- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 26, 2017

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont’s state Senate as unanimously passed the state budget, a nearly $6 billion spending plan that makes a number of key changes from the House budget that senators were handed at the beginning of April.

Debate over the state budget has been benign this year, with Democrats, Progressives and Republicans supporting both the House and Senate proposals. Only a lone state Representative voted down the House budget.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott has consistently said he will not sign a bill that raises taxes and fees, a requirement that both this spending plan and its House counterpart meets.

The state budget is arguably the most important piece of legislation lawmakers consider.

“This is where operation of government and particular priorities are set,” said Democratic Sen. Jane Kitchel, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Vermont’s hospitals have been treating an inordinate number of mental health patients, while mental health facilities sit at around 65 percent capacity because they lack staff. The Senate budget moved money around to allocate nearly $10 million to support more staff positions at the state’s mental health facilities and keep those beds occupied.

Senators also had extra money to work with: Volkswagen recently settled a case with Vermont for $4.2 million over the company’s diesel emissions cheating scandal. The money will be put into a state environmental contingency fund.

About $4 million goes to the five-school Vermont State Colleges consortium. Low enrollment and a low retention rate have forced the system running on reserves. The colleges will also get $880,000 to help with the merger of Lyndon and Johnson State colleges, which will soon be known as the Northern Vermont University.

The Senate also found about $1.8 million to spend on a one-time bulk purchase of body cameras for state police.

Just prior to the Senate’s vote, Progressive Sen. Anthony Pollina said he was proud of the work the Appropriations committee has done, but is was frustrated the budget doesn’t do more.

He advocated finding more resources by shifting the tax burden toward the wealthy.

“As it is, moderate and low income people in Vermont are paying a larger percentage of their income in taxes than wealthier people are,” Pollina said.

Pending final approval, the legislation will now move to a conference committee, where Senate and House budget writers will hash out the differences and eventually send a final version to Republican Gov. Phil Scott’s desk.

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