as an independent bill.”

(Kinzel) Senate Finance Chair Ann Cummings says her committee wants to include property tax relief in the bill, but it’s likely the committee will take a very different approach from the House. Instead of cutting the statewide property tax rate, Cummings says it makes more sense to boost the state block grant – a move that would reduce pressure on the local share of school budgets:

(Cummings) “Right now we are looking at between adding $100 or a $175 to the block grant. And that will result in a two to three cent decrease for all towns. If you just do the decrease in the statewide property tax, it benefits high spending fundraising towns more than the norms. So this one benefits all towns evenly and the numbers look good. We’re still working on it.”

(Kinzel) The supplemental budget bill is expected to be on the Senate floor for debate in the next week or two. If the Senate adopts these changes, a House-Senate conference committee would be appointed to work on a compromise. Reaching a consensus on the tax questions could prove to be a major challenge for the conferees.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.

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