Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, confers with a colleague during floor debate Thursday at the Statehouse.
MONTPELIER — Having failed in a bid to derail a tax bill that would raise more than $20 million in new revenue next year, House Republicans have turned their focus toward changing the ways in which Democrats want to spend the money.
The GOP super-minority will offer an amendment to the budget today that would ax spending on new programs and redirect the money to buy down public-pension obligations and bolster rainy-day reserves.
The amendment will undoubtedly fail, and by a wide margin. But House Minority Leader Don Turner said his caucus is at least making a point.
“Vermont needs to get its fiscal house in order,” he said Thursday. “It’s already very expensive to live in Vermont. And these (budget and tax) bills make it much, much worse.”
Turner said that at the outset of the session, he presented House Speaker Shap Smith with the conditions that would be needed to earn his caucus’ support for the fiscal year 2014 spending plan. They included: an overall spending increase of not more than 3 percent, limiting new employees to the 17 positions needed to staff the new state hospital, and the creation of a $20 million reserve to absorb looming cuts in federal aid.
“We knew full well we wouldn’t achieve everything on this, but we hoped to see some movement on some,” Turner said. “This budget being brought to the floor does not do that.”
Republican disapproval didn’t prevent the House from giving preliminary approval Thursday to a $5.24 billion budget, up 4.4 percent over this year’s spending plan. While the proposal, which passed 93-55, does allocate about $7 million to reserves, it includes funding for 66 new state employees.
Rep. Kurt Wright, a Burlington Republican, said the House budget also expands programs — new money for child care subsidies, for example — at a time when taxpayers can least afford them.
“Vermonters ... want us to do what they do in their homes when times are tough, which is live within their means,” Wright said. “This is not a year when we should be expanding programs.”
Turner said Democrats in recent years have spun a misleading public narrative about the “cuts” to government programs forced by shrinking revenues during the Great Recession. In fact, overall state spending over the past four fiscal years has actually increased by nearly 15 percent, a statistic Turner said undermines Democrats’ claims to austerity.
“When you hear about all of these cuts, they’re not actually cuts,” Turner said.
While lopsided votes on the tax and budget bills spotlight the Republicans’ thin ranks in Montpelier, the GOP said it can still have a game-changing impact, especially if it can forge an unlikely alliance with the Democratic governor.
Gov. Peter Shumlin earlier this week savaged the House revenue plan, saying its reliance on the sales, income and meals taxes violates his pledge not to raise broad-based taxes.
Shumlin does support the gas tax increase approved by the House in the transportation budget last week.
Wright said the dozen or so Democrats and independents who joined the Republican caucus in voting against the miscellaneous tax bill Thursday brought the “no” votes to 55 — a sufficient number in the 150-member body to sustain a gubernatorial veto.
If Shumlin is sincere in his opposition the House revenue plan, Wright said, then he ought to be prepared to put his veto pen where his mouth is.
“I would challenge the governor and say it’s not enough to just criticize them,” Wright said. “Now you’ve got to show the leadership to back that criticism up.”
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