Senate jettisons Vermont National Guard tuition assistance, ThinkVermont initiatives

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By , VTDigger.org

The Senate budget proposal does not fund a new National Guard tuition assistance program or the governor’s economic development proposal.

Gov. Phil Scott hoped to launch the two initiatives in the next fiscal year.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s budget, voted out Wednesday, prioritizes spending on the state’s mental health and criminal justice systems and restoring funding to many programs serving vulnerable Vermonters.

But unlike the House budget, it does not include $364,000 for the National Guard program, which would provide free state college tuition for members, or $400,000 for the economic development proposal, ThinkVermont/Innovation.

Sen. Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia, who chairs the committee, said if the state funded the proposed National Guard program, it would become an ongoing expense of around $2 million in a matter of about four years.

“We did not have, in this budgetary environment of no new taxes or fees, the capacity,” Kitchel said Thursday. “Now the governor decided to fund it with reductions and those reductions we did not find acceptable.”

The Senate’s budget proposal restores funding to disabilities services that faced deep cuts under Scott’s budget and other programs including a primary care loan repayment program that helps attract doctors and nurses to rural areas.

It also boosts funding for the Choices for Care program by about $442,000 for services that allow the elderly and disabled Vermonters to stay in their homes. Staff for the program would see a 2 percent wage increase under the proposal.

Maj. Gen. Steven Cray, the Vermont National Guard’s adjutant general, said that Vermont is one of only 10 states nationally and the only state in New England that doesn’t offer full tuition benefits to guard members.

“We are at a severe disadvantage. When competing for new recruits we lose young men and women … to our bordering states,” he said.

Cray said that the Vermont National Guard is short between 350 and 400 personnel.

Offering tuition assistance would allow the National Guard to attract and retain new recruits, many of whom would eventually settle in Vermont and contribute to the economy, he said.

“This is, in my opinion, smart money invested in tomorrow’s workforce,” Cray said.

While it doesn’t fund the tuition assistance program, the Senate budget proposal would continue to fund a $250,000 program that provides college scholarships and grants to guard members.

Cray said the program gives members interest free loans of between $2,000 and $3,000, which are forgiven after they finish terms of service.

This session, the House signed off on funding Scott’s ThinkVermont/Innovation. The plan offers grants aimed at accelerating small business growth and could help fund projects including workforce training, broadband connectivity and the development of facilities that attract workers and businesses, such as co-working spaces.

Kitchel said that in crafting its budget the committee had “a different idea around how to address economic and workforce development issues.”

The Senate proposal invests $5 million dollars in one-time funding to expand the state’s workforce dedicated to treating mental health and substance abuse disorders.

It includes $250,000 in one-time money for state economic development marketing initiatives, and $500,000 for financial assistance to University of Vermont students pursuing health careers.

The budget also boosts funding for the state’s Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, a grant program for Vermont agriculture and forestry businesses.

Rebecca Kelley, a spokesperson for Scott, said investing in the National Guard tuition assistance program and ThinkVermont/Innovation will support small businesses and expand the workforce.

“Cutting them is shortsighted as we must address our workforce challenges and grow our economy if we want to reverse our economic and demographic trends and ensure we can continue to invest in the things we value,” Kelley said.

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