Lawmakers settle state budget, head for adjournment

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(Host) House and Senate negotiators have settled on a state budget for next year, a move that sets the stage for the end of this year’s legislative session. If all goes according to plan, legislators could leave Montpelier late Wednesday or Thursday.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Sound of legislators talking) “That’s it? That works? We’re done. You’re happy?”
“I’m just so pleased….” (Sound of laughter.)

(Dillon) With handshakes, laughter and then warm hugs all around, the House-Senate conference committee sealed a deal on the 2005 budget. The measure sets general spending at $955 million for the next fiscal year.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Westman, a Republican from Cambridge, says the budget puts the state on a prudent spending path.

(Westman) “It is responsible in its spending, both in the base budget, which has a growth rate in the high 4 percent range. It’s a responsible base. And then since we are running ahead in revenue estimates, we spend far and away the bulk of that money to take care internal deficits that were developed during the last recession.”

(Dillon) But a House-Senate conference committee remained deadlocked on the capital bill, which sets aside money for state building projects.

The capital bill sometimes becomes a vehicle to change state policy. And the House wants to block an agreement to remove a power dam on the Lamoille River in 20 years. The Senate wants to stick to the deal that was made in the waning days of the Howard Dean administration. Environmentalists want the six-megawatt Petersen dam removed to restore habitat for endangered sturgeon and salmon. On the other side of the debate is the town of Milton, which doesn’t want to lose its tax revenue from the dam. Its representatives persuaded the House to try to scuttle the deal.

On Wednesday, Bill Griffin of the attorney general’s office testified that it would be risky for the Legislature to force the state to back out of the contract that calls for removal of the dam. As the negotiations ground on, House Institutions Committee Chairman Robert Wood of Brandon faced off against Essex Orleans Senator Vince Illuzzi.

(Wood) “We’re not going to give up the fight on this one. We feel that we have a good case. We’ve got broad support in the House and we’re going to keep pushing to have this language considered in this conference committee.”
(Illuzzi) “We have considered it and we can’t agree to the language as written.”

(Dillon) In other action, the Senate gave its strong approval to a scaled down medical marijuana bill. The legislation allows patients with cancer, MS or HIV/AIDS to use marijuana to relieve symptoms or pain after consulting with their doctor. The bill is identical to a plan passed by the House last week. Governor Jim Douglas will let the legislation become law without his signature.

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

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